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If Washington wants to be New Delhi’s most ‘reliable strategic partner’, it must shun coercive approach

As we approach the inaugural high-level dialogue in New Delhi between India and the US in 2+2 format, it’s worth taking a close look at the nature and structure of the bilateral relationship that is arguably at its strongest than any other time in the past. This closer embrace is driven by a strategic and geopolitical logic. The seeming irrefutability of that logic — China’s meteoric and aggressive rise —has raised expectations that the trajectory will remain steady and linear.

That said, the strength of the partnership cannot be taken for granted, neither can be the trajectory. It isn’t just the political turbulence caused by a mercurial White House. For all of Donald Trump’s disruptions, his administration has built on the foundation laid by successive US presidents (starting with Bill Clinton) to place India at the front and centre of US national security and South Asia policy.

The dangers emerge more from the presence of stubborn irritants in ties that have grown in scope and scale even as the ties have progressively strengthened. In fact, an unfortunate side-effect of a deeper engagement has been a papering over of cracks. In absence of an honest assessment, these cracks could become impediments.

It has been clear for some time now that shared defence and strategic interests have been the major drivers of the India-US partnership. This tilt precedes Trump, though he has taken forward the Barack Obama legacy of declaring India as a ‘major defence partner’ in 2016. India is central to Trump administration’s National Defence Strategy and National Security Strategy and the US is keen to become India’s primary and principal supplier of arms. Bilateral defence trade now stands at $18 billion from almost zero 10 years ago.

The US describes India as an “all weather partner” and confirms that “operationalisation of India’s status as a major defence partner” will be firmly on the agenda when James Mattis and Mike Pompeo meet Nirmala Sitharaman and Sushma Swaraj on 6 September.

According to Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for south and central Asia in the Trump administration, the 2+2 dialogue will be “an important opportunity to discuss and enhance engagement on a range of diplomatic and security priorities and really is an indication of the deepening strategic partnership that we enjoy with India.”

The rise in defence commerce and the burgeoning strategic relationship mask some of the vulnerabilities, nowhere starker than in trade relations. The deterioration in trade ties has been inversely proportional and near simultaneous to the geopolitical embrace. Trump is fixated on the $25 billion deficit that US suffers in bilateral trade — a pittance compared to its $350 billion deficit with China.

Trump administration has slapped steel and aluminum tariffs on India — inviting reciprocal duties on 29 American exports — while US has lodged six cases against India at the WTO. India’s trade barriers and myopic policy of capping prices of medical devices has caused heartburn among American manufacturers and has contributed towards hardening of stance.

India’s industrial policy, status as a global manufacturer or regional security imperatives pose no threat (and is in fact, complementary) to the US but such realities are incompatible with Trump’s trade philosophy. The US president also seems unable to understand that obsessing over a paltry trade deficit — that anyway could become a surplus once India starts importing more defence equipment with the signing of foundational agreements such as COMCASA — undercuts American strategy of encouraging India to take a leadership role in India-Pacific. The Trumpian world is defined by such incongruities.

As Professor Sreeram Chaula of the Jindal School of International Affairs points out in Foreign Policy, “So inflexible is Trump that invocations of the 'strategic partnership' between India and the US and Washington’s designation of New Delhi as a 'major defence partner' have not moved the needle on tariffs against India. Sophisticated suggestions, like that of the US House Speaker Paul Ryan to deploy tailored tariffs that hurt only China while avoiding broader damage, is music to Indian ears that finds no audience in the White House.”

If trade deficit remains a major irritant, free movement of talent occupies the next spot. Both issues reflect a protectionist turn in US politics. On the contentious H1B visa issue, Indian interests are completely at odds with Trump’s politics. The crackdown on the non-immigrant visa programme has affected Indian skilled workers and IT professionals. As in trade, here too, both sides suffer from an inflexibility of approach.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had told Parliament in July that India will “forcefully” raise the issue of H1B visas with the US during the 2+2 dialogue and maintained that “growing restrictions on the visa rules by the Trump administration was a cause of concern to the Indian government, the Opposition members and the entire House.”

The US' move to instead extend the suspension by five more months of premium processing for H-1B visas till February 2019 couldn’t have gone down well with New Delhi. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on Wednesday that it was “extending the temporary suspension” and, beginning 11 September, “will expand this temporary suspension to include certain additional H1B petitions.”

Conversely, even as horns remained locked over these irritants, India and the US edged closer to signing COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement), the foundational agreement that will enable interoperability between US and Indian forces over an end-to-end secured network and lay down the legal framework for transfer of high-end American weapons systems.

The negotiations, which remained stuck for close to a decade over India’s reluctance to let the US access its sensitive military information, seem to be heading towards a conclusion and it might be cleared during the 2+2 dialogue, according to reports. “While the finalised text of Comcasa is currently being vetted by the national security planners of the Narendra Modi government, India and the US have also decided for the first time to conduct an advanced tri-service humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise off the coast of Visakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal later this year,” reports Hindustan Times.

This development must be seen in conjunction with US' move to confer Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status on India that paves the way for the sale of cutting-edge civil and defence equipment. India is only the third Asian nation after South Korea and Japan to get the status — a position that is reserved for US treaty allies and nations that have signed all four nuclear export control regimes, unlike India.

It is evident that the Trump administration has made an exception for its “major defence partner” and “natural ally”. This is where the rubber hits the road. If defence cooperation and shared security interests have almost exclusively driven bilateral ties to a close embrace, then US Congress’s enactment of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) — that Trump signed into law last year — has struck at the heart of the strategic partnership.

It did seem as if the Trump administration had tapped into the bipartisan mood in the US Congress and has been successful in securing a carve-out for India as Delhi doubles down on the deal to buy five Triumf S-400 strategic surface-to-air missile systems from Russia.

The $6 billion deal puts India in the cross hairs of CAATSA. The secondary sanctions rely on third parties to target Russia’s defence industry, stifle its sale of equipment and effect a change in Russian behavior. If the contract passes through, it would deal a major blow to the US' target of making the punitive measures against Russia work. And yet, considering the nature of the US-India strategic partnership and India’s pivotal role in US Indo-Pacific strategy, a carve-out was sought by Mattis.

The US Congress last July permitted Trump to take a decision on waiver application for allies such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam if the administration can certify that a country is reducing defence equipment imports from Russia, expanding cooperation with the US in defence deals and the carve-out is in keeping with US security interests. The move was largely interpreted as an exception meant for India that had clarified its intent of going ahead with the S-400 deal despite the threat of sanctions.

Jeff Smith, a south Asia expert at The Heritage Foundation, was quoted as saying by Reuters that the changes were a “meaningful and positive step forward” and that they “reduce the possibility an Indian arms purchase from Russia will trigger CAATSA sanctions, a situation both the administration and most of Capitol Hill are keen to avoid.”

The Indian media interpreted it on similar lines. The Indian Express saw a “give and take” on CAATSA and COMCASA while The Hindu noted that “US Congress’s report allowing the introduction of a presidential waiver of its controversial CAATSA will be greeted with a sense of relief in both New Delhi and Washington.”

It now emerges that this was a premature and even misleading conclusion. A top Pentagon official in charge of the Asia desk has clarified that the passing of the John S McCain National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year (the ‘Act’ for the waiver) by the US Congress “does not imply” that India will enjoy a carve-out if it goes ahead with the deal.

Randall Schriver, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, said in Washington on Wednesday that an impression “that we are going to completely protect the India relationship, insulate India from any fallout from this legislation no matter what they do… is a bit misleading. We would still have very significant concerns if India pursued major new platforms and systems (from Russia).”

In conversation with Ashley Tellis, the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs, at an event organised by the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, Schriver said: “I can't sit here and tell you that they would be exempt, that we would use that waiver, that will be the decision of the president if he is faced with a major new platform and capability that India has acquired from Russia”.

The Pentagon official’s stance on Russia and Iran sounded very different. If there was a clear description of intent on CAATSA, Schriver appeared more circumspect on Iran where he expressed a willingness to “listen to and understand” India’s concerns. On Iran, US sanctions policy has again ended up squarely targeting India’s energy and strategic relationship.

If Pentagon appeared to put the onus on Trump regarding sanctions, that hardly eases India’s concerns. Ashley Tellis, in his piece for Carnegie, has pointed out that when it comes to the Russian S-400 missile system, Trump could prove to be more inflexible with India than even the US Congress because the S-400 SAM falls between the twin stools of Trump’s insecurity and American vulnerability.

In Tellis’s words, “The S-400 represents a conspicuous danger to US military operations at a time when US forces are threatened by formidable anti-access and area-denial “bubbles” around the world… In addition, Trump cannot understand why America’s friends would want to buy weapons from any other country, since, as he put it, 'the United States makes by far the best military equipment in the world: the best jets, the best missiles, the best guns, the best everything.' His antipathy toward the S-400 thus extends to acquisitions across the globe.”

Given this predicament, India and the US have their work cut out when they meet on Thursday. On India’s part, the need to maintain defence ties with Russia must be squared with its growing strategic closeness towards the US. It isn’t just a matter of replacing Soviet-era military equipment with US platforms (though in itself that is tricky enough). It also ties with India’s need to maintain an independent foreign policy that is immune to coercive strategies exactly of the kind that the US is seeking to impose.

It is difficult to see India canceling the Russian deal, though it might be well advised to cut off the haughtiness in approach while discussing the thorny issue during 2+2 talks.

The US needs to show greater understanding towards India’s strategic compulsions. As Brahma Chellaney writes in Nikkei Asian Review, “America has overtaken Russia in recent years as the top arms seller to New Delhi, and also emerged as a source of oil and gas supply to India. But these evolving ties cannot at this stage replace India's links with Russia and Iran. The US has basically transferred defensive military systems, while Russia has sold India offensive weapons, including a nuclear-powered submarine and an aircraft carrier.”

If the US wants to present itself as a more reliable strategic partner for India compared to Russia, a heavy-handed approach might not be the right course to take. Coercions rarely work in diplomacy.

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