February 26, 2020

The Resilience of India-U.S. Relations


The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on February 26, 2020. 

As Donald Trump left India after his maiden visit as United States (US) president, what are we to make of the two-day spectacle? His trip was only the eighth by a serving US president, but he was also the fourth consecutive president to visit. The increased frequency of presidential travel to India captures the growing importance of the country for the US, and highlights the continued investments in the bilateral relationship by successive leaders: Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, and Narendra Modi in India; Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump in the US.

The Trump visit differed from previous ones in several ways, most notably in featuring a major stadium event in Gujarat on Monday. The fact that Trump stayed on script while speaking to an audience of over one lakh, much as he had at the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston last year, was a further departure from the controversy that often accompanies the US president in his international engagements. He struck many of the right notes with his hosts: “America loves India — America respects India — and Americans will always be true and loyal friends to the Indian people,” he said. Trump drew contrasts with another large Asian country: “There’s all the difference in the world between a country that seeks to claim power through coercion, intimidation, aggression and a country that seeks to grow by setting its people free and unleashing their dreams, and that’s India.” Although he mentioned that his administration was “working with Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist organisations and militants that operate on the Pakistani border,” he also expressed hope for “reduced tensions” and “greater stability” in South Asia.

The symbolism, ceremony, rapport between leaders, and political significance naturally received the most attention. Trump arrived in India in an election year, keen to project images of himself addressing large and supportive crowds overseas. He hoped also to appeal to Indian-Americans, who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party. In India too, the visit assumed a political significance, given that public opinion surveys consistently reflect positive Indian attitudes to the US.

But this was also an opportunity to consolidate what is now a substantively richer relationship. The India-US security partnership witnessed another arms purchase, bringing to seven the number of US military platforms that will feature in India’s arsenal, many with components manufactured or assembled in India. Additionally, the signing of three significant defence cooperation agreements; upgraded bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral dialogues; and regularised military exercises involving all three services have solidified the defence relationship over the past few years. Coordination on connectivity infrastructure, maritime security, counterterrorism, and cyber security have all increased. Multilateral cooperation, notably at the United Nations Security Council, has improved, as demonstrated after last year’s terrorist attack at Pulwama.

On the economic side, two-way trade in goods and services has increased; India is now the US’ eighth-largest trade partner and the US is India’s largest. Energy trade, in particular, has taken off. The number of Indian students in the US and the number of US companies active in India have both grown. For most US-based tech giants, India is now one of their top three customer bases. Indian companies are investing heavily in the US, as Indian CEOs highlighted to Trump. Meanwhile, Indians have established the largest number of billion-dollar start-up companies in the US founded by immigrants.

Differences remain, as between any two countries. But attempts have been made over the past year to reach accommodations. Worries over possible US sanctions against India related to the purchase of Russian defence equipment have diminished following complications arising from Turkey’s acquisition of similar equipment. The consequences of heightened US tensions with Iran have been managed, with India given time and space to diversify its energy supplies while receiving a waiver from US sanctions for the port project in Chabahar. Many major trade differences have been bridged, including on agriculture and health care, although new points of friction have arisen related to digital payments, data localisation, and e-commerce. On Afghanistan, India has been supportive of efforts to improve coordination between the Trump administration and the government in Kabul as both negotiate with the Taliban. With respect to Pakistan, which has experienced a decline in US military assistance, developments at the Financial Action Task Force suggest new alignments.

Whether or not Trump pulls off a re-election in November, these combined gains on both the positive and negative sides of the ledger are what India and the US can build upon or consolidate. A priority moving forward will involve finalising a trade agreement that brings an end to the application of further tariffs and open-ended commercial disputes. Breakthroughs in defence research and development and resolving immigration irritants will also remain high on the agenda, as will addressing differences over Russia and improving the regulatory environment for US businesses in India. The India-US relationship has proved resilient amid the immense changes underway in international politics. The greatest significance of Donald Trump’s visit as president is the indication that this broad trajectory is likely to continue, even under circumstances that would once have been considered highly unlikely.

February 7, 2020

The Political Context of Donald Trump’s India Visit


The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on February 7, 2020. 

Nine months is a long time in politics. But with the next United States (US) presidential election coming up in November, Donald Trump is feeling ascendant. Within 72 hours this week, several developments took place that further improve his prospects for re-election.

On Monday, when the state of Iowa held the first vote to select the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, the process was dogged by controversy. The Iowa Caucuses — comprising local meetings to select representatives supporting individual candidates — hit a technical snag, meaning that results were delayed. As the confirmed results trickled in, it appeared that Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of a small town in Indiana, had won the most delegates, even though veteran Senator Bernie Sanders may have won the most votes. With Buttigieg and Sanders representing two wings of the party, the Democrats leave Iowa more fractured than ever. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ organisation in at least one pivotal state appeared woefully incompetent.

 On Tuesday, Trump delivered his annual State of the Union address to the US Congress. This occasion not only saw him extolling his various accomplishments, but was marked by political theatre reminiscent of the president’s prior career as reality television show personality. Rightwing radio commentator Rush Limbaugh was presented with one of the US’ highest civilian honours. An enlisted military officer deployed in Afghanistan was reunited with his family. Democrats refused to applaud, several boycotted the address, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore up the text of Trump’s speech sitting right behind him. It was a moment of triumphalism for Trump in a house bitterly divided.

On Wednesday, the US Senate voted to acquit Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of the Congress, both related to his linking military assistance to Ukraine with domestic US political objectives. While the acquittal was along predictable party lines, Senator Mitt Romney, himself a former Republican nominee for president, voted with Democrats to remove Trump from office. Romney’s surprise decision mitigated what might have otherwise been another unambiguous victory for Trump.

These developments have occurred just as Trump’s popularity has enhanced. The overall US economy and employment remain strong, with one recent estimate suggesting the largest private sector job growth in four-and-a-half years. On foreign policy, Trump’s escalation with Iran burnished his standing following the assassination by the US of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and the accidental downing by Iran of a civilian airliner. On trade, Trump has recently concluded a “Phase One” deal with China, and successfully renegotiated a US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA) on more favourable terms. His tax cuts have found favour with middle-class constituents, his judicial appointments have pleased Christian conservatives, and his trade policies have appealed to certain business interests and trade unions. This creates a strong base upon which he will now seek re-election.

It is amid this context that Trump may be headed to India. The White House has yet to confirm Trump’s expected visit this month, although preparations have begun in earnest. The US is seeking to conclude a modest bilateral deal with India that will bring an end to almost three years of trade hostilities. But the president’s top trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer — buoyant from concluding tough negotiations with China, Japan, Canada, and Mexico — appears eager to drive a hard bargain and not let India off the hook easily. A significant defence sale is another item awaiting conclusion. Trump also thrives on big crowds, which he hopes will await him in India. While these items remain at the top of the US president’s priorities, given their political value, his government is seeking other deliverables, including cooperation in third countries as part of the US and India’s Indo-Pacific convergence. Several other US officials are expected to visit India later in the year to follow up substantively on various aspects of India policy.

If Trump comes to India riding high, it will be important to recall a few points. First, US elections are always competitive affairs and opinion can change dramatically in a matter of months, as it happened in 2008 and again in 2016. That being said, US presidential elections tend to favour incumbent presidents (only four have lost in the past century). Much will depend upon the state of the US economy.

Second, Trump’s India visit will not be a partisan affair, even if the president chooses to portray it as such. After all, the Indian government invited his predecessor Barack Obama, a Democrat, as chief guest of Republic Day in 2015. Efforts will continue to be made to engage Democrats, despite their internal divisions, including presidential candidates and members of the US Congress.

Finally, while Trump will highlight the aspects of engagement with India that serve his political interests, the real significance for India will be at a more mundane level. The wide gulfs that existed between New Delhi and Washington on trade, Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan have been mended over the past six months, while cooperation on security and terrorism has continued apace. Trump’s theatrics are not a sideshow, for they have real implications. But neither should they constitute the most important story in India-US relations from New Delhi’s vantage point.

January 13, 2020

India-Australia Ties Have Evolved. Build on Them Now


The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on January 13, 2020.

The scheduled visit to India by Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison was understandably postponed amid the catastrophic wildfires in his home country. But when it does take place, the next India-Australia summit will be an important occasion to consolidate relations between the two countries. It is fashionable to characterise the India-Australia relationship as one of perpetually unfulfilled promises. But, for perhaps the first time since 1947, India and Australia have an opportunity to develop a bilateral relationship free from major irritants.

Historically, India-Australia relations suffered from at least four deep structural impediments. The first was the logic of the Cold War, during which Australia decided to be among Britain and the United States’ closest allies, while India initially opted for non-alignment. This led to a number of disagreements and misunderstandings. As India achieved Independence, for example, Australian leaders advocated to their British counterparts that the strategically important Andaman and Nicobar Islands be retained by the empire.

More challenging was the Pakistan factor. Australian attempts at mediation between India and Pakistan in the 1940s and 1950s were rebuffed by New Delhi. Over time, Cold War imperatives meant that Canberra opted for closer relations with Pakistan — a member of the early Anglo-American alliances — rather than India. Repeated efforts by successive Australian high commissioners to India to alter the balance in New Delhi’s favour fell upon deaf ears in headquarters. Nevertheless, the two countries did work in these early years to establish diplomatic relations, cooperate in the Commonwealth, and engage in military officer exchanges.

The second complicating factor was India’s nuclear status outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This resulted in Australia taking a particularly strong stance against India’s 1998 nuclear tests, which came soon after French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. However, the 2008 waiver granted to India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the subsequent lifting by Australia of its uranium ban against NPT non-signatories, and a bilateral civil nuclear agreement in 2014-2015 largely addressed the matter.

Third, the relationship historically suffered from a lack of economic content. This has changed. India is today the fifth-largest export destination for Australia, and Australia is a top 20 trade partner for India. Yet, even as merchandise trade remains below potential, trade in services has grown significantly, whether in education, information and communication technologies, or tourism. A recent Australian government-commissioned India Economic Strategy identified several sectors as worthy of priority in pushing forward the bilateral economic relationship.

Fourth, the relationship was previously held back by an absence of people-to-people content. Although the backdrop to this was the “White Australia” policy, which discouraged immigration from Asia, differences played out in policy matters such as the contrasting approaches of the two countries to apartheid-era South Africa. In recent years, however, Indian immigrants have been among the largest contributors to Australia’s population growth. In addition to the massive influx of Indian students, Indian tourists are also visiting Australia in larger numbers.

The end of the Cold War, India’s nuclear mainstreaming, Australia’s demographic diversification, and a growth in economic ties have today altered the reality of the India-Australia relationship. These factors certainly still cast a shadow, but they have been sidelined by new drivers of cooperation. These include China’s assertiveness and economic profile, shared concerns about Southeast Asian cohesion, and anxieties about the United States’ strategic commitment to the Indo-Pacific.

On the strategic side, India-Australia relations have experienced a major upswing. This is evident in a growing number of military exercises involving all three services, as well as staff talks and military training initiatives. In 2019, the countries took part in large-scale anti-submarine warfare exercises in the Bay of Bengal.

The establishment of a bilateral 2+2 dialogue (involving senior foreign and defence ministry officials) and trilateral dialogues with Japan and Indonesia represent more heft and purpose in strategic coordination. The resuscitation in 2017 and elevation this year of the quadrilateral security dialogue (also involving the United States and Japan) has obviously captured the most attention. Although the two countries will continue to have different capabilities, priorities, and strategic circumstances — which are natural — attempts at improving maritime domain awareness, enhancing interoperability (such as through a mutual logistics support agreement), and identifying areas of defence technological cooperation represent probable next steps.

On the economic side, expectations must be kept modest even if the trajectory remains mostly positive. For Australia, a resource-rich and highly-developed economy, foreign affairs has often been equated with trade. Efforts at casting India as the “next China” are bound to disappoint, if for no other reason than the very different natures of the Chinese and Indian economies. Instead, areas of obvious convergence — as on energy and services — still have room for further growth.

It is important to recognise the considerable distance that India-Australia relations have had to come, and the efforts made by successive governments in both countries since 2000 to redress past difficulties. In this light, the next India-Australia summit promises to be an important milestone.

December 17, 2019

Geopolitics is Shifting. India Must Be Prepared


The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on December 17, 2019. 

Two ongoing geopolitical developments are altering strategic assessments in national capitals the world over. The first is the growing demonstration of international power by the People’s Republic of China. Recent signs of Beijing’s intent include the detention last year of two Canadian citizens in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a prominent Chinese businesswoman, continued incursions by China’s armed forces of Japanese airspace and exclusive waters, the further militarisation of the South China Sea, revelations of considerable Chinese political influence in Australia and central Europe, and ultimatums to sections of the United States (US) private sector.

The second development involves uncertainty surrounding future US military commitments to Europe, the western Pacific, and the Persian Gulf. These are regions where the US has traditionally exercised military dominance, at least since the end of the Cold War. This uncertainty did not begin under Donald Trump’s presidency, but his election and subsequent positions have exacerbated it. Judging by the rhetoric of some of his possible challengers in the Democratic Party, and the positions of many in the US Congress, open questions about the US’ global military posture could very well extend beyond Trump’s tenure.

The responses among many traditional US allies and partners to these twin trends — a more assertive China and a more uncertain US — have been varied. Some, such as Shinzo Abe’s Japan, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, Boris Johnson’s Britain, and Tsai Ing-Wen’s Taiwan, have sought to recommit to their relationships with Washington, although leadership changes in their countries could alter subsequent calculations. But even these staunch US partners have sought degrees of flexibility, whether the UK on 5G telecommunications, Japan on the Belt and Road Initiative, or Israel on Chinese port investments. Others, such as Australia, have witnessed a more robust debate on the country’s strategic choices in the public sphere, even if little has yet changed of consequence when it comes to the US alliance.

A second approach has essentially involved a policy paralysis — or hope that the associated challenges will dissipate on their own. For example, South Korean business leaders still speak in dire terms about the consequences of a punitive boycott of their companies by China, which followed the introduction of a ballistic missile defence system in 2017. But they generally conclude that it is best to lower tensions with Beijing. Additionally, the deterioration of relations between South Korea and Japan — the US’ closest military ally in Asia — may further contribute to Seoul’s recalibration.

Many of the countries of Southeast Asia are adopting a similar posture. Despite growing criticism at home over his China policy, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has continued accommodating Beijing, placing the onus on the US to resist further Chinese encroachment in his country’s waters. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong’s keynote speech at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue signaled a more equivocating approach between Washington and Beijing. Even in Vietnam, where China remains very unpopular, the leadership is relying on others to come to their country’s assistance on territorial disputes. The somewhat tired refrain of “don’t ask us to choose” is a common mantra in Southeast Asia, one that overlooks the fact that not making choices is itself a choice.

Perhaps more strikingly, there are those countries who have responded to these new developments by calling for an entirely autonomous approach. Most notable among these is France. President Emmanuel Macron recently gave a candid interview to The Economist, in which he called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — the anchor of US security policy in Europe — “brain dead”. In Macron’s view, it appears, Russia is no longer the challenge to Europe that it once was, and European security resources must be redirected southwards, including towards potential sources of terrorism. At the same time, France’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy, its scepticism of the Belt and Road Initiative, and its outreach to various regional partners indicate that Macron —perhaps more than most European leaders — appreciates the implications of China’s rise.

We are, therefore, in a world today in which Australian academics openly talk of a Plan B to the US alliance, Southeast Asian leaders speak of not wanting to be forced to make choices, and French leaders expound more and more on strategic autonomy. What had for decades been the vocabulary of Indian strategic elites — resulting in condescension by Southeast Asians, Europeans, and Americans — has apparently become the new normal.

For their part, the emerging poles of Washington and Beijing have themselves struggled to appreciate the consequences of their behaviour. Privately, some Chinese strategic thinkers worry that their leadership has moved too fast, and too soon, in demonstrating national intent. Perhaps more hide and bide was in order. Meanwhile, in Washington, many members of the policy community outside government still struggle to conceive of a world beyond NATO and US hub-and-spoke alliances in Asia.

What does all this mean for New Delhi? Smugness or complacency would be the wrong response. Rather, continued efforts at looking beyond immediate horizons will be required to anticipate further changes to the global strategic landscape.

November 12, 2019

Will Trump's Foreign Policy Outlive His Term?



The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on November 12, 2019. 

It is now less than one year before the next United States (US) presidential election in 2020. Whether or not Donald Trump wins a second four-year term or loses to a Democratic challenger, a major question confronting the rest of the world — including India — is to what degree Trump’s foreign policies will outlive his presidency.

Assessing Trump’s foreign policy is inherently challenging. The high noise-to-signal ratio in his public pronouncements — whether in interviews, in rallies, or on Twitter — has a distortive effect. But so do personal grievances and intense political polarisation. Members of the US foreign policy firmament — those who traditionally interpreted the US for the rest of the world — are no longer impartial actors, and are often viscerally and emotionally opposed to Trump (Republicans sometimes more than Democrats). It is little surprise then that both US allies such as Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, and South Korea and adversaries such as China have often fundamentally misread the current presidency.

But enough time has now elapsed to discern the broad contours of a Trump doctrine. It includes at least three key features. The first is a deep scepticism of multilateralism and a consequent emphasis on burden-sharing; the belief that other countries must do more to secure global public goods. Trump’s unilateralism is manifested in the US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paris Climate Agreement, and Iran nuclear deal. His strident calls for burden-sharing have jarred NATO allies, but have also extended to exhortations to India and others to do more to stabilise Afghanistan and secure the Persian Gulf.

A second key feature of Trump’s foreign policy has involved bringing adversarial relationships into sharper focus. The four key competitors regularly identified in US national security documents are China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. While relations with the former two have become more hostile, Trump has made unsuccessful efforts to engage the latter two. An outreach to Moscow has been stymied by Russian political interference, domestic polarisation, and the orthodoxies of the US national security establishment.

Amid such heightened competition, Trump has adopted a somewhat paradoxical approach to the use of force. On the one hand, he is eager to bring an end to long-term US military obligations — so-called “endless wars” — in Syria and Afghanistan, although he has often been frustrated by his advisers. At the same time, Trump has been more willing to use force to achieve limited political objectives. This includes authorising the provision of lethal weaponry to Ukraine, more frequent freedom of navigation operations by the US Navy in the South China Sea, the use of the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal to strike Islamic State terrorists in Afghanistan, and the recent operation to kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The third major pillar of the Trump doctrine involves resetting the terms of economic engagement with the rest of the world. The ongoing trade war with China may not yet have produced a deal with Beijing, but the new attitude to trade has resulted in an updated North American free trade agreement: the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). In the absence of immigration reform, the Trump administration has also implemented a hard (and often brutal) crackdown on illegal immigration and a more stringent enforcement of legal migration.

Some of these changes will be seen in hindsight as aberrations, but others will fundamentally alter US engagement with the world. No Democratic presidential candidate today can throw his or her full support behind free trade, open-ended military expeditions, or a disproportionately large role for the US in international security. In that sense, the unilateral moment in international politics may be well and truly over.

At the same time, a more competitive, and possibly adversarial, footing with China enjoys considerable bipartisan consensus, coloured by the Hong Kong protests, large-scale incarcerations in Xinjiang, and self-censorship on China by US companies (including the National Basketball Association). Antagonism towards Russia is also deeply entrenched in US politics, meaning that the strategic logic that once prompted the Nixon Administration to reach out to Beijing to cleave a wedge with Moscow will be difficult to replicate (although this time in reverse).

It is consequently hard to envision another Republican president in the near future promoting very different policies from Trump. The changes would be more to style than to substance. By contrast, progressive Democrats’ drive for a “Green New Deal”, their condemnation of Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen, and sharpening identity politics suggest that a Democratic president would likely adopt very different approaches to climate change, Iran, and immigration.

Trump may, consequently, be seen in hindsight as having fundamentally altered US trade, security, and Asia policy, even if his imprint on immigration, climate change, and West Asia may prove more ephemeral. These dynamics will be important for the rest of the world — and not least observers in India — to appreciate. For New Delhi, any structural changes in US foreign policy will create certain long-term opportunities, including for military cooperation with the US. But they may also contribute to a vacuum that — at least in its broader neighbourhood — India will have little choice but to fill.