The India-US cooperation is poised to enter a new phase with the United States of America having moved India up into tier-1 of the “Strategic Trade Authorisation” for unlicensed export of sensitive Defence items to India. This is generally reserved for western countries and key allies. Exception for India is, without doubt, a strong political statement by the US and India’s recognition as its major strategic and Defence partner. Clearly, new dynamics are emerging in our bilateral relations. Recent approval by the US for supply of armed Sea Guardian drones to India — which were hitherto sold only to NATO countries — also needs to be seen in that light.
India and the US are the leading democracies in the world. If one traces the evolution of relationship between the two countries at the people’s level, which is important given our democratic traditions, one finds growing resonance and positivity. Almost everyone in India admires the great values of liberty, enterprise and freedom in the US and aspires to send his children there to study and work. There is also considerable goodwill in the US towards India; according to the gallop poll last year, 74 per cent people in the US are favourably disposed towards India.
Ironically, despite enormous amount of goodwill in both countries, our relationship at the Government level during good part of the cold war era remained quite erratic. It faced rough weather because of widespread misgivings in the US with regard to India’s proximity to the then Soviet Union. The State Department and Pentagon favoured Pakistan, which was supported financially and militarily in the vain hope that it would somehow help the US accomplish its strategic objectives in the region.
These legacy issues, however, are fortunately behind us and there appears to be a bi-partisan support for India in the US now. This sentiment is also evident at the political level there. If Clinton adopted a positive outlook on the relationship between the US and India, Bush took steps to bring a new phase of expanded US engagement with India; and in Obama’s time the relationship became better. The current Trump Administration has no doubt taken tough stand on H1B visa issue which has rankled a lot of people in India, but this should only have a short-term impact on our interests since Indian IT companies are essentially price competitive with a credible performance record. In overall terms, President Trump appears to have a positive vision of strategic convergence between India and the US and fully appreciates the need for two countries to work together not only for mutual benefit but also for the sake of global peace.
What is the reason for the qualitative transformation in our relations? Answer is two-fold: first, there is an evolving geo-political convergence and growing discomfort in the US about China; and second, the rising stature of India on the global stage. India has emerged as the third largest economy in the world in purchasing power parity terms. India’s economy today aggregates roughly $10 trillion which creates excitement and opportunities in different countries.
Then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had famously described India-America relationship as being that among natural allies. Even if one accepts that maxim, a lot of work needs to be done. In fact, President Trump has himself said that the relationship is not something that can be taken for granted; a lot of hard work is required to move it forward, which is indeed happily underway. Today, there are multiple dialogue mechanisms covering almost all important areas, many at the ministerial level.
The US is India’s largest trading partner. Counting the trade in services as well, it reaches up to $130 billion. This is bound to grow substantially in the coming years with the opening of new frontiers in our relations. India’s acquisition of Defence equipment from the US has already reached $10 billion mark. There is also an opportunity for substantial trade between America and India in the nuclear field.
We have growing Defence cooperation with the US. We signed LEMOA in August 2016, which allows us to cooperate and provide logistic support to each other. But there is certain reluctance in India to join any military alliance. What needs to be understood in the US that even though there is natural alliance situation and the geo-political dynamics are pushing the two countries ever closer, India is still not ready to be seen as a military ally of the US or for that matter any other country. There is an overriding concern in India to fully safeguard our strategic autonomy. Situation might change in the next few years since there are obvious advantages for India in working more closely with the US, but for the present the US has to approach the evolving relations with a lot more tact and subtlety. Quite frankly, both the countries need to show greater understanding for sensitivities of each other which is perhaps lacking at the moment.
People of Indian Origin in the US can contribute a lot in this area. They are highly accomplished and well respected. They are doing exceedingly well in their respective professional fields and it is not without reason that the people of Indian origin constitute the most prosperous ethnic group in the US with the average household income having crossed $1,00,000 mark. Interestingly, the next ethnic group in the list is that of the Chinese with just about half the average income of the Indian Americans. PIO Congressmen, Senators and Mayors are particularly well placed to work for creation of better understanding between India and the US.
China is threatening American geo-political interests in different parts of the world, resulting in growing anxiety about China. In so far as we are concerned, China is adversely impacting our core security and economic interests. It bullies most of its neighboring countries and has conflicts/claims with them.
In Asia, the common wisdom was that both India and China would grow simultaneously. While we have not had any difficulty in accepting China’s rise, Beijing persists in creating obstacles in India playing its rightful role in Indo-Pacific region and on the global stage. It is quite well known that China has been actively lobbying against India’s candidature for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Their approach is to contain India by building a string of pearls around us in the form of military bases and other facilities which could be used against us, causing an understandable consternation and suspicion in India.
South-East Asian countries too appear quite uncomfortable with overwhelming Chinese influence in the region and they would like the US and India to play a role in neutralising the Chinese presence. Similar situation prevails in Africa as well. Many African economists have expressed apprehension about the predatory economic policies being followed by China, and several African leaders would personally favour expansion of Indian footprints in their countries in order to balance the increasing Chinese presence.
The other big problem that the world is facing is that of international terrorism as mentioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the Joint Session of parliament in Washington. The US has already witnessed a dastardly terrorist attack in September 2011. In India, we face the depredations of the terrorist activities on a daily basis.
It is no secret that many of those activities are supported and even executed from across our borders in Pakistan which has emerged as home to a vast terrorist network. India and the US have to come closer to fight this menace not only in terms of exchange of information which our countries are already doing but going beyond that.
President Trump has been openly assertive about fight against terrorism and has not hesitated in tightening noose around Pakistan’s neck on this issue. In his New Year tweet, he blasted Pakistan by accusing it of giving the US “nothing but lies & deceit” and, “safe havens to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan” despite “more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years.” Trump also supports bigger role for India in Afghanistan.
India and the US need to show greater maturity and confidence in dealing with each other. We have to get rid of past prejudices which dogged our relations in the past. Some people in India allege New Delhi is mortgaging its independence on economic and foreign policy to America. That would appear to be a complete distortion of the facts and one has to see only how our relationship has evolved and how it is structured at present.
We have to move with confidence in taking our relations forward. There are occasional issues which aggravate our insecurities but we have to look at those incidents and “issues” in the context of our overall relations and our strategic connect in the geo-political perspective. It must be clearly understood that both countries need each other because of shared common interests and that it is not a one-sided relationship.
Recent reports of India buying missiles and Defence equipment from Russia have triggered adverse comments in the US. Russia has been India’s traditional supplier of Defence equipment and spare parts. It would have, therefore, appeared unreasonable for the US to impose sanctions against India on this account as demanded by some US lawmakers. Senior US officials have been anxious to avoid any adverse fallout from this episode on the evolving strategic relations with India and they have persuaded the US Congress to approve legislation which would enable Trump to issue waiver for India under CAATSA sanctions.
Likewise, in the case of India’s oil imports from Iran, the US must appreciate that Iran is one of the largest suppliers of crude oil to India — about 15 per cent of our crude supply comes from Iran. It is a matter of our critical energy security interest. We are not questioning America’s decision to reopen its nuclear deal with Iran which is in the realm of its sovereign right. But, the US must also understand that just because it decides to disengage Iran, it cannot expect India also to automatically follow suit given our civilisational linkages with that country.
To conclude, there is need for greater understanding and trust between India and the USA — the kind of maturity and confidence which should characterise relations between two close friends. We don’t begin to mistrust each other just because one of us has a friend that the other is a bit uncomfortable with. We must remember that the world today has discarded the cold war construct and every country is trying to optimise its relations with a host of other countries which may often be opposed to each other.