Opinion Op Ed 22 Jun 2019 India and US: Can th ...
The writer is a former ambassador

India and US: Can the ‘natural allies’ now dance?

Published Jun 22, 2019, 4:27 am IST
Updated Jun 23, 2019, 12:21 am IST
Yes, India’s import duties on several US products are high, but the way in which Mr Trump seeks to set them right seem ill-advised.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump  (Photo: PTI )
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump (Photo: PTI )

Calling each other “natural allies” and “strategic partners” isn’t enough — the partners must also live the idea in letter and spirit. The United States and India should show the maturity to discuss all issues across the table frankly, dispassionately and fairly in a give-and-take manner, making an effort to reach a mutually acceptable solution. As former US President Barack Obama had said at a conference in New Delhi in December 2017: “Conducting international relations with sovereign states is too serious a business to be attempted through the 160 or 250 characters of a tweet! Let these be addressed by professional diplomats through quiet diplomacy, away from the arc lights of 24x7 TV channels.”

A week back, America’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo had said: “Modi Hai to Mumkin Hai!” In the context of US-India relations, Mr Pompeo — who will be on a three-day visit to India next week — seemed to suggest that progress in ties was possible with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm in India. I wish we could say the same about President Donald Trump! He can publicly call Mr Modi a dear friend and claim to like him, and also mock him about only a 50 per cent cut in import duties on American Harley-Davidson motorbikes and trash India as the “tariff king”. Yes, India’s import duties on several US products are high, but the way in which Mr Trump seeks to set them right seem ill-advised. His tweets and irreverent remarks in public may please his supporters but they magnify the problems manifold and give them the colour of an open quarrel. They also put pressure on the Indian leadership, which has its own constituencies, and can’t afford to be seen to buckle under pressure from Washington. This is especially true about Mr Modi, who has won a thumping majority for his party in the recent general election and has built a formidable reputation of being a strong and resolute leader who will protect India’s national interests at any cost.


Mr Trump, who claims to be the best “dealmaker” in the world, should realise what Mr Modi always says — that the best deal is the one in which both sides can claim to be the winner! The problems seen in India-US ties aren’t insurmountable. But they must be faced head on maturely and sensitively, keeping the broader strategic vision and overall India-US ties in mind, and not seen through the narrow prism of business deals. The constructive resolution of niggling problems will have a positive impact on the region and the world at large. Won’t it be a great day if people in the US and India could proudly say: “Trump Aur Modi Hein to Sab Kuchh Mumkin Hai”?

Contrary to public perceptions, the multi-layered and multi-dimensional India-US relations have never been better — they have been transformed beyond recognition. With bilateral trade in goods and services crossing $141 billion in 2018; US defence exports expanding hugely over the last seven years, over 300 joint military exercises, 50-plus bilateral missions covering every sphere from space research to monsoon prediction and from agriculture to education, over 1.2 lakh Indian students flocking to US universities, close cooperation in sharing information and fighting terrorism, collaboration in research, innovation and higher technologies, convergence on the vision for the “Indo-Pacific” region, the 2+2 strategic and commercial dialogue, frequent meetings between the US President and the Indian PM bilaterally as well as at regional and global summits and an active hotline — the sheer scale of India-US relations isn’t easy to comprehend. Besides, around three million successful, rich and influential Indian-Americans offer a significant link between India and the US.

Why not reduce the import duty on Harley-Davidson motorcycles that Mr Trump talks of so often? The number of Indians who relish American almonds and walnuts is much higher than those who use Harleys. Millions of Indians who use simple motorbikes daily to commute to their workplaces, universities/colleges won’t buy Harleys — it won’t flood the Indian market. We should reduce duties on as many products as possible except for the agricultural sector — farmers’ distress is a reality in India. A country that aspires to be a superpower shouldn’t excessively protect its industry against foreign competition. The wonders which foreign competition has done in the telecom and automobile sectors in India should be a clear lesson. Given the huge disparities in incomes, India can’t realistically decontrol prices of medical products like stents, knee caps and several generic drugs used by the masses.

We shouldn’t be begging for restoration of the GSP — India’s economy today isn’t the same as in 1975. We should rather explore the prospects of supplying those Chinese products which have become costlier thanks to the 25 per cent American tariffs — Wal-Mart alone imports Chinese goods worth $15 billion every year. Some American firms that are moving out their manufacturing plants from China can relocate them in India if we offer them an enabling environment: attractive, transparent and predictable tax laws, labour laws and land acquisition laws and ease of doing business.

While India’s intent to have better data protection laws is legitimate, its demands from foreign technology firms on data categorisation, data localisation and data storage should be in line with international norms.

Both countries have overcome the “hesitations of history”. India signed the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) and COMCASA (Communication, Compatibility Security Agreement) and is discussing BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement). On the other hand, the US has designated India as a major defence partner, and given it STA-1 (Strategic Trade Authorisation) status, which will give this country access to sophisticated technologies. Though India has still not joined the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers’ Group) thanks to China’s opposition, the US has helped it enter three other major groups — MTRC (Missile Technology Control Regime), the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) and the Australian Group (AG). These decisions reflect the degree of trust and confidence that the leaderships in the two countries now enjoy.

Among Americans, 74 per cent have a favourable impression of India. There is bipartisan support in the Senate and House of Representatives on closer relations with India. The recent move of Senators Mark Warner (Democrat) and John Cornyn (Republican) seeking an amendment in the US Arms Control Act to put India at par with America’s Nato allies for the sale of high-tech military items reflects this welcome trend.

Responsible partners are expected to respect each other’s red lines. Iranian oil is crucial for India’s energy security. Iran and India also have a lot to collaborate on in Chabahar port, the International North-South Corridor, in Afghanistan and access to the Central Asian republics. Similarly, the S-400 Russian air defence system is significant for India’s national security.

Closer relations with the US are indispensable for the realisation of Mr Modi’s vision of transforming India into a developed country. This also gives heft to India’s global ambitions. But should India lose its strategic autonomy and put all its eggs into one basket to meet its defence needs?

In the proxy war for global domination between the US and China, India sits pretty, waiting to be wooed by both. How India finally copes with Mr Trump’s poker player pressure will be a real test for new external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.