US President Donald Trump (R) talks with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they attend a working session during the G20 summit in Hamburg, northern Germany, on July 8, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Michael Kappeler/Pool
US President Donald Trump talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017. Photo: AFP/Michael Kappeler

US President Donald Trump’s unpredictability has been under scrutiny globally, and has drawn considerable attention from the American media. In some ways, he has managed to flummox watchers of an India-US relationship that had reinvented itself after the May 1998 nuclear tests by India.

One recent hiccup in the bilateral relationship comes from the Trump administration’s targeting of imports from India. The trade war with India, if it can be called that, is minuscule compared with the ongoing Sino-US dispute. But these decisions have consequences for India’s economy, energy interests and strategic objectives.

Of greater moment is Iran. Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal signed by the administration of his predecessor Barack Obama, despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s position that Iran had not breached the deal. With the next US presidential election slated for November 3, 2020, the idea that Iran is going “rogue” has been energized in Washington. We saw similar hype as a prelude to the US invasion of Iraq.

Double standards or realpolitik?

If US actions in the Western Pacific and its dealings with Pyongyang are any indication, American power may be stretched so thinly over numerous global crises that Trump will not see fit to go to war in Iran. But should that calculation fail, the consequences could be devastating. US presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders has already stated that any war with Iran would have horrific consequences globally. As for any plans for a regime change, US efforts in Syria have failed spectacularly, and the administration seems clueless about dealing with a nuclear North Korea or even propping up the regime in Afghanistan.

The US, for decades, has ignored China’s proliferation of nuclear technology to Pakistan and its exports of nuclear-capable Silkworm missiles to Saudi Arabia. There are now reports that the Trump administration has approved sharing unclassified “nuclear know-how” to Saudi Arabia. Reports of links between the US Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, publicly manifested by an espionage life sentence for a Pakistani lieutenant-general and death sentences for two brigadiers, also highlight America’s confusing stance when it comes to South Asia.

Interestingly, before the 2014 Indian elections, Western media had targeted Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, especially over his failure to contain the violence that killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people in the communal riots of 2002. In fact, the US even denied him a visa on several occasions, citing the riots. Subsequently, the US warmed up to India almost overnight after Modi became prime minister in 2014. Apparently, the US warmth toward Modi and India is related to the aggressive rise of China. Against that threat to US national interests, India is seen as able to act as a counterbalancing force in the region.

Trump’s pre-election promises included pulling out US troops from ongoing deployments across the world. This has been effected in Syria, and Trump says he wants a similar pullout from Afghanistan. However, if disengaging troops from hotspots is the aim, why are the Americans ready to deploy troops against Iran when the evidence against the Iranians is so dodgy? Should the US exit Afghanistan, leaving it at the mercy of the Taliban and a rising ISIS? The consequences for the region and for India should be apparent to the US.

This is the kind of dichotomy that historically has held back the bilateral relationship between India and the United States. For decades, the two countries existed in a paradox. They were at cross purposes on some issues but billed as “natural allies” in others. These competing strains continued to co-exist and, in some cases, thrive. India has been a preferred partner of the US regarding intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism. The two countries also signed a historic nuclear deal under then prime minister Manmohan Singh and president George W Bush. India and the US are also, with Japan and Australia, members of “the Quad,” a naval grouping intended to contain China’s growing maritime influence.

Allies and adversaries

In February, Admiral Philip S Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that defense sales between India and the US were at an all-time high and bilateral strategic partnership continued to advance at a historic pace. India has signed all agreements termed “foundational” by the US, save one that will likely be signed during the next 2+2 dialogue of foreign and defense ministers. The increases in US exports to India have correspondingly reduced Russian exports to India, much to the glee of the Pentagon.

While India is buying more American armaments, it also faces the US threat of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if it goes ahead with buying the Russian S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missiles. This is typical of the dichotomy that dogs the Indo-US bilateral relationship. On one hand, they are ready to buy and sell US military hardware, but on the other, there is uneasiness over the American diktat to avoid buying military hardware from the Russians.

Meanwhile, US aviation major Lockheed Martin is desperate to sell the F-21, a souped-up version of the aging F-16, to India as a part of the 110-fighter-jet contract of the Indian Air Force. There are those in India who wonder if this arm-twisting is to ensure that the F-21 is accepted by India, knowing India will not dump the S-400. But why should India not consider the Swedish Gripen, the French Rafale or the Russian offer of MiG-35s? All of those manufacturers have offered to make these in India and boost Indian manufacturing capabilities as well as generate jobs.

Also, after India claimed to have shot down a Pakistani F-16 using a MiG-21 when the two countries clashed in February, the chances of India buying the American jet are minimal. But these are the kinds of dichotomies that dominate the bilateral relationship.

India is currently operating Chabahar Port in Iran, linking Central Asia and beyond through the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). India made considerable investments in the project and sees it as a major alternative to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, which was developed by the Chinese. In fact, India sees Chabahar as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India is also building a railway line to Zahedan on the Iran-Afghanistan border. It views these projects as vital for its national interests. The Trump administration’s threatened action against Iran affects them adversely. So does the US move of practically handing over Afghanistan to the Taliban or to a resurgent ISIS-Khorasan Province.

At the behest of the US, backed by a threat of sanctions, India stopped importing oil from Iran even though it was the cheapest and came on terms extremely favorable to India. This meant a disruption of nearly 11% of India’s energy imports. With consumption growing briskly, India’s oil import dependence has shot up to 84%. India is importing oil from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, even the US, but compared with Iran oil, just transportation leads to much higher costs.

The latest jolt to India is Trump’s abrupt revocation of Indian access to the Generalized System of Preferences, which streamlines trade via duty-free imports on certain products, when deeper negotiations were warranted. This harms the Indian economy severely, especially when stoppage of oil imports from Iran is already hurting India. The unemployment rate is at a 45-year high of 6.1% and economic growth in March 2019 quarter slowed to a five-year low of 5.8%.

Many Indo-US observers wonder why the Trump administration is intent on behaving like a bully when the Modi administration has shown a pronounced pro-US tilt in nearly all strategic spheres.

Perhaps there is a belief that India, unlike Turkey, will accept the American fiat not to purchase the Russian S-400 system. Turkey continues to defy US calls under the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to avoid purchasing the S-400 missile defense system. However, Turkey is all set to import the system in July. Perhaps there is also a belief that given his US connection, the appointment of former foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as India’s external affairs minister will help smooth these rough spots. Jaishankar served as India’s ambassador to the US and has been key to Modi’s plans to forge closer ties with America.

The Trump administration probably believes that the F-21 contract with India is already in the bag. But before such deals are signed it is necessary to analyze dispassionately how the strategic partnership is viewed in the long term. In this context US “reliability” globally has not been very encouraging.

The Trump administration has pushed the China-Russian relationship closer as never before. A conflict with Iran will bring opposing alignments, much as the war in Syria did.

The US-China rivalry is not confined to trade alone but its manifestations are visible in countries bordering China. India needs to review seriously its long-term strategic partnership with the US in view of the bullying tactics, instead of waivers that could build stronger bonds between the two. The US may also examine consequences should the unthinkable happen – that China decides to resolve its border dispute with India amicably in the near future.

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