Growing challenges

Indo-US ties

Recent years have witnessed India and the US building stronger bilateral ties. Many of America’s principal external challenges, such as terrorism, violent extremism, energy security, Afghanistan, and China are also the ones India faces. There seems to be a consensus that many of these challenges can be effectively addressed through enhanced engagement and cooperation between the two countries even as, broadly speaking, the US seems favourable to India’s desire to formulate an ‘independent’ foreign policy.

There are increased military ties between New Delhi and Washington. In 2016, the Modi government signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US to deepen bilateral military cooperation, especially between the two navies.

In September 2018, the two countries signed another ‘foundational’ defence agreement — the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) — at the inaugural 2+2 dialogue between their respective foreign and defence ministers. COMCASA is aimed at allowing for the transfer of highly specialised equipment for encrypted communications from the US to India.

India has recently become only the third Asian country, after Japan and South Korea, to get the US Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status. Generally, this status is granted to those countries who are also members of the four export control regimes: the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Wassenaar Arrangement, Australia Group and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). India is not yet a member of NSG.

The ‘Cope India’ exercise between the Indian and US air forces was held after a gap of eight years, with the last one having taken place in 2010. The US has already designated India a ‘Major Defence Partner’, intending to elevate defence trade and technology-sharing with India. India’s defence minister recently visited the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii to review military-to-military relations and review preparations for the first-ever India-US tri-service military exercise off the Bay of Bengal in May-June 2019.

India, the US, Japan and Australia are doing their best to define the nature and scope of their strategic engagement as China’s rapid rise has posed a huge challenge to the rules-based international order. There has been speculation that nothing substantial has occurred on the Quadrilateral or Quad front. However, the four Quad countries are continuing with their engagement, as reflected in their third meeting at the joint secretary-level in Singapore in November.

During the “JAI’ (Japan, America and India) trilateral, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he underlined India’s commitment to make the Indo-Pacific a region for shared economic growth, prosperity and security.

There are several tricky issues as well that could potentially derail the booming partnership. America’s stringent visa policy for Indian students and professionals is a problem that needs to be addressed. Although less influential, Russia retains some ability to play spoiler on Indo-US ties. Still the largest supplier of military hardware to India, Russia is likely to offer subsidised and sophisticated military equipment to continue to keep America’s defence industry out of India.

Another huge challenge has arisen in the form of the looming exit of US troops from Afghanistan, which is far from being stabilised. There is emerging a broad agreement between the US and Pakistan over a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan. Pakistan is taking credit for arranging direct talks between the Trump administration and the Afghan Taliban.

Washington’s renewed engagement with Islamabad on the issue of Afghanistan is likely to come at the expense of Indo-US ties. On the other hand, the entire negotiating process may be thrown in disarray by Trump’s recent announcement to withdraw half the US troops from Afghanistan. The fateful decision will have major repercussions for peace in Afghanistan and the neighbourhood.

Pakistan’s support

It has increasingly become clear that Trump is impatient to run his own Afghan strategy, which was announced in August 2017 when, despite his instincts for withdrawal, he had decided to commit more resources to the war efforts. With no improvement in sight, Trump has felt increasingly frustrated.

The primary reason for the Afghan Taliban’s resilience is the support it has been receiving uninterruptedly from Pakistan’s security establishment. Pakistan’s leverage in Afghanistan is set to grow with the exit of American troops, and India will need to be prepared for this eventuality. Sensing the US abandonment, the Kabul regime may also collapse, reviving the possibility of another prolonged civil war.

These are ominous signs for India, which must prevent any anti-India extremist group from taking over Afghanistan and maintain the developmental partnership with the Afghan government. India’s challenges are compounded by the fact that its views on the Afghan issue are at variance with other regional powers such as Russia and Iran.

Although Iran’s strategically-located Chabahar port has received a waiver from Washington for the moment, given the internal turmoil within the Trump administration it is impossible to predict how long these concessions would be sustained. India cannot afford to side with the US in strangulating the Iranian economy, which is based on oil and gas exports. Iran remains a major oil supplier and potential trade market for India.

The resignation of Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, who was one of the very few stabilising figures in a rather chaotic administration as well as a staunch supporter of strong Indo-US ties, has only added to the uncertainty regarding the direction of America’s engagement with India. In this respect, bureaucratic inertia should not be allowed to come in the way of the gains that India has made in its ties with the US. The focus must be on how to minimise the zone of divergence between the two countries.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University, Jodhpur)

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