US Secretary of State’s India visit is a chance to re-animate a stagnating relationship

As the external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar sits down for talks with the visiting US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo in Delhi this week, a sense of crisis seems to have enveloped the discourse on India-US relations. We can argue if “crisis” is the right word, but there is no denying that many dormant but difficult issues in the India-US relationship have bubbled up to the surface now.

For nearly two decades, Delhi and Washington had steadily narrowed their multiple differences inherited from the Cold War and expanded the ambit of their bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Today, differences once again dominate the public narrative. These range from trade and market access to cross border data flows and India’s purchases of oil from Iran and advanced weapons from Russia. Although the intensity of the current focus on the divergence between the two nations is disconcerting, it is worth remembering four important factors.

First, India is not alone in facing sudden difficulties with Washington. Many of America’s leading economic and political partners face similar challenges — most of which are flowing from the unprecedented change that is unfolding within America. America’s ties with friends and foes alike are under scrutiny in the Trump Administration. Over the last couple of years, it was quite clear that Delhi’s turn would come. It is now upon us.

Driving the domestic turbulence in America is none other than President Donald Trump, who has overturned many of the traditional assumptions about US foreign policy and its role in the world. This is no ordinary moment in America’s post-war evolution; it is a major inflexion point.

Second, this is not the first time that Delhi is facing a crisis-like situation in its relations with Washington. Over the last quarter of a century, we have had many issues — Kashmir, South Asian security, human rights, India’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and Delhi’s 1998 nuclear tests to name a few. Those who have only seen the recent good times in India-US relations may not know how hard it was in the 1990s and 2000s to get even the simplest of things done between Delhi and Washington. Political suspicion and bureaucratic resistance in both capitals were relentless. Yet many of these difficulties were overcome through engagement and sustained negotiations backed by political will on both sides to advance the partnership.

Third, there is much heartburn among the traditionalists in both Washington and Delhi that Trump has made America’s foreign policy transactional. But then you don’t get to choose your interlocutors. In any case, being transactional has advantages of its own — there is no mystification of the issues involved and the focus is on uninhibited bargaining based on self-interest.

Fourth, whether it is a crisis or not and whether it is new or not, the current dynamic situation between Delhi and Washington is also an opportunity for taking a fresh look at the relationship that has seen some stagnation in recent years. It is also a moment to set some ambitious targets for the future.

The problems that confronted India-US relations after the NDA government’s nuclear tests gives us a good sense of what can be done with a crisis. Within a few weeks of the tests and American sanctions, in May 1998, Jaswant Singh, then deputy chairman of the planning commission, and later the external affairs minister, began a marathon conversation on the differences over nuclear proliferation with the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott. The dialogue between the two leaders eventually led to the historic civil nuclear deal during UPA-1 that facilitated the lifting of most technology sanctions against Delhi, the integration of India into the global nonproliferation order, the expansion of bilateral defence and security cooperation and a deeper engagement between Delhi and America’s Western allies in Europe and Japan.

Finalising the agreement turned out to be incredibly hard. The disproportionate political heat the agreement generated in Delhi saw PM Manmohan Singh struggle to build a domestic consensus within his own party, coalition and Parliament. Fortunately for him, the then US President George W Bush was prepared to help move the negotiation forward at all critical junctures.

This time though, India will have to deal with a very different US president, Donald Trump, who believes that America is a piggy-bank which the rest of the world has been raiding on. He insists on fair trade and reciprocity in US partnerships. Leavening this difficult attitude, however, is Trump’s fascination for the “art of the deal” premised on out-of-the-box thinking. His outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the more recent call for a direct dialogue with the Iranian leadership would have been considered outrageous just a couple of years ago.

India too is a very different country from what it was in 1998. It has a much bigger economy — soon to be the third largest in the world. India is interconnected with the rest of the world as never before and has big stakes in consolidating the partnership with the US. Even more important, its ability to shape regional and global outcomes is of some long-term value for Washington.

The issues at hand too are different. Unlike the nuclear negotiation, where the real internal stakeholders were few, trade talks involve many government agencies, state governments and the business community. All major trading nations find it difficult to get their domestic ducks in a row. But unlike security issues, trade offers greater room for give and take.

The key to successful engagement with the US is to keep the negotiations going and make progress wherever one can. Americans are always ready to split the difference and move on. Delhi has been notorious for its inability to bring any negotiation to a close. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s distinct contributions to India’s strategic culture have been to bring an utterly unsentimental view of the world, a determination to bargain hard and intense focus on practical outcomes. This approach, so visible in relation to foreign policy during Modi’s first term, now needs to be extended to other domains, especially commerce, defence modernisation and adapting to the unfolding digital revolution.

A non-ideological approach to the negotiations would focus on breaking down the contentious issues into smaller parts, expanding the boundary conditions and creating linkages across sectors. As Modi deals with a turbulent world marked by a historic power shift, massive economic dislocation and the breakdown of the post-war global order, modernising the partnership with the US is critical to securing India’s interests — both in the near and long term.

The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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