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Excessive optimism over a pact with election-bound US is premature

India-US ties will move positively forward but there will be imponderables ahead, principally arising out of US strategies towards China. Also, because of the lectures that a Biden administration may give the Modi government.

Written by Vivek Katju |
Updated: October 29, 2020 9:07:39 am
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a press statement, at Hyderabad House in New Delhi (PTI)

The India-US 2+2 mechanism is the primary vehicle to give meaningful content to the Bilateral Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. Its third meeting in Delhi on October 27 was held with only a week to go for the US presidential elections on November 3. The timing of this 2+2 session was most unusual especially because the election is, at best, tight for President Donald Trump — the polls indicate that Joe Biden, the Democratic Party candidate, is well ahead of him. Perhaps, the Narendra Modi government felt that it was important to seal the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) without delay and, for this purpose, disregarded the time-tested diplomatic convention of avoiding major bilateral encounters on the eve of a potential change in a partner’s government.

What is more likely is the Modi government’s assessment that there is bipartisan support in the US for higher and positive bilateral ties. There is merit in this view, with the caveat that, while the overall framework and direction of the relationship is conducive, it cannot be entirely insulated from extraneous factors. In India-US ties, the leading outside consideration is China. Here, again, there is little doubt that a Biden presidency, should that be the choice of the American people, would seek to ensure that China’s rise is not at the cost of the US’s global pre-eminence. However, the strategy and methods it employs would be different from that of its predecessor. Further, even a Trump 2 administration, with the election done, may change course in its China approach. Hence, caution and prudence are good diplomatic watchwords. They do not imply either timidity or diffidence.

India-US ties are in the framework of a partnership, not an alliance. While some elements of both structures overlap, there is a major difference between them apart from their legal frameworks. The former may not be based on opposition to an outside element, the latter almost always is. Alliances also demand a much higher price than partnerships, through loss of autonomy if the ally is a bigger power. The crucial question Indian foreign and strategic policy makers have to ask themselves is: What would be the nature and content of India-US partnership should a Biden administration’s China strategy, unlike that of the current Trump administration’s, rely in part on showing concern for China’s sensitivities in areas that involve India’s concerns?

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Thus, it is good that the agreements for a full defence engagement with the US are in place. But it is one matter to have them done and an entirely different one insofar as the nature and intensity of cooperation that may occur is concerned — for, these are only enabling documents. Naturally, not much would be known in the public domain of what the US is really sharing with the Indian defence forces and the intelligence agencies but India’s tradition of relying on its own strengths in matters of national security should not be eroded in the hope that an outside power would provide useful inputs.

There can be no quarrel with India and the US jointly calling for an observance of international norms in the Indo-Pacific region. The 2+2 joint statement does not name China but its thrust is clear. China’s aggressive diplomatic postures and actions and its general conduct is also continuing to cause deep worry throughout the Indo-Pacific region. The Quad is based on a commonality of concerns on account of China’s actions. The Trump administration has imparted vigour to the Quad and, in the present circumstances, India’s decision to go along with a more purposive group, including through its maritime exercises, is in keeping with its interests. The real direction that the Quad will take has to await the US’s overall China strategy over the next few years. Excessive enthusiasm on the Quad front may, therefore, be premature.

India has to change the nature of its economic and commercial ties with China. This will be a difficult process but there is no alternative if it wishes to proceed to the entirely valid objective of reducing its dependence on Chinese manufactures. There is a congruence of India-US interests regarding Chinese trade practices. Thus, the joint statement’s reference on the need to “enhance supply chain resilience and to seek alternatives to the current paradigm” was timely, though here, again, the future US approach is not entirely certain.

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The areas where the bilateral partnership has the potential of evolving most positively for India relate to health, education and science and technology. These are non-controversial, and the time when India held back from achieving the full potential of ties in these sectors for ideological reasons is long past. There should not be any reluctance in developing ties in defence industries, too, but it cannot be forgotten that no country will part with any of its critical technologies. In the short term, it may be necessary and satisfying to acquire advanced weapon systems needed for national defence, as they are being correctly acquired now, but can there be a substitute for developing indigenous capacity for India’s needs for weapon systems?

India-US ties will move positively forward but there will be imponderables ahead, principally arising out of US strategies towards China. Also, because of the lectures that a Biden administration may give the Modi government. A close embrace of another country is always problematic.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 29, 2020 under the title “Proceed with caution”. The writer is a former diplomat

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