Donald Trump's 'refusal' of invitation to Republic Day function should not undo gradual uptick in India-US ties

Though not confirmed yet, the reported cancellation of an invitation to be the chief guest at the Republic Day function in New Delhi has already damaged India's trust in the US presidency’s ability to keep up the pace on India-US ties. However, it is of a piece with the volatility shown by the United States president, in following a policy of alternately hailing and flaying friends and foes alike.

It is no one’s argument that the president cannot refuse an invitation for such an event, however strategic the partner. The problem is the curious way in which it is being done in the public sphere. The first report seems to have been from Amar Ujala in April 2018. In July, The Times of India reported that the invitation had been issued, and criticism was rife about the invite itself in the background of the “cancellation” of the 2+2 talks. A week later, a LiveMint article carried a clarification from a person who appeared to be an official source that the invitation from Prime Minister Modi during his visit in 2017 had been to visit India, and was not Republic day specific. Thereafter, however, speculation continued in the media with "on-off" reports, with the latest report from The Week claiming that the cancellation had been conveyed to the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Such speculation in the media is undesirable, and surprising, given that some of these reports seem to have come from persons in the know. The end result could be that India will find it extremely embarrassing to issue an invite to another leader. No one likes being second best, especially political heads.

 Donald Trumps refusal of invitation to Republic Day function should not undo gradual uptick in India-US ties

File image of US president Donald Trump. Reuters

There is some excuse for such speculation, however. None of this would have occurred during the time of – for instance – President Obama. It was not that relations during his time were uniformly cordial. For instance, the looming Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) would have been disastrous for Indian trade, and dissonance on Intellectual Property Rights, among other issues, was kept under wraps by both sides. Diplomats conducted their business quietly, and there was nothing but euphoria in the media as the president crafted his own particular magic during his two visits to India, including on Republic Day. During the Trump presidency, diplomacy seems to be conducted in a series of tweets and public declamations from the presidential podium. While this is anathema to most US professionals, and meat for gleeful critics, it must be said that the president simply says what he means and follows up thereafter. He doesn’t like trade deficits and he doesn’t like allies who don’t pay up. This is nothing different from the policy of earlier administrations. It’s just that it is said upfront.

President Trump, as it happens, has been far more aligned (not "sensitive" — it's just not Trump) to Indian concerns. He doesn’t like Pakistan and he says so. He doesn’t get why the United States' soldiers have to die in Afghanistan, but he’s willing to back his generals' decisions without interfering. As The Economist observed, Trump is doing better than Obama in Afghanistan, though only marginally. He has cut off military aid to Pakistan, and as promised in his “Afghanistan Strategy” of 2017, has not hesitated to use diplomatic and other tactics to force Pakistan to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. News that US official Alice Wells met with Taliban leaders without Afghan government representatives present, shows he’s also willing to do the "negotiations" that are also central to the strategy. Like any other country, there are parts of US policy that India will like, and there are parts it won't.

Central to his plans for India is also the slow inclusion of India into the operational ambit of the US Southern Command by not just re-naming it as the Indo-Pacific Command, but by getting the Indian Armed Forces to operate more seamlessly with American troops. The series of agreements that culminated in the signing of a communications agreement (COMCASA) carried forward what previous administrations had pushed, including the designation of India as a major defence partner. This required changes in US export control law to ensure easier access to technology, and limited re-export.

The trouble, of course, starts there. First, policy in the United States has always been dominated by the needs of the military industrial complex, which in turn powers up the economy. The United States would like New Delhi to give all the major defence buys to its companies. Instead, Prime Minister Modi is backing “Make in India’ and sticking to the point that some percentage of any deal has to have an Indian content. There is actually considerable scope for bringing these two objectives together given India’s (relatively) cheap land, labour and power, and all this without too many environmental restrictions to hinder United States companies. But that means the US has to get accustomed to the idea that matters are not going to go entirely according to its way. Second, even before Modi’s very own "Camp David" moment with President Xi and later with President Putin, the Ministry of External Affairs has been doing some verbal jugglery to avoid language that would annoy Beijing beyond a point. New Delhi is far from being ready to fall into the United States' arms and has no compunctions in saying so. The third issue is the most complex issue of all. The Indian decision to buy up to 5 complete S-400 systems with a price tag of USD 6 billion may probably be seen as coming under the definition of “a significant transaction’ under the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), which essentially arose in part from Congressional ire aimed at Trump and his best bud Putin. Congress relented somewhat later by offering the president a way out through a "waiver" of sanctions on the grounds of national security, and if the country concerned was showing "demonstrable" steps to show it was shying away from further Russian buys. The point is, however, that Trump is by no means certain to do this. For one, his assumption is that any ally of the United States, which includes Turkey which wants those very same missiles, would want to "buy American." And for another, a complex web of issues makes him doubly suspicious of a potential United States ally which is going to be granted access to its technology, not to mention common platforms for data sharing and surveillance.

In sum, the controversy over the Republic Day parade in itself is no big deal in the long course of US-India relations. But a rebuff will be remembered and factored into future policy. It has taken India decades to get over an innate suspicion of the United States, which reached its peak when the USS Enterprise sailed towards Indian waters in 1971 in an attempt to browbeat India. It has taken years of patient diplomacy and concrete action to get away from this image and come this far. It would seem to be a pity to waste it all for one brass and buttons function.

Updated Date: Oct 29, 2018 19:48:53 IST