Read between the US lines

India-US relations in the age of Trump are becoming more transactional, less strategic

Written by Shyam Saran | New Delhi | Updated: June 29, 2017 12:56 am
pm modi us news, editorials news, opinion news, indian express news Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump (Source: PTI Photo)

Despite the hype surrounding the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington, in particular the serial bear hugs that marked their public encounters, the most important outcome of the summit may be the sense of relief on the Indian side that the new boss in White House did not spring unpleasant surprises on his anxious guest as he is often wont to do. In these uncertain times, a public display of personal chemistry between two key leaders meeting for the first time is important in itself. Perceptions matter, and in that respect, the Modi-Trump summit gave out far more positive vibes than several other recent summits involving Donald Trump. Think of the grumpiness that came out only too clearly when Trump met Angela Merkel of Germany.

For PM Modi, the visit should count as a success. He believes in the value of personal diplomacy. Sometimes this works, as it has with Shinzo Abe of Japan. Sometimes it doesn’t, as has been obvious in more recent meetings with China’s Xi Jinping. One must concede that it has worked, for the present, with Trump and this should stand India in good stead as it re-orients itself to a very different America from what we have been used to in the past.
Make no mistake, the frame of Indo-US relations is undergoing a change and the sooner we recognise this and adjust our foreign policy, the better it would be. From the statements Trump made and the contents of the Joint Statement, it is clear that the strategic dimension driving these relations over the past decade and more has diminished in salience. The transactional elements in the relationship, which were always there, have become more prominent. For example, Trump referred to India purchasing US defence equipment and technology — the best in the world, as he proudly described it — as a trade matter, as helping create American jobs rather than as part of the strategic convergence the two countries share.

Again, the most prominent part of the Joint Statement is the section entitled “Increasing Free and Fair Trade”. Its intent from the US side is unmistakable. There is to be “a comprehensive review of trade relations with goal of expediting regulatory processes; ensuring that technology and innovation are appropriately fostered, valued and protected; and increasing market access in areas such as agriculture, information technology and manufactured goods and services.” Reading between the lines, this is really a charter of demands on India to open its markets much more to American agricultural commodities, reduce regulatory barriers and strengthen intellectual property protection. And the Indian side was unable to balance this with even a token reference to the removal of barriers to its professionals offering services to the US market. So despite the bonhomie on display, expect some tighter squeeze on the trade side. US companies, especially in the pharmaceutical sector, are likely to find a supportive US administration as it resumes its heavy duty offensive against India, as we witnessed a couple of years ago.
It is good that India and the US continue to strengthen their counter-terrorism cooperation. This will receive a boost given Trump’s own predilections. The designation of Syed Salahuddin, the Hizbul Mujahideen chief, as an international terrorist is welcome as is the ratcheting up of pressure on Pakistan on the issue of cross-border terrorism. The formulations are more explicit than before. However, it has always been clear that neither the US nor the international community in general would go beyond rhetoric in punishing Pakistan for its addiction to terrorism. And now the Chinese shield protects Pakistan more effectively than before. It may also be noted that the statement on Salahuddin continues the old American practice of referring to “Indian-administered Kashmir.” Not a formulation we should expect from a strategic partner.

The Indo-US strategic convergence in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region that has been the most important underpinning of the relationship has undergone re-definition though this may be obscured by the high-sounding formulations adopted in the Joint Statement. The South China Sea has disappeared as a specific theatre of Indo-US security concern and, therefore, of cooperation. A more nebulous reference to the Indo-Pacific now appears, signalling a new found sensitivity to Chinese sentiments. The novel reference to North Korea as an issue of shared concern, reflects US and not Indian preoccupations. It is not certain what advantage we may get out of this beyond perhaps mildly annoying the Chinese. The Chinese know that we are and will remain a marginal player on the Korean peninsula. Joining Trump in putting pressure on China when the overall thrust of US policy seems to be in the direction of not confronting China in the South China Sea, where it matters, appears gratuitous in the new transactional frame that our relations have acquired.

This brings one to the current trend in China-US relations which will determine the nature and quality of the Indo-US strategic partnership. It may be early days yet, but one gets the sense that the US under Trump is moving away from confronting China in the Asia-Pacific towards some kind of a modus vivendi which delivers some important gains to the US in terms of reframed and more transactional objectives. These include trade and investment issues, dealing with the North Korean nuclear programme before it begins to threaten the US mainland itself and being a supportive rather than a disruptive presence in West Asia and the Gulf. It will be noted that in contrast to Russia, China has, of late, been remarkably muted on developments in the region and has avoided pillorying the US in the manner of Putin.

India needs to reassess its options in this changing world. China remains an economic and security challenge and this challenge is likely to grow. Getting rhetorical support on issues such as Pakistan’s resort to terrorism, China’s pursuit of geopolitical advantage through its One Belt One Road initiative and substantive support through technology and defence partnerships which build up Indian capabilities, should be on the agenda of our relations with the US and other friendly countries. At the end of the day, however, we will need to rely upon our own resources and capabilities to overcome the challenges we confront such as the current stand-off with China on the Sikkim sector of the India-China border.

At the end of the day, there are no allies that India can rely on for its own security and well-being. A set of strong and diversified relations with other major powers can be a critical asset but more so if India has credibility as a capable power itself.

 

The writer is a former foreign secretary. He is currently senior fellow and member of the governing board of CPR

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

  1. J
    J
    Jun 29, 2017 at 11:27 pm
    Let's keep this simple. There is no free lunch. India is responsible for its interests. No one is going to do it for India. After saying that, there is give and take, mutual interests and benifits. The US equally benifits from India. Now on Trump, he is ic, simple and does not understand policy. Proof. The US establishment is not happy with him. They are seeking ways to dislodge him. Since Trump came to office the US is under turmoil.
    Reply
    1. G
      George Cruz
      Jun 29, 2017 at 7:49 pm
      The PM Modi is realistic about India's interests and he is making his best efforts to change the US administration's policy of unfriendliness towards India. Now, the US also acts on its national interests but realizing the power of growing democratic/secular India whether economically or defense capabilities in South Asia and the US can't ignore India anymore.
      Reply
      1. P
        Punekar
        Jun 29, 2017 at 8:18 pm
        I guess an unfriendly US under Bush and "my friend Obama" needs to be overcome and we may be seeing some very substantial gain (and I hope not for the US side) during Trump's tenure, something much more than the Nuclear agreement. Yes, some very powerful defense purchases were agreed on this time which is going to generate jobs and help Trump in making US great again. Well, higher taxes (thru GST) is going to help finance these.
        Reply
      2. A
        ashok
        Jun 29, 2017 at 7:43 pm
        Far more grounded assessment than the puff pieces another former FS, Ms Nirupama Rao has been penning.
        Reply
        1. E
          Employ Ment
          Jun 29, 2017 at 6:43 pm
          योजना ✔मोदी जी द्वारा चलाए गए डिजिटल इन्डिया से जुड़े और 15,000 - 50,000 रुपए ✔अब कोई नही रहेगा बेरोज़गार और नही करेगा कोई बेरोज़गार आत्महत्या ✔क्योंकि अब आ गई है 21वीं सदी की सबसे बड़ी रोज़गार क्रांति ✔हमारा सपना पूरे भारत को ही नही पूरी दुनिया को डिजिटल इंडिया से जोड़ना सबका साथ सबका विकास ➡शुरुवात कैसे करे ✔C.h.a.m.p`C.a.s.h को प्ले स्टोर से इन्स्टल करे, और साइन अप करे, $1 डॉलर बोनस : 468942 ➡चैलेंज को पूरा करे ➡और इंकम करनी शुरू करे 👇🏻इसे जरूर नोट कर ले👇🏻 : 468942 ........................ Hbshjsujdjjxikdkdo
          Reply
          1. A
            Arvind
            Jun 29, 2017 at 6:22 pm
            The writer is correct that no one in the world cares or should care about Indian security concerns. Protecting itself is the primary responsibility of the nation state and its elected leaders. Unfortunately, the preponderance of bureaucratic thinking, which espouses a basic and debilitating flaw in geopolitical strategy - Cowardice. Making dossiers, seeking diplomatic talking points (rhetoric), photo ops of bear hugs with global leaders, are NOT the right way to assert military power and say to adversaries, that there will be consequences for needling India. The idea that the PM stated, "no one in the world said a thing, when we launched surgical strikes", is itself flawed. Does the government care so much for global opinion vs the righteous extermination of terrorists trying to kill its soldiers and civilians and create havoc within its territory? Imagine if a similar situation was faced by any other nation big or small. Our government is foolish in National security
            Reply
            1. S
              Shafi
              Jun 29, 2017 at 6:07 pm
              PM Modi is a man with pretty ordinary talent, having very little English language skills coupled with thick accent. His melodrama before the uneducated Indian people can work in India but in a formidable platform where sophistication as opposed kissing and hugging matters he has far more desirable to make a good PM. He can never make a good PM with his constant concern for public image and public attention. If he was a man of humble, down right make, willing to learn he could have learned by now and focused on impoetantant bilateral interest as opposed to hugging, kissing, inviting Ivanka to India and so forth which has very little to offer in Foriegn Policy Success. India always had including in Vajpayee better PM than Modi
              Reply
              1. T
                Tension
                Jun 29, 2017 at 8:15 pm
                Do the Chinese speak English? slave! When Nehru was PM we lost 10,000 square miles and traitors like you now bark. MMS was only washing Italian bar maid's vessels to please anti nationals like you.
                Reply
                1. J
                  J
                  Jun 29, 2017 at 11:15 pm
                  Your thinking is typical of a Muslim. Eg. Most P akustanis I met, they all claim their ancestry is Middle Eastern. They have no pride in indigenous geography. They will say things like Lebanese women are most beautiful without knowing Arabs are a Semetic race, a mixture of White and Black, mixture varying in degrees. On a separate point, Germans, French, anese and Chinese do their diplomacy in their native language. To be sophisticated one does not have to be suited and booted and with a hat. And speak English. Yours is a slave mentality.
                  Reply
                2. T
                  TIHAEwale
                  Jun 29, 2017 at 5:38 pm
                  well written piece. clearly showing Chemistry between leaders is nothing more than foto opportunity for media consumption. Trump is a hard core businessman and now as a President he will go for only deals which benefit US economy
                  Reply
                  1. V
                    V. Ramaswami
                    Jun 29, 2017 at 5:08 pm
                    India is not just the government, but 1.2 billion people. Each of them should send a message through what they buy, and then we will have a better transactional relationship especially with China. Sometimes, it is easier for a people to give a strong message than their government. We need to remember how Gandhi rattled England with his swadeshi movement.
                    Reply
                    1. P
                      Punekar
                      Jun 29, 2017 at 8:22 pm
                      So, which Chinese product are you forsaking? The LED festoons used during Diwali? Stop using your Smartphone for a start. Even the Samsungs and Apples have Chinese components inside.
                      Reply
                    2. Load More Comments