Trump’s India Policy: the need for strategic coherence

By Emeritus Professor Ramesh Thakur
Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The distance from hubris to delusion is short and the Trump administration is bent on covering it in a sprint in its India policy. Diffuse reciprocity is the diplomatic glue that holds international relationships together. A healthy and long-lasting bilateral relationship rests upon a history of shared interests and values that embody common expectations, reciprocity, and equivalence of benefits across different domains rather than equal benefits in every single sector individually.

Conversely, absent a solid body of shared histories and memories to provide ballast, minor irritants can derail a relationship. The bilateral relationship between the US and India, since the latter’s independence in 1947, had more downs than ups during the Cold War but has been on a gradual upswing since then. It was put on a steeply upward trajectory with the signing of the bilateral civil nuclear cooperation deal in 2005.

Having been denied an entry visa for the US for many years as the elected head of a state government, on becoming Prime Minister in 2014 Narendra Modi set aside personal hurts from the slight and made a strategic decision to invest in the US as India’s most important relationship. That has helped to create important constituencies in the US Congress, political parties, bureaucracy, military and private sector, to deepen and elevate India–US ties. The Indian diaspora in the US also plays key bridge-building roles.

Unfortunately, because it lacks the historical ballast of US relations with Europe and Japan, the India–US relationship is being tested harder than any other by President Donald Trump’s transactional foreign policy. His compartmentalised approach means that being a good ally or friend is no insurance against full-on pressure to rectify trade imbalances. The end result is strategic incoherence.

Policy contestation refers to an existing or proposed policy being challenged. Countries that have signed civil nuclear deals with India, including Australia, have internal critics who caution about the damage to the global non-proliferation regime, question the putative commercial-diplomatic benefits, or want tougher safeguards and inspection standards to prevent diversion into weapon-related uses.

Policy coherence requires compatibility among a cluster of related policies. If China is indeed the emerging strategic rival in Cold War 2.0, it makes sense for the US to deploy its array of policy tools across the military, trade, financial and technological domains to contain the rising threat. As part of the overarching strategy to challenge China’s assertive dominance, the US might want to forge informal interest-cum-values based coalitions with allies and friends. In this case a coherent policy would accept some trade or technology costs as the price of sustaining strategic partnerships. Conversely, incoherence results when policies towards third countries undercut their capacity to constrain China’s international ambitions.

Acting together, India and the US can help to bend the arc of international history towards mutually attractive destinations. The Indo–Pacific integrates geography, the ‘free and open’ principle and democratic values into one strategic construct. In a major speech on 18 October 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson became the first senior US official to switch to the Indo-Pacific strategic frame, with the US and India ‘as the eastern and western beacons’. A senior White House official explicitly justified the change of terminology by saying that ‘Indo–Pacific’ ‘captures the importance of India’s rise’.

The combination of geography, demographics, military power and political weight gives India multiple roles in safeguarding sea lanes, dampening Islamic militancy, combating terrorism, and taking the lead in disaster relief operations around the Indian Ocean. On 18 January 2018 admirals from the so-called Quad countries – Australia, India, Japan and the US – sat together on stage at the high-profile annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, symbolising the shared strategic assessment among the four democracies that China had become a disruptive force in the Indo–Pacific.

That said, the India–US relationship is asymmetric. This is because the US remains without peer as a comprehensive, multidimensional actor across the military, diplomatic, economic and financial global landscape. India is still struggling to realise its aspirations for prosperity and power.  Only the US has a truly global train of interests.

However, lying at a particular geographical crossroads means India has its own sets of regional interests. For example India is keen to build Iran’s Chabahar Port as a route connecting it to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan and linking it to Central Asia and Eurasia. Chabahar would also act as a riposte to the China–Pakistan joint venture to build Gwadar port. By basing its Iran policy solely on priorities in the Middle East, the US introduces yet another element of strategic incoherence vis-à-vis China, India and Pakistan. India is too large and in the pursuit of its regional interests, India’s pride and self-belief will not permit it to be a mere vassal state of any external power, whether benign or malevolent.

In an editorial to mark Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit, The Times of India alluded to US policy incoherence in urging Washington to make up its mind between dealing with India as an ally or a frenemy. Earlier, in February Washington broke from its traditional non-committal stance on India–Pakistan skirmishes to side openly with India’s narrative on the Pulwama militant attack and retaliatory missile strikes on Balakot. This was followed by the successful pressure on China to lift its hold on designating Pakistan-based Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.

But in recent weeks the Trump administration has:

  • Leaned on India to cancel its S-400 missile defence system from Russia on pain of triggering US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA);
  • Threatened to curb H-1B visas for Indians working in the US;
  • Urged India not to choose Huawei’s 5G telecoms technology;
  • Terminated India’s sanction waivers for importing oil from Iran (10% of India’s crude oil imports have traditionally been sourced from Iran) and beneficiary status under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) program, affecting over USD 6 billion in goods or 12% of India’s exports to the US. There is confusion over whether India has ended trade with Iran;
  • Denounced India’s retaliatory trade tariffs, for example on Harley-Davidson motorbikes, as unacceptable; and
  • Demanded further liberalisation of Indian import and market access rules on agricultural goods, pharmaceutical products and big data tech firms.

Many US complaints are legitimate and some demands are in India’s economic self-interest. Nonetheless the public articulation of US grievances and threats will make it harder for any Indian government to be seen to bow to Washington’s demands, fuel the anti-Americanism in the Indian political system that lies just under the surface, and reverse the carefully nurtured and still fragile pro-American sentiment of the last two decades.

India cannot become an Asian counterweight to China if its economy is weakened. A transactional approach that weaponises tariffs, trade and dollar dominance will compel the Modi government to evaluate other options. During Pompeo’s visit India’s newly installed Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar – a consummate professional diplomat who has served as ambassador to China and the USA – gently noted that India would decide its policy based on its own assessments of national interests.

This was diplomatic code for hinting that the S-400 purchase will proceed. Retaliatory CAATSA sanctions in turn could imperil several multi-billion dollar purchases of US military hardware over the coming years: a lose-lose outcome at odds with Trump’s pride in win-win solutions. There has been some pushback in Congress against the administration’s attempt to coerce India into complying with US demands instead of treating it as a strategic partner. But in the meantime, the post of Assistant Secretary for South Asia, the nodal agency for coordinating India policy, remains unfilled deep into Trump’s third year and, even more consequential, there is no India champion in the administration after the departure of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

‘Tactical transactionalism’ via the use of sanctions, tariffs, and technology denial,  is not going to be a long-lasting substitute for strategic coherence in India’s US policy. Encouragingly, Jaishankar and Pompeo concluded their meeting on 26 June by noting that ‘great friends’ can disagree, ‘issues’ arise in any trading relationship, it was important not to be distracted by the ‘noise’ but to focus on ‘the solidity of the relationship’ with ‘as little theatre as possible’, and negotiate their way through the issues to find common ground.

Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.  This article is adapted from one that appeared on John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.