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.