RAMESH THAKUR. Trump’s strategic incoherence on India policy Part 2

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 Preference (GSP) program, affecting over USD 6bn goods worth 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 kowtow to Washington’s diktat, 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 to browbeat India 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 served as ambassador to China and the US during his previous career – 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.

There is an additional problem of mismatched processes and expectations. Trump is notoriously impatient and looks for quick results. India’s decision-making is notoriously glacial and often exasperatingly inflexible in international negotiations. Modi’s personal commitment and willingness to crack pockets of resistance in India’s hidebound bureaucracy will be critical. 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.

Trump’s unilateral acts of economic warfare – sanctions, tariffs, technology denial – have typically been in defiance of global consensus and norms. Occasionally they are also in breach of international law, resulting in the perverse outcome that secondary US sanctions are tantamount to the US acting as the international enforcer against law-abiding citizen-states of the world. This gives credence to Gideon Rachman’s analogy of the Donald as a mafia don. Little wonder that in a global poll, the US sits alongside Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran in a rogues gallery of countries likely to use their influence for bad.

‘Tactical transactionalism’, for want of a better word, is not going to be a long-lasting substitute for strategic coherence in India’s US policy. To borrow from conclusions reached by Australia’s most successful foreign minister Gareth Evans in Incorrigible Optimist, India must: identify core national foreign policy objectives, assess national capabilities to advance them, and choose the priorities against domestic and international real-world constraints. 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 Professor of Public Policy, Australian National University

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