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Arun Singh, former Indian ambassador to the US. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Arun Singh, former Indian ambassador to the US. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

‘As India bolsters US ties, it must also strive to maintain leverage’

Former Indian ambassador to the US, Arun Singh, agrees that the postponement of the 2+2 dialogue is a signal that India is not in the highest priority of the US

New Delhi: The inaugural India-US “2+2" dialogue, which was to take place on 6 July, was postponed for the second time with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling up his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj to inform her about the cancellation. Instead, Pompeo travelled to North Korea between 5 and 7 July to build on the high-stake summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Media reports seem to suggest that the scheduling problem is a sign that India is not in the highest priority of the Trump administration, something that former Indian ambassador to the US, Arun Singh, agrees with. Edited excerpts:

The India-US “2+2" dialogue has been postponed for a second time. Isn’t it symptomatic of a dip in ties with the US?

The “2+2" dialogue was no doubt postponed on account of scheduling issues. The Trump administration needs to follow up on the Trump-Kim Jong-un meet, especially before the Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) leaders’ meeting in Brussels on 11-12 July, and the Trump-Putin meet planned for 16 July in Helsinki. But the fact that the US decided to postpone the 2+2 with India, which was a new mechanism agreed upon just last year to project a new phase of convergence in the relationship, is symptomatic of a lack of priority focus on the relationship.

Isn’t it bad for India-US relations, notwithstanding what the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said last week, of how “the Trump administration specifically puts a lot of value on the US-India partnership not because of where we have been, but because of where we are going"?

My experience has been that the relationship finds momentum and positive energy when there is high-level engagement and focus. The reason for this is that it is a relatively new relationship. The current phase was started with US President Clinton’s visit to India in 2000, the civil nuclear cooperation agreement signed by the Bush administration in 2008, and the unprecedented two visits to India by (president Barack) Obama, and his declaring India as a major defence partner, and articulating support for India’s permanent membership of UN Security Council. There is, however, a history of mistrust and differences.

There are also different expectations, with India seeking to use this cooperation to enhance its strategic autonomy, and US looking for partners to support the global order. Some aspects of the relationship, defence and security cooperation, have also advanced more than strategic economic engagement. At times, when the high-level political engagement slows down, economic frictions and suspicions of the past move to centre stage. This had happened also in 2012-13 when relations had taken a dip.

The two countries also seem to be grappling with differences on trade...

Trade differences between India and US are not new. During Obama’s otherwise highly successful visit to India in 2010, differences on tariffs, market access and intellectual property issues were quite sharp. Trump has taken it a notch higher by focussing on trade deficit with India, which at about $30 billion is meagre compare to $360 billion US trade deficit with China. And India, unlike China, is not an overall trade surplus country. US has also imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from India on national security grounds, even though India has been declared a strategic and a major defence partner. However, officials from both countries are currently engaged in intense and frequent discussions, aimed at working out compromises on tariffs, regulatory norms, continued GSP access for India and looking at trade and deficits not in a static way, but in the perspective of growing economic linkages.

It seems as if there was a pattern of “course correction" in Indian diplomacy since the beginning of this year, given the informal summits with Russia and China. What impact will this have on India-US ties?

I believe that an overarching objective of Indian diplomacy has been to maintain strategic autonomy of decision making. Russia remains India’s largest defence partner, accounting for more than 60% of our inventory. It has also reliably provided us political support in the global context. China is a major neighbour, sharing thousands of kilometers of a disputed boundary, and with a growing economic, political and strategic footprint, including in our immediate vicinity in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. It would, therefore, make sense for us to preserve and consolidate further the relationship with Russia, and have a deeper, long-term oriented dialogue with China. At the same time, if we look at trade, investment, diaspora, education and defence dimensions in a comprehensive manner, the US would be our topmost partner. The US has also been singularly helpful in promoting our global aspirations through civil nuclear cooperation agreement and membership in international export control regimes. Even as we inevitably consolidate our relationship with the US, we must also strive to maintain leverage.

How far do you see Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) as a hurdle in India-US ties? Given that Trump is meeting President Putin in Helsinki on 16 July, do you see this irritant dissolving soon?

CAATSA can be a major hurdle. India cannot permit any other country to dictate the nature of its cooperation with Russia. If US imposes any sanctions on India for a major defence purchase from Russia, it would only reinforce perceptions about unreliability of the US as a partner, and revive the mistrust and negative memories of the past. CAATSA is a product of US domestic politics, with the US Congress seeking to ‘punish’ Russia for alleged interference in the 2016 presidential elections, and constrain Trump in his outreach. The fallout should not be on India. Despite Congressional prescriptions, the US administration always has a measure of flexibility in how it implements sanctions. We have to see if the meeting with Putin enables Trump more political space in interpreting and implementing the sanctions.

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