US-India states Ties: Past, Present and Future

Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of America’s most influential thinkers and policy makers, in his 1997 book ‘The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geo-Strategic Imperatives,’ proposed a strategic outlook for the United States of America (US) in the 21st century. He argued that United States’ ascendance to global hegemony was swift, spanning over less than a century, spread wide across the globe, lacking depth, however. He suggested that this lack of depth, in terms of USA’s inability to exercise a direct control over decision-making processes of other states would reduce US’ life as the global hegemon. He predicted that the Eurasian region, which had historically posited global powers would become the chessboard of future grand politics. Attributing to Chinese military and economic strength, Brzezinski predicted the likelihood of China’s emergence as the global power and counterweight to American hegemony. Further, identifying India along with France, Germany, Russia, and China as “active geo-political actors” in Eurasian region, he suggested that these countries had the capacity and the national will to exercise influence beyond their borders in order to alter American global designs. India, for the purpose has acquired a central stage in American foreign policy as reflected in President Trump’s Indo-Pacific policy.

Past decade or two have seen a growing convergence between the United States and India. A recent lynchpin in these growing ties was said to have been depicted in the form of President Donald Trump’s visit to India in February. During the visit, the leaders of both the countries exchanged compliments with each other. With the visit convening without any substantial trade deal between the two states, analysts envision a new era of US-India relations that transcends mutual differences for the achievement of greater purposes.

Attributing to Chinese military and economic strength, Brzezinski predicted the likelihood of China’s emergence as the global power and counterweight to American hegemony.

A historical perspective to US-India relations begins with India’s ambitious commitment to the non-alignment movement, following its independence in 1947. Consecutive American governments led by President Harry S. Truman and President Dwight D. Eisenhower turned increasingly sceptical of Jawaharlal Nehru for mobilising the non-aligned bloc. However, in 1956 as the Suez Crisis and Soviet invasion of Hungary took place simultaneously, India’s inclination towards the Soviet Union surfaced, when it chose to openly condemn the attack on Egypt by Western states but refrained from opting for an equivocal stance on the Soviet invasion. Indira Gandhi’s administration followed by Lal Bahadur Shastri’s demise continued to dent US-India relations. On the other hand, Pakistan-United States-China nexus grew closer as Pakistan secretly managed to break the ice between the United States and China in 1971.

The Obama administration, cognizant of the emerging geopolitical, economic and strategic significance of the Asia-Pacific region, announced its “Asia Rebalancing Strategy” in 2011. This strategy aimed at expanding American presence in the Asia-Pacific region by forging closer economic and military ties and people-to-people contact with the regional states. India was viewed as the pivot of the Asia-Pacific Strategy that could be employed as a bulwark against China. As a part of its Asia-Pacific Policy, the United States announced US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in 2015, committing to maritime security cooperation that aimed at forging a closer partnership between the two countries, in order to promote regional connectivity and prosperity. This resulted in an increased bilateral defence trade. In the year 2014, India became the biggest market of US defence exports. In 2016, India was declared as United States’ “Major Defence Partner.” As of 2019, India’s defence hardware purchases from the US were estimated to have crossed US$ 18 billion.

Though defence cooperation has risen between the countries following Obama Administration, bilateral trade has lagged to much extent. This is mainly due to the fact that India’s economic model extends protectionist policies to local producers in agricultural and certain industrial sectors. On the other hand, Trump administration is said to have formulated its foreign policy mainly on transactional basis. Trade is therefore a major irritant in the US–India relations. In June 2019, US-India bilateral ties ebbed on account of India’s imposition of increased custom duties on around 28 US-based imports.

Other irritants include American visa policies that have been designed to reduce the influx of immigrants on work visas. The administration has curtailed the issuance of H-1B visas, a move highly unwelcomed by India as it inhibits Indian labour’s immigration to United States, thereby reducing India’s foreign remittances. Additionally, the US is increasingly sceptical of India’s draft data localisation policy and draft e-commerce bill. The US’ 2019 National Trade Estimate Report  on Foreign Trade Barriers has stated that India’s data protection measures serve to enact barriers in the way of US-India digital trade. Further, it has suggested that lack of enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) remain another concern for the United States.

India’s defence cooperation with Russia and oil trade with Iran is another irritant in US-India relations. Most recently, the US threatened India with the imposition of sanctions following India’s procurement of S-400 missiles from Russia. On the other hand, India seeks to resume its oil trade with Iran, but has made little progress.

However, several converging factors have emerged between Trump and Modi administrations. Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, in one of his articles published in the The Guardian presents a detailed account of how both the United States – the world’s most powerful democracy – and India, – the world’s largest democracy – represent the faces of global far right. More recently, Pankaj Mishra’s article “Donald Trump is Going to India to Find Himself,” published in The New York Times, draws parallels between the US and contemporary India. Strengthening forces of capitalism, providing impunities to criminals, politics of hatred and media sycophancy, Mishra suggests are the factors common to both states’ administrations.

India’s defence cooperation with Russia and oil trade with Iran is another irritant in US-India relations.

Apart from India’s geo-strategic positioning in the Asia-Pacific, the country provides huge numbers of scientific and technical personnel to American tech industries and markets. Also, Indian Americans, around 1.3 million in numbers, form a desirable vote bank in the US, and Trump’s claims like “America loves India” during his visit were visibly designed to target this vote bank in the upcoming American presidential election.

Owing to the trade-related irritants between the two countries, President Trump’s visit was mainly expected to bring along economic dividends for both countries with the signing of Preferential or Free Trade Agreement. However, as the visit convened, analysts described it as a show of optics which concluded without any substantial progress in the sphere of bilateral trade. The gathering of around 100,000 Indians at Motera Stadium in Gujrat, the delegation’s visit to Mahatama Gandhi’s memorial in Delhi, and Taj Mahal in Uttar Pradesh; all provided perfect optics for national and international audiences. President Trump announced India’s commitment to purchase military equipment including 24 MH-60R Seahawk multi-mission maritime aircrafts, Apache and MH-60 Romeo maritime helicopters worth US$3 billion. This was coupled with both states’ commitment to increase cooperation in fighting terrorism and in securing 5G networks.

Arguably, Trump’s visit to India was Modi’s way of returning him the favour of Houston’s “Howdy Modi” event, which served to divulge Prime Minister Modi’s close ties with President Trump. Quite visibly, the visit served to inflate the personality cults of Prime Minister Modi and President Trump to a much higher degree than it served the national interests of the US and India. The inability of both countries in reaching a trade agreement depicts the strength of trade irritants that are a major obstacle towards realising the potential of US-India trade relations. While Prime Minister Modi has invested considerably well to keep President Trump on India’s side for strategic and security reasons. However, the future trajectory of US-India relations hinges much on Trump’s re-election to the office, which can serve to maintain the current momentum of bilateral relationship.

Maryam Raashed

Maryam Raashed

Maryam Raashed is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is a graduate of International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad.

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