Friday, August 22, 2014

India-US Ties: Need to Take a Realistic View

Kanwal Sibal, 
Dean, Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, VIF

India-US relations need to be put back on track. The relationship has lost steam in recent months with many contentious issues surfacing that remain unaddressed. We have now to see whether with the change of government in Delhi a new start can be made. The 5th India-US strategic dialogue on July 31 will provide an occasion to review the state of our bilateral ties. The composition of the US delegation indicates the subjects the US side intends emphasizing. Apart from the US Commerce Secretary, the Deputy Secretary of Energy, the Under Secretary for Homeland Security and the US Envoy for Climate Change will be accompanying Secretary of State John Kerry, who will be visiting Bengaluru, which has cast somewhat as a villain in the US for causing job losses there. It should be useful for Kerry to expose himself to the concerns of the Indian IT industry about immigration reform legislation under consideration in the US, H1B and L1 visas, the totalisation agreement etc.

The challenges ahead will not be easy to overcome. The irritants marking the relationship arose when a “pro-US” Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was in power, with an economic team with a similar reputation. His government was grappling with development and growth issues and sought US participation in building a strong and modern Indian economy. Indeed, the strategic dialogue, with its five pillars- strategic cooperation, energy and climate change, education and development, economy, trade and agriculture, science and technology, health and innovation- was instituted in 2009, under his watch. Nevertheless, despite the intensification of India-US engagement and the large scope of the bilateral agenda, the feeling grew that the relationship had not lived up to its promise. If despite four previous rounds the relationship became somewhat morose, no breakthroughs can realistically be expected from the fifth one.

To begin with, the US must make an extra effort to establish a relationship of confidence with the new Prime Minister, whom the Americans have treated very shabbily with an obstinacy that makes little political sense. President Obama seemingly established a good personal chemistry with Manmohan Singh; it is unlikely that this will be easily repeated with Narendra Modi, although the US President has reached out to him immediately after his election and welcomed him to Washington, as did Secretary Kerry. Deputy Secretary Burns visited India very recently to personally deliver Obama’s invitation to the Prime Minister. Modi himself has been remarkably large-hearted towards the US, conveying through his decision to quickly visit Washington that he intends to overlook the visa denial insult and move forward to establish a mutually productive relationship in India’s national interest. It is indisputable that a perception of some malaise developing in the India-US relationship complicates some of our external relationships and the management of an overall balance in our foreign policy.

To the extent that these diplomatic signals are watched when a new government takes over in a country headed by a Prime Minister who has the reputation of being focused and decisive and capable of producing results, but whose thinking on foreign policy issues is not known, it would have been noted that the first foreign visit by Modi announced by the government was not to the US. As against this, Modi has reached out exceptionally towards China by allowing the Chinese to stage a diplomatic coup of sorts, especially vis a vis Japan, in having their foreign minister received as the first foreign envoy by him, holding an unusually long conversation over the telephone with his Chinese counterpart and following it with a “very fruitful” meeting with the Chinese President in Brazil who was invited to visit India in September, programming the Indian army chief’s visit to China and that of the Vice-President to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel Agreement along with the Myanmarese President, which boosts China’s “peaceful” credentials, enables it to present itself as a benign neighbour to offset its image as a threatening power in the east, and also indirectly signals reduced concern about China’s thrust into Myanmar.

This has implications for our “strategic cooperation” with the US. The Modi government, by intensively engaging China and inviting it to invest in India, has emphatically distanced itself from the US “re-balance” towards Asia. While the trilateral US-Japan-India naval exercises in the Pacific have just been completed and the Indian Navy will no doubt continue to exercise frequently with the US navy in the Indian Ocean, the new government is clearly being responsive to a calculated Chinese charm offensive that, not surprisingly, excludes any softer nuance on its territorial claims on Indian territory. The strategic independence of our China policy is being affirmed.

The upcoming strategic dialogue will hardly bring about any greater congruence between our positions on developments in the troubled Islamic region to our west. The US continues to mishandle Pakistan at our cost. It US has brought about regime changes in various countries through military interventions; it has resorted to suffocating sanctions against Iran, for instance; it is threatening to isolate even a powerful nuclear armed country like Russia by targeting its vulnerabilities. Yet, it is accommodating towards Pakistan, although the latter has been responsible for indirectly inflicting the greatest number of casualties on the US by a friendly country- indeed, a non-NATO ally- because of the safe havens it has provided to the Taliban. The ambiguous way the US deals with Islamic movements, including its outreach to the Taliban and its unwillingness to scotch the dangerous idea of the Islamic Caliphate, is not consonant with our strategic interests. Its current geopolitical compression of Russia is reviving cold war type tensions in Europe that could spread elsewhere if the confrontation with Russia is pursued in a bid to divide Russia from Europe so that US hegemony over Europe through NATO is not diluted. This puts India at odds with the US strategically over Russia with which we have a “special and privileged strategic partnership”.

On the nuclear issue, the BJP, responsible for inserting those provisions in our Nuclear Liability Act that the Americans adamantly object to, will find it that much more difficult to find a legal solution. On defence sales, the new government wants to give priority to local manufacturing and technology transfer. On the latter, the US has the record of being the most restrictive. We cannot also move too much in the US direction as we have defence ties with other “strategic partners” too.

The several irritants on the economic side have contributed most to the perceived loss of √©lan in the bilateral relationship. Select US corporations have led a campaign, including in the US Congress, against India’s investment, trade and IPR policies, leading, inter alia, to a year-long investigation by the US International Trade Commission and India’s classification as a Priority Watch Country under Section 301 for IPR violations. On our pressing need to obtain massive foreign investments to upgrade our physical infrastructure, not much can be expected from the US. Another limitation is the unwillingness of US companies to work with the public sector. The US uses the strategic dialogue for policy changes in India that would create a business environment tailored to the need of their companies looking for opportunities in the financial, energy, agriculture and environment sectors, for instance. While being demanding on this score, the US is unwilling to address long standing Indian concerns on a number of trade and services issues. On top of this, detracting from their “strategic cooperation” on global issues, India and the US have serious differences within the framework of WTO and Climate Change negotiations, a situation unlikely to change soon given the entrenched US positions and India’s resolve to protect its legitimate interests.

An upset Kerry has already cautioned India that “it has a decision to make about where it fits in the trading system”, and that India’s willingness to support a rules based trading order and fulfill its obligations would help it to get US and global investments. He has called upon India to give greater space to private initiative, to be more open to capital flows, to limit subsidies that stifle competition and provide strong IPR protection for attracting more US companies to India. He has a vision of expanding India-US trade to US $ 500 billion a year.

Unrelated to the strategic dialogue but relevant to political atmosphere of our ties, the sanctimonious State Department has issued its 2013 report criticizing India’s “restrictive” religious laws. It is time the US ceased being the moral policeman of the world and showed restraint in criticizing countries like India who have a civilizational record of religious tolerance that the US itself lacks.

All in all, we have to take a realistic view of the scope of our “strategic partnership” with the US and not be beguiled by rhetoric, much as we must seek to build strong bridges with that country in pursuit of our larger national interest.

Published Date: 29th July 2014, Image source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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