India and the United States: A Delicate Balance
These are the bad days for the Indo-US relations. Some of the recent decisions by the Donald Trump Administration have complicated matters for India. The bad health of the relationship is not necessarily due to the sudden cancellation of the first two-plus-two dialogue — between their foreign and defence ministers — in Washington on July 6. Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj were supposed to be hosted by their counterparts, defence secretary Jim Mattis and new secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It is now apparent that this meeting got stalled, not because Trump has realised that India is not a friend but a foe, but because of Pompeo’s sudden trip to Pyongyang on the scheduled date with the Indian guests to save the recent understanding between Trump and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
On the other hand, the real diagnosis of the bad health can be attributed to the Trump Administration’s obsession with the policy of “America first”, particularly in the areas of trade and immigration. The US has hurt the Indian interests and sentiments through a plethora of policy initiatives in the areas of trade(by imposing high tariffs on Indian goods) and immigration, particularly in granting H1B visa — a generally IT-centred visa, of which mostly (nearly 70 percent) goes to Indians. Expectedly, the Modi-regime in India has retaliated by imposing counter tariffs on the American goods in the Indian market.
And what is worse, there is now the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that the Trump Administration seems determined to use against its adversaries and the countries dealing with these adversaries. Here, the target happens to be Iran and Russia. If applied, the CAATSA will seriously hurt our oil procurement from Iran (India’s third largest source) and imports of arms from Russia, the source of nearly 70 percent of India’s total armaments.
In any case, no government in India can afford to let its policy towards Moscow being linked with the state of its ties with Washington. Russia is not just another friend of India. All told, it is Russia which gives sophisticated weapons and platforms even before their incorporation into its own military. It is Russia that gives nuclear-submarines on lease to India. One does not need to overemphasise the importance for India of frontline weapons systems such as Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter planes, T-90 tanks, the nuclear-powered Akula-II-class SSNs and assistance to sensitive indigenous projects like the nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing Arihant-class submarine. It is therefore not a sheer coincidence that in the aftermath of the imposition of CAATSA, Prime Minister Modi flew to Russia for a mini-summit with President Vladimir Putin on 21 May 2018. If Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is to be believed, in this summit the Indo-Russian ties were upgraded to a “special privileged strategic partnership”.
All this is not to suggest that the relationship between New Delhi and Washington are on a breaking-point. Far from it. After all, the same Trump Administration has accorded India a core status in the Indo-Pacific region by renaming its oldest and largest military command – the Pacific Command – to Indo-Pacific Command. Security and military cooperation between India and the United States is something that has been in upswing in recent years, despite hiccups in other bilateral spheres. In June 2016, the summit meeting at Washington between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Modi resulted in India being designated as “a major defence partner of the United States”.
By surpassing Russia, the Unites States has become India’s biggest arms supplier. It has concluded various deals worth US $15 billion so far over the last decade. Besides, India is now a country with which the United States conducts the largest number of peace-time military exercises bilaterally every year (nearly 70). And importantly, the two have signed the bilateral logistics exchange memorandum of agreement (LEMOA), which facilitates additional opportunities for practical engagement and exchange.
I have argued elsewhere that though Indo-US relations overall have seen more downs than ups, downs now will not descend to a level of horrific low that marked the ties in between 1960s and early 1990s. And that, in turn, is due to the ascendancy of the Indian- Americans both in number and profile in the United States. Indian- Americans have been continuously outpacing every ethnic group socioeconomically to reach the summit of the US Census charts. They have attained the highest educational levels of all ethnic groups in the US According to Wikipedia, 71% of all Indians have a bachelor’s or high degree (compared to 28% nationally and 44% average for all Asian American groups). Almost 40% of all Indians in the United States have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree. After all, the best and brightest students in India emigrate to America. A study from Pew Research Centre has shown that 80 per cent of Indians were holding college or advanced degrees, surpassing the previously Taiwanese average figure of 74.1%. In fact, the percentage of the number of Indian- Americans who have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree is five times the national average in America. What all this means is that these high profiled Indian -Americans, having best professional jobs, constitute a huge constituency for India which no American government or business can ignore. Indian –Americans are now getting elected to the legislatures in the U.S. They are getting top jobs, including ministerial positions, under different Presidents, including Trump. Some of them are now even occupying top judicial positions. As I write this, one India-American (Amul R Thapar) is being considered for being a Justice in the US Supreme Court.
India and the United States have everything to gain as close partners, if not allies, given their shared ideals of democracy, pluralistic ways of life, equality and justice. If India is the largest democracy, then the America is the most powerful and arguably the oldest. And yet if they have
been estranged, it is also because of their democratic systems. Ironical it may sound, but the fact remains that both being democracies mean that there are institutional bottlenecks, resulting in complex and slow decision-making systems.
Let me explain this point. That sky is the limit for the two countries’ partnership is always mentioned whenever the leaders of the two countries meet. They make promising announcements and often conclude high-sounding agreements. But the problems arise when the stage of implementations of the agreed ideas arise.
Take for instance a major goal of the S&CD of increasing the bilateral trade between India and the United States. But, the fact remains that the two countries do not have the necessary “trade architecture” to advance common goals and address areas of difference, something that none other than former US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal has pointed out. The American entrepreneurs are apprehensive over inadequate intellectual property rights protection and numerous other trade barriers American exporters face in the Indian market.
In India, Modi’s domestic critics are not going allow the Prime Minister of having the required freedom to carry out the necessary economic reforms to generate investment and unlock India’s economic potential. The opposition has already exposed the limitations of Modi’s power by stalling Bills to make it easier for the industry to acquire land and to implement a nationwide goods and services tax. Similarly, in the USA, things get complicated when the Administration imposes from to time restrictions on the matters of visa to the skilled Indians for jobs in America. Americans are usually reluctant to share the high technology. The US may have now become India’s largest defence supplier and it may now be willing to transform its defence cooperation with India from “simply buying and selling” to “co-production, co-development, and freer exchange of technology”, but all these do not extend beyond the low-end products at the moment.