US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace during a joint press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in June. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm
US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace during a joint press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in June. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm

Upgraded only last year, US-India relations entered a new upbeat phase this August with the signing of the landmark bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement that enables reciprocal military access of facilities for both countries.

It was the second of the initial four foundational agreements the US usually has with its defense partners; the first one was the General Security of Military Information Agreement, which India signed in 2002. Having felt uneasy about committing itself to the remaining three agreements, the previous Indian government held off, as going ahead would have been perceived as lodging it in the US “camp.”

As of now, even the current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not set any timeline for signing the remaining two deals, known as the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Intelligence.

The unease in New Delhi was triggered as Beijing and Islamabad kicked off the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Since then, however, India might have felt a bit unequal to the expectations of its important ally in Washington on various counts such as its relations with Pakistan.

US-Pakistan relations may be going through choppy times, yet the reality is that the US has to remain engaged with Pakistan because of its geopolitical location and the fact that it creates strategic balance in the region.

As reported by the British think-tank Royal United Studies Institute recently, Washington needs Islamabad more than Islamabad needs Washington. Not only that, growing strategic ties between China and Pakistan have emboldened Islamabad, and this relationship “has eclipsed anything America has had to offer in terms of military and economic assistance”.

Predictably, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that Pakistan is critical for the long-term stability of South Asia, while US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials have urged Pakistan not to see the new US strategy for South Asia as a move to isolate it.

Another unsettling factor for India is that while the US could be said to be using it to contain China, Washington maintains a cordial relationship with Beijing itself. India has obstinately stayed out of the BRI up to now, but China remains the United States’ most important economic partner.

US President Donald Trump is due to visit China in November, and India is bound to feel even more left out as it has no place in this equation. Ostensibly, this has been a stable year for US-China relations. President Xi Jinping and Trump have a good understanding and regularly discuss matters on the phone, there is no trade war, and a fast-track four-level dialogue has been under way since the two leaders’ last meeting in Florida.

Recently, US Defense Secretary James Mattis was in New Delhi to press for the US$2 billion sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial System drones as well as US$15 billion worth of updated F-16 fighter jets. It has been mentioned by Indian media that he would also ask India to moderate its support for the Tehrik-i-Taliban at the request of Pakistan.

In New Delhi, he endorsed India’s stand that the CPEC project passes through disputed territory in Pakistan, but at the end of the day, it is India that is left isolated in its own neighborhood while it cannot go ahead even with energy deals with Iran.

Meanwhile, Trump would like India to have a more balanced economic and trade relationship with the US. He recently admonished India that it could spend more money in Afghanistan and work on reducing a US$24 billion trade deficit with the US.

He said: “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan. But India makes billions of dollars in trade from the United States and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”

Absolutely bewildered, India ignored this and pretended nothing had happened. Discussing the slight, Shashi Tharoor, a parliamentarian and former foreign minister, asked: “Whatever Afghanistan is or should be about for India and the US, surely money is the least relevant consideration?”

Having geographical limitations vis-a-vis Afghanistan, India cannot supply logistics; at best it can contribute financially. Not only that, it promises to be a long-term player as the US plans to fight it out indefinitely in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the hefty US$12.5 billion annual price tag.

Consequently, doubts prevail in India as to the utility of the India-US strategic partnership. To date, India has not been able to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Constantly, the US tries to persuade India to downsize its nuclear arsenal while it holds back on transfer of advance technologies under defense cooperation. Signing agreements on each and every instance of defense collaboration is not possible for India as it worries about its image.

Meanwhile, conflicts regarding the modalities of technology transfer  create impediments. For instance, the US would like to continue its influence through training, maintenance and control of core defense technologies, while India prefers a complete transfer of military technology.

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst.
Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia.
Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue
Twitter @sabena_siddiqi

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