Trump’s strategic incoherence on India policy Part 1

Jul 15, 2019

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 PM 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 with 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 inconsistency refers to unevenness in the operationalisation of any one particular policy. A good example, albeit from outside India–US relations, is the markedly different reactions to the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 by Russia-backed Ukrainian militias, at least according to Western intelligence; and Iran Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes in 1988.

Policy coherence requires compatibility among a cluster of cognate 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 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 so 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 turn aspirations to prosperity and power into milestones along Modi’s roadmap for the journey. Of the two 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 Middle East obsessions, 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.

Ramesh Thakur is Professor of Public Policy, Australian National University

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