US reignites warmth with Pakistan leaving India sulking; New Delhi, Washington need meeting point to keep ties on even keel

It’s déjà vu all over again. Pakistan is America’s bae with India sulking in a corner. 1 January, 2018, looks so far away now when the President of the United States ushered in the new year with an announcement on Twitter that the US will no longer be fooled by Pakistan’s repeated “lies” and “deceit”. The tweet was seen as a long-awaited course-correction in America’s Pakistan policy and there was hope in New Delhi that new grounds could be broken in bilateral ties.

To a large extent that hope hasn’t been belied. Strategically, there has been convergence between US Indo-Pacific policy and Narendra Modi government’s Act East policy. Defence and diplomatic dialogues at ministerial levels have been institutionalised in a 2+2 format and there has been close synergy between the two sides on issues such as “defense technology, cyber security, and counterterrorism. Liaisons between the Indian navy and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain, and the countries’ defense innovation units, are being established”, points out Brookings Institution fellow Tanvi Madan.

Besides, there have been signing of foundational communication agreements such as LEMOA, HOSTAC, COMCASA that will enable greater interoperability, cooperation, technology transfer between the two nation’s military-industrial complex. More such agreements — BECA, for instance — are in the offing that will enable India to share US geospatial data to get “pinpoint military accuracy of automated hardware systems and weapons such as cruise and ballistic missiles.”

 US reignites warmth with Pakistan leaving India sulking; New Delhi, Washington need meeting point to keep ties on even keel

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US president Donald Trump at G20 summit in Japan. Twitter/ @narendramodi

The two nations have also involved other democracies in shoring up security environment in Indo-Pacific through joint military exercises and dialogues in quadrilateral and trilateral formats to counter the rise of an assertive China that has tested the limits of international rules-based order. Besides, there has been an uptick in defence trade with India getting access to advanced US technology by being allotted Strategic Trade Authorization Tier 1 status.

The problem, however, is different. Policy is a dirty word in a White House led by a president whose attention-span rivals that of a three-year-old. Sticking to policy appears even more of an alien concept. A recent report in US media reveals how intelligence chiefs are struggling to cope with a president whose ability to grasp the complexity of a situation is thin.

Consequently, intelligence briefings for the POTUS have apparently been reduced to futile attempts to hold Trump’s attention by “using visual aids, confining some briefing points to two or three sentences, and repeating his name and title as frequently as possible”.

Such fickle mindedness is not just the staple of stand-up comedy, it is bound to affect US foreign policy as well. While bilateral ties have flourished on the bedrock of India-US strategic partnership based on commonality of values and a shared interest to contain China’s rising influence in Indo-Pacific, there has been no attempt on the part of Trump administration to sustain a geopolitical partnership with India that looks beyond wrinkles and seeks to invest in long-term strengthening of ties.

For Washington, that would have meant bearing costs upfront in backing India’s rise and boosting its capabilities because a democratic, strong and capable India is America’s best bet to maintain its primacy as the global hegemon. It is increasingly clear, though, that Trump administration either lacks that vision or is unwilling to think long term. Instead, the president has made bilateral trade a metric of assessing relationships, and instead of “strategic altruism” — to borrow from Ashley Tellis — Trump has prioritised fixing economic frictions with India. So far, it was hoped that geopolitical convergence will tide over the crisis brewing over unresolved issues regarding trade and immigration but relative hardening of positions from both sides has precipitated a crisis.

While the Trump administration holds India responsible for denying it market access and making “free and fair trade” impossible, New Delhi accuses Washington of constricting its strategic and sovereign choices either through direct sanctions such as CAATSA or through indirect sanctions where India becomes the casualty — think sanctions against Iran that have affected India’s energy needs and choices.

It is perhaps unfair to lay all the blame on Trump’s door. India has taken a distinctly protectionist turn under the NDA and the raising of barriers has played into Trump’s paranoia on trade issues. India recently made a host of changes in policies that include bringing more US exports under tariff (the average remains high at 13 percent), tweaking of e-commerce rules that seemingly go against the interests of US giants Amazon and Walmart (via Flipkart) and demanding that US tech firms store data on Indian consumers strictly on Indian soil through servers.

This has deepened Trump’s irritation with India. As Tellis writes in a piece for Carnegie Endowment, “The strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi will remain perpetually handicapped if trade relations between the two countries remain un-reformed… The importance of trade liberalisation goes far beyond satisfying Trump’s obsessions with remedying the current US trade deficit with many of its partners. Rather, it matters because deepened two-way trade contributes towards increasing prosperity in both countries and, in doing so, creates enduring stakes in each other’s success.”

In reality, however, hardening of positions has resulted in a mini trade war of sorts between India and the US with both sides refusing to budge from their positions. Instead of offering trade concessions to India to encourage it to open its markets and sustain the strategic partnership, Trump has doubled down on punitive measures against India and is threatening to do some more. There might be nothing personal since Trump has displayed similar behaviour with even European treaty allies, but such actions reduce further the scope for a relationship that is strategically and economically rewarding for both sides.

US trade analyst Chad P Brown, in his commentary on the ‘mini trade war’ between the two sides, relates that Trump administration has hiked duties “on 14 per cent of India’s exports to the United States” while India has finally retaliated by piling new tariffs on US exports, “including $600 million of almonds from California.”

While India had been relying on a diplomatic solution by delaying the imposition of tariffs, the White House removed India from the GSP programme, where under the ‘Generalised System of Preferences’, items from developing nations such as India get exemption-free entry into the US. Trump’s action affected $5.8 billion of Indian exports and overall tariff increased from “3 percent on average in January 2018 to 3.9 percent today”, according to Brown. India’s tariffs have hit $1.3 billion worth US exports from Californian almonds and walnuts to Washington apples.

The real worry, as Brown points out, is not the tariffs, which are manageable at this stage but the fact that this “is just another excuse for the self-proclaimed “Tariff Man” to impose even more duties on yet another country.” Trump didn’t disappoint. He keeps firing at India at regular intervals and the latest was on 9 June when he wrote on Twitter that: “India has long had a field day putting Tariffs on American products. No longer acceptable!”

While the trajectory of India-US relationship remains south and vibes project more friction in the near term, US ties with Pakistan has undergone another hairpin bend to now almost reach an equilibrium with Washington’s position during Barack Obama years. In the never-ending saga of US-Pakistan ties, suddenly Washington has undertaken a series of moves that Pakistan may legitimately claim as foreign policy “wins”.

On Thursday, US media carried reports that Washington has granted Pakistan’s request and accordingly, Pakistan prime minister will be hosted by the POTUS at White House on 22 July. In a later news briefing, however, the US State Department has denied knowledge of any such development. It is likely a bureaucratic issue and the visit will go through.

Second, the IMF has cleared all roadblocks and has granted Pakistan a loan of $6 billion under a programme. The first tranche of $991.4 million has already been transferred to State Bank of Pakistan, according to reports. It appears that all it took for IMF scepticism to go was some token action by Rawalpindi against Hafiz Saeed and freezing of Lashkar-e-Taiba funds. According to claims made by Pakistan’s ‘counter-terrorism’ department, 23 cases have been launched against the Mumbai attacks mastermind and 12 aides for using various trusts to collect funds and donations. We have all seen this charade before and the latest iteration fails to cause any mirth.

Third, the US State Department has designated the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. This was a long-standing Pakistani demand where Rawalpindi has continued decades of torture, killings and forced disappearances to cement its hold over the restive province. The move validates Pakistan’s atrocities and gives it licence to carry out further killings against its own people.

These moves, taken together, are likely a reward for Pakistan which has promised to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to enable Trump to withdraw the remaining troops from Afghanistan. Besides, Pakistan has so far used its geographic location to strategic advantage by squeezing access of US military supplies to western forces still operating in Afghanistan through shortest possible route and forcing it to take the northern route via Russia and the central Asian republics.

These are well-worn moves but Trump’s political compulsions in ending the Afghanistan war has forced his hands and worked to Pakistan’s advantage. Conversely, the distance with India has grown because, once again, Trump’s core base would like “trade wins” where India finds itself in an unfavourable corner.

These might be temporary wrinkles of history, but it is evident that India needs a new modus vivendi with the US. While US-India trade talks are likely to resume this week, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told the House Ways and Means Committee last month that even after “months and months and months” of previous dialogue in which “literally no headway” was made in mitigating the “series of problems with them — things that we have raised with them over a period of months.”

India and the US both need to step back and reassess their partnership and make mutual concessions. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, recently on an India visit said that bilateral ties are “incredibly important” for both sides. That may not be in dispute, but the brinkmanship underway right now between Trump and Modi regimes are serving no one’s cause.


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Updated Date: Jul 11, 2019 15:41:29 IST