India-US Relationship: Pragmatic Cooperation the Way Ahead?

Before Trump’s Tweet Bomb, India & US agreed that they had differences which need to be managed pragmatically.

5 min read
India-US Relationship: Pragmatic Cooperation the Way Ahead?

If people expected some fireworks after the meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, they would have been disappointed. Though this was billed as some kind of a make or break meeting, it turned out to have a practical and sensible outcome.

Both sides agreed that they had differences and that they needed to work out ways of managing them. As Jaishankar noted, “great friends are bound to have differences.” But what marks the quality of the relationship, he added, was the ability of the two sides to deal with them.

There is every indication from the press briefing that the two sides have understood this.


Trade, Sanctions, H1B Visa & More

Perhaps the most ticklish issue was that of the Russian S-400 system which the US says India should not buy, threatening sanctions if we do so. But the other problems were no less daunting.

The US had ended trade concessions to India at the beginning of this month and in retaliation, India finally implemented tariffs it had been threatening to impose for the past year on 28 US items.

A third issue pertained to a decision India had already taken, to cut off oil purchases from Iran. There were also a clutch of other issues – the H1B visa, the issue of restrictions on e-commerce and caps on the prices of US-origin medical devices.

It is unlikely that the two sides would have resolved all their issues in the space of a single meeting between the two foreign ministers.

What was important, however, was the timing of the Pompeo-Jaishankar talks, just a couple of days before the meeting of their principals – President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet at the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka.

It is significant that the two leaders have not met each other for some 18 months. This is perhaps the major reason why so many problems accumulated and an impression gained ground that the US-India relationship was in trouble.

In this era of centralisation of power by leaders, such summits are important, because they are often the occasion of the resolution of many issues that appear intractable.

Below the level of principals, of course, there have been a number of meetings. The most prominent was the ‘2+2’ dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries last September.

While a number of practical issues and ongoing cooperation moved up a couple of notches, the substantive ones were not taken up.

Significantly, there is no formal dialogue at the ministerial level on trade and it is not surprising that trade issues are the ones that seem to have gained salience in recent times.


In fact, perhaps the time has come when the ‘2+2’ should become a ‘3+3’ with the addition of the commerce ministers.

It is unlikely that the two sides will be gauche enough to put out any sharp differences that emerged in the talks. In any case, whatever Pompeo and Jaishankar discussed would be subject to approval or veto by their principals who will now meet in Osaka.

‘India to Be Guided By Its Own Interest’

It is significant that Jaishankar noted that India would be guided by its own interests when it comes to purchasing defence systems from Russia.

“We have relationships with several countries, many of which are of some standing. They have a history. We will do what is in our national interest,” he said.

His remark, that “It is important to display trust and confidence in each other if we want this (defence cooperation) to grow” is a signal to the US that it should not hold the larger defence relationship hostage to this issue.

In the case of Turkey, the Americans have practical worries that secrets of their F-35 would be compromised if the Turks acquire the S-400. In the case of India, there are no such immediate concerns. The US goal seems to be a long term one, of weaning away India from its Russian defence connection.

But things are not that simple. The Russians may be the base of the Indian defence equipment pyramid, but they are also the apex. In other words, they provide or help us develop weapons and platforms for our strategic use. This has included the cross-section of our strategic missiles, the SSBN Arihant, and the Brahmos system.

In the next ten years, they could be helping us develop nuclear attack submarines, the Brahmos-2 hypersonic missile, besides leasing us nuclear attack submarines. These are things the Americans will not touch with a barge-pole.

Of course, as the US says these days, we are natural strategic partners, “profoundly intertwined” and the bonds between us are “unbreakable.” But the US is generally known as a fickle friend and being the global hegemon, what it says and does is what matters.

Pompeo’s call for India and the US, to “stand up for religious freedom”, were not idle remarks.

They contained within them the warning that when the US wants to fix you, it has many instruments to do so – human rights, religious freedom, nuclear proliferation,  IPR issues, trade issues, to name but a few and obvious ones.

Given the growing economic and military gap between India and China, we need the US to maintain a balance vis-à-vis Beijing in South Asia.


Likewise, the US needs us to offset Beijing’s growing attraction in the Indo-Pacific region. But neither the US nor India should assume that the other’s need is so great that they have no other options.

The way to go is practical and pragmatic cooperation. And that seemed to be the message of the Pompeo-Jaishankar meeting.

India stands at a sweet spot geopolitically. The world’s foremost power, the US, is keen on close relations with us. This is a huge opportunity which, if exploited effectively, can help us accelerate our economic transformation – the only rational goal Indian foreign policy can and should have.

China and Pakistan have been there and derived huge benefits. Our time has come, provided we can figure out how to play the Americans, rather than have them play us.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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