Ensconced inside the commodious environs of the Great Hall of the People, invigorated by a long winter-morning march on the Great Wall, President Richard Nixon ruminated on the problems of modern India. “I think,” he told Prime Minister Chou En-lai, “if we analyse why Germany and Japan have done so well, it is because they have qualities of drive, and are willing to work hard.” “But some people on the subcontinent, maybe because of the environment, they never had this drive.”
Prime Minister Chou pushed back, declassified documents record, despite his country’s bitter differences with India: “people throughout the world have similar qualities,” he protested.
Nixon would have none of this liberal nonsense. “I would only respectfully advise the Prime Minister,” he snorted, “that if his government gives aid to India, to expect nothing. Except a slap in the face.”
Last week’s high-level 2+2 ministerial dialogue between Washington and New Delhi generated a long list of promises: Smoother cooperation between defence industries, enhanced cooperation in science and technology, greater engagement on peacekeeping, capacity-building. In Washington, though, there’s mounting frustration that the long list of to-dos the two countries agree on never seem to actually get done. To many in Washington’s policy élite, the idea that India will emerge as a credible counterweight to China now seems increasingly unreal.
Concerns about India’s business environment
In a recent report, the Congressional Research Service noted that “Prime Minister Modi’s first term fell short of many observers’ expectations, as India did not move forward with anticipated market-opening reforms, and instead increased tariffs and trade restrictions”. Now, it went on, “slowing economic growth in India raises concerns about India’s business environment”.
Even though President Donald Trump has often been supportive of the strategic partnership with India, the pile of unresolved issues has mounted. Negotiations on the two countries’ tariff disputes are dragging on; sharp differences persist on services, agriculture, intellectual property and data localisation.
Liberal American disquiet over Kashmir and the National Citizenship Register has added to the friction. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unconcealed support for President Donald Trump — and Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s ill-advised description of neoconservative ideologue Steve Bannon as a “Dharma Guru”— outraged many US democrats, many otherwise supportive of India. Poor diplomacy has succeeded in transforming friends into enemies.
Though disputes like these aren’t catastrophic, the writing on the wall is hard to miss: Eleven years after the hot-pink romance that flowered with the signing of the India-US nuclear deal, Nixon’s glowering pessimism is again taking hold in Washington.
But the issues in the relationship go far deeper. First up, Indian interests aren’t as neatly aligned with the United States as some imagine. The Phase 1 trade deal signed by the US and China last week commits Beijing to import an additional $200 billion of American goods and services over two years. US exports to China added up to $188 billion in 2017, and Phase 1 effectively doubles that number.
US-China trade deal impact
This is good news for Washington — but not great for New Delhi, whose own hopes of increasing exports to China will be directly hit. The deal makes clear that the US, like all nation-states, will look after its own interests first.
India has long hoped to ride on the back of the United States’ need to contain Chinese power in Asia. In their 1972 negotiations, Nixon and Chou En-lai agreed both countries had agreed to eschew the pursuit of regional hegemony. As its wealth and power have grown, Beijing has sought to expand its geopolitical influence. India has bumped up against an increasingly powerful China in the Himalayas — and is being increasingly challenged in the Indian Ocean.
However, it’s far from clear what President Trump is willing to commit to the cause of containment. Trump’s spats with South Korea and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation make it clear he believes US allies shouldn’t expect its support for free. His interest, like that of Nixon, is to arrive at a workable arrangement to share power with China — not to protect India’s interests.
The US, similarly, has interests in Pakistan that aren’t the same as those of India. The US is seeking a peace deal with the Taliban that would let President Trump bring troops home. That needs the support of the Pakistan Army, which in turn expects payback for its assistance.
Washington will pressure Pakistan to rein in terrorists, knowing their activities could precipitate a regional crisis. It isn’t necessarily going to bat for India, though, in the event of future crisis in Kashmir.
Relationship is transactional
Patronage comes with costs. Ending oil imports from Iran and Venezuela to comply with US sanctions — sanctions India believes are profoundly misplaced — has increased India’s energy bills. It has also undermined India’s pursuit of a strategic relationship with Iran. India, similarly, needs the Russian-made S-400 Triumf air-defence system to ensure a credible deterrent against Pakistan. However, that purchase risks being hit with US sanctions intended to punish Russia.
Washington, of course, also has its frustrations: Principal among them is India’s apparent unwillingness to share the costs of membership in a regional security umbrella, though it wants the benefits.
President Trump’s caustic remarks on India’s role in Afghanistan — chiding Prime Minister Modi for “constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan”— reflect a wider irritation over India’s unwillingness to commit resources in conflicts from the war against the Islamic State to Afghanistan.
For all the pablum in the India-US 2+2 joint statement about “shared values of freedom, justice, human rights and commitment to the rule of law”, both sides know their relationship is transactional. “There is a quid-pro-quo in international relations,” US political leader Tom Lantos argued in 2005. “And if our Indian friends are interested in receiving all the benefits of US support, we have every right to expect that India will reciprocate”. That’s obviously true of India, too.
At its core, the US-India strategic partnership rested on the bet that India would continue on the path of growth, becoming more prosperous and militarily capable. That vision of the future seems increasingly improbable. In Washington, many are wondering if India is, instead, fated to be a country with an anaemic economy, scarred by mass violence and internet shutdowns.
For more than a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, New Delhi had to engage with a dangerous world alone. Through the 1990s, as the insurgency in Kashmir escalated and the country battled economic crisis, its options were severely limited. The India-US strategic relationship mitigated those risks, enabling resolute foreign policies and security strategies.
Even the best-executed foreign policy can’t fix the Indian government’s failure to grow the economy, manage civil tensions and modernise its military. New Delhi needs to get its act in order — or risks having to negotiate the dark alleyways of our dangerous world alone.
First Published: IST