Twists and Turns in India-US Relations

Twists and Turns in India-US Relations

T P Sreenivasan

T P Sreenivasan

We are only too familiar with the ups and downs in India-US relations. After the dark period of the Cold War and the realignments after 1992, they went up in 1997, when President Bill Clinton commissioned a study on why the two democracies were estranged, down when India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, up when Clinton visited India and PM Vajpayee visited the US, further up with the nuclear deal in 2008, down when President Barack Obama came to India in 2010 and found that he could not get nuclear and fighter aircraft contracts, further down with the Khobragade incident, up with PM Narendra Modi’s visit to the US, further up with the understanding on Indo-Pacific in 2015 and new defence agreements in 2016 and down after the advent of President Donald Trump. Most recently, there was a downward trend with issues like trade, Iran and Russia, but things looked up again after the Osaka meeting of the two leaders. The developments in the US Senate indicate that things are moving towards declaration of India as a near NATO ally of the US.

With these rapid twists and turns, the relationship is only a tweet away from high or low and there is no guarantee that the two democracies will move from engagement to embrace. But there is a clear transformation in the tone and tenor of the conversation in the sense that both sides state their position clearly, but expect that the issues, however intractable, can be resolved. The total silence that prevailed in 1998 and the bad blood in 2013 at the time of the Khobragade fiasco are not likely to resurface again. The relations may well reach a plateau, without the aberrations of the past

The highly publicised news that the US Congress is well on its way to upgrade India to a status on par with America’s NATO allies is nothing but a delayed formalisation of the designation of India as a “Major Defence Partner” during the Presidency of Barack Obama in 2016. The timing of the approval of a resolution by the Senate gave the impression that there was a sudden change of heart by the US to turn a combatant in a minor trade war into a near NATO ally. Many jumped to the conclusion that the old cliché that India -US relations were like a roller coaster had been proved right once again.

This is a phenomenon special to the US, when the Congress is engaged in policy making quite independent of the executive. The President may have been unaware that even when he was pressurising India to fall in line on trade, Iran and Russia, the Senate was moving in the direction of giving India the status of a NATO ally. The US had conferred the status of a “Non-NATO ally” to Pakistan some years ago, when India was only a strategic partner. Pakistan has fallen by the wayside and no one remembers that it had a special status.

What really happened was, as part of the National Defence Authorisation Act for the fiscal year 2020, an amendment appended by Senate India Caucus Co-Chairs Senator John Cornyn and Senator Mark Warner to the NDAA provides for, among other things, increased US-India defence cooperation in the Indian Ocean in the areas of maritime security, counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and humanitarian assistance. The amendment would also require the Secretary of Defence to submit, within 180 days of its enactment, a report to Congress on US-India defence cooperation and to conduct regular joint military activities with India in the Western Indian Ocean.

The US House of Representatives will be processing a similar amendment introduced by lawmakers in the India Caucus in the House like Joe Wilson, Brad Sherman, Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi and others, and once the House passes it, the two chambers will send a reconciled version to the President for his signature, upon which it becomes law. The new designation of India will also smoothen the passage of sales to India of high–end US military hardware with New Delhi signing foundational compatibility, logistical, and security and secrecy agreements required by Washington for such transactions. India has already signed two of these agreements, which the previous Governments of India had hesitated to sign.

In fact, the necessary formalities to make India a “Major Defence Partner” were already completed by the Obama Administration in 2016, when PM Modi spoke of a new symphony in India-US relations. The US has already given India Strategic Trade Authorization-1 status, a move that facilitates the exchange of high technology and strengthens defence collaboration, and also designated India as a “Major defence Partner.” At that time, it was laid down that India would have the same access to high technology as America’s NATO allies had. In other words, there is nothing dramatically new in the Senate proposal. The fact that it came soon after the contentious discussion in Delhi and Osaka gave a false impression about its intent.

It must be realised that the developments in the Congress are often the games that lobbyists play on the Capitol Hill. India, like many other countries, has highly paid lobbyists on the Capitol, who constantly influence Congressmen to take the lead in producing resolutions friendly to India. This was started at the time of Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao under the advice of the then Ambassador Siddhartha Shankar Ray. The number of lobbyists and their payments increased dramatically after the nuclear tests of 1998 and they would suggest a hundred ways to promote our interests on the Hill through their contacts. In fact, the caucuses in the Senate and the Congress, which have been active in this and other cases like the nuclear deal were created by the Embassy through the help of the Indian American community and the lobbyists. They played a role in neutralising the infamous Burton Amendment, which sought to reduce American assistance to India on account of human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan also spends substantial sums on the lobbyists and they try to neutralise our efforts on the Hill. Some in Washington believe that the Indian and Pakistan lobbyists cancel each other out. But India has an edge over Pakistan as it gets the support of the Jewish lobby and the Dalai Lama lobby in the US on certain issues.

The lobbyists on the Indian side as well as lobbyists of American arms suppliers started the process of upgrading India’s status soon after India became a Major Defence Partner, but could not succeed and it had made news then that the executive decision was not going to be approved by the Congress. The elections and the uncertainties of the Trump administration may have delayed the whole process so far.

The motivation of the Senators and Congressmen in pushing for the new status of India is clear enough. The China haters among them believe that India should be built up as a counter to China and wish to sell more American weapons to India. The anti-Russian lobby naturally want to end Indian dependence on Russian supplies, which cannot be wished away, as External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar told Secretary of State mike Pompei in New Delhi.

We do not know yet the nature of the resolution that the House will present and what the final submission made to the President will look like. The new status does not automatically result in a mutual defence pact, but it will give several advantages to India in terms of access to technology and weapons systems. Since India already has such facilities already, the President may not be averse to the legislation. But its impact will be marginal and, as in the case of Pakistan, it may well be forgotten in a different set of circumstances.

On the other hand, if the current trend leads to too tight an embrace with the United States, the situation may well go back to the one in 2016, when Russia and China began taking counter measures, which led to the resetting of our relations with China and Russia in Wuhan and Sochi respectively.