An oft-used phrase these days in international relations is “rules-based international order”. Essentially, it means a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time, such as international law, regional security arrangements, trade agreements, immigration protocols, and cultural arrangements. Recently, however, the international rules-based order has come under severe threat. Until sometime ago the blame was squarely on China and its tendency to disregard conventional norms in pursuit of its international influence. But of late, a spate of disruptive American policies and announcements have also emerged as potent challenges to the international rules-based order. This is truly ironical as the US has had a big role to play in developing a rules-based international order after World War II. The withdrawal of the US from a number of international agreements such as on climate change,the Trans-Pacific partnership (TPP) and the Iran nuclear deal are just some of the examples to substantiate this point. Even as the US secretary of defence recently advocated for a rules-based order at Asia’s main security forum, Shangri-La, American bilateral conduct with specific countries like India continues to undermine that sentiment.
Take, for instance, the case for America’s Pacific Strategy, called the “Indo-Pacific”, which in a technical sense is a means to maintain a rules-based order through a mechanism of shared responsibilities. The articulation of Indo-Pacific over Asia-Pacific by the US until recently seemed to indicate a certain importance accorded to India in this pursuit. Policy pundits believed that this further cemented the Indo-US relationship which has been incrementally building over the years. It may help to recall that even in the Obama administration’s last days India was high on the US foreign policy priority list. America’s recognition of India as a “major defence partner” towards the end of Obama tenure is a testimony of this fact. Fast forward to the last few weeks and we witness sudden signs of friction between the two countries. This is evident from the second consecutive cancellation of the 2+2 dialogue — the simultaneous ministerial dialogue on foreign and defence affairs between India and the US.
While no specific reason was adduced, the announcement came on a day when India announced retaliatory tariffs against certain US products as a response to the Trump administration’s move to unilaterally hike duties on steel and aluminium. Cancellation of the dialogue could have been also precipitated in the wake of US and India not seeing eye to eye on Iran and Russia — the two countries that the US wants India to scale down its relationship with. What this saga indicates is that the US takes a transactional approach towards India while the need is to develop a long-term holistic and trust-based relationship to ensure that the two countries continue a partnership to preserve the rules-based international order and reap economic benefits in the process.
For instance, there is a huge case for India and the US to come together on defence trade. India needs to buy $150 billion worth of new arms over the next 10 to 15 years and US businesses, such as Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics, can definitely partake in this opportunity. Opportunities are seamless even in non-defence trade and other strategic areas like energy cooperation. However, recent US conduct towards India does not behove well for this friendship. It appears that India is being forced to define its strategic needs based on who it is allowed to trade with rather than making its own sovereign choice. Domestic American legislation like countering America’s adversaries through sanctions (CAATSA) are examples of instruments that impinge upon India’s sovereign and strategic decisions. In the interest of partnership with India, the US will do well to observe two crucial things. First, India’s raising of tariffs is a rare occurrence since India began the process of liberalisation. This implies that “retaliation” in bilateral trade was not of India’s choosing.
Second, India is also keenly expanding its diplomatic ties deftly with other major powers. India-China relations after the standoff at Doklam are again on the upswing. The speed with which India and China have struck a conciliatory note is phenomenal. Also impressive is the decisiveness on India’s part to have refused Australia from participating in the Malabar naval exercise along with Japan and the US. It is clear from these examples that there is really no Indo-Pacific without India. What this new stance also indicates is that India is not only positing itself neutrally but is actively seeking greater collaboration on economic, security and political fronts with other countries as well. Keeping its options open with other major powers gives India a better bargaining chip and therefore as regards the Indo-Pacific, the US needs to see India as a pivot that can facilitate amicable relations between the West and the East rather than as a member of any one club. Revival of 2+2 dialogue by the US without any preconditions should therefore be high on the agenda. Failing to do so may only further vitiate the rapport between the two countries.