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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) with foreign minister S. Jaishankar after a meeting in New Delhi last month. India will hope to consolidate its steadily growing relations with the US irrespective of who comes to occupy the White House in January 2021.  (Photo: Reuters)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) with foreign minister S. Jaishankar after a meeting in New Delhi last month. India will hope to consolidate its steadily growing relations with the US irrespective of who comes to occupy the White House in January 2021. (Photo: Reuters)

India-US strategic ties to stay strong

  • Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy, covid have brought the two nations closer
  • Should the Democrats come to power, New Delhi may have a tough time given that human rights could be back on the US agenda

NEW DELHI : I would propose to you that this is something structural, that there is a deep convergence between India and the US," Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar said about Indo-US relations last month. “If you look at the American end, you have four presidents (Bill) Clinton, (George W.) Bush, (Barack) Obama, and (Donald) Trump, I can’t think of four different individuals with four very different policies. Yet all of them have been remarkably consistent in the priority that they have given to this relationship," Jaishankar told the Bloomberg India Economic Forum 2020.

“You see a very strong continuity in fact, not just continuity, you would see the (US-India) relationship has steadily grown," he said.

This is the foundation that India will hope to consolidate on, irrespective of whether a Republican or a Democrat comes to occupy the White House in January 2021.

“The US-India relationship cuts across political party lines and will be important to any administration," US state department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told PTI on 31 October. “The reason is because we know that fundamentally Americans believe that the US and India are stronger, more secure, more prosperous, when we’re working together towards things like a free and open Indo-Pacific," she said.

That India-US ties have moved beyond personalities is something that analysts agreed with. “Ties with India have ceased to be a partisan issue," said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College.

At the start of the Trump presidency, there were questions about how India would deal with him—not the traditional Republican, with seemingly little knowledge about India. Four years down the line, the assessment in New Delhi seems to be that Trump, with all his unpredictability and penchant for the unexpected, is someone India can do business with.

There were points of disagreement. India’s trade deficit with the US, which stood at around $30 billion in 2016-17, was a major sore point. Trump’s remarks describing India as “tariff king" were seen as disparaging. He had also slammed India for taking advantage of the “developing country" classification under World Trade Organization rules. Then there was the tightening of H-1B visa rules in the aftermath of US job losses amid covid-19.

On the diplomatic side, Trump’s repeated offers to mediate on the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, his offer to help resolve tensions between India and China along the border in Ladakh, and his demand that New Delhi do more than building infrastructure in Afghanistan weren’t points of friction, but did make New Delhi jittery. Trump’s walkout of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal meant that New Delhi had to look at newer sources of fuel. The resumption of US sanctions on Iran meant slowing down the development of Chabahar port that New Delhi views as a gateway to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. There was also the question of the Trump administration trying to strike a deal with the Taliban to exit Afghanistan. That Trump chose to look inward, debunked multilateralism in a globalized world, has also made India uncomfortable, said analysts.

New Delhi, on its part, chose to work with the Trump administration by quietly trying to resolve points of contention.

The points of convergence included a tough stance on terrorism emanating from Pakistan and China’s aggressive behaviour. The Trump administration turned a blind eye to India striking terrorist training camps inside Pakistan twice in 2016 and 2019. If former US defence secretary Leon Panetta described India as the “lynch pin" of the Obama administration’s strategy to counter China in Asia, the Trump administration unveiled the Indo-Pacific strategy with a key role for India. The spread of covid-19, which first surfaced in China, has served to bring the two countries closer given that covid has roiled the US economy, and New Delhi is trying to evict Chinese troops from Indian territory.

Should the Democrats come to power, New Delhi may have a tough time given that human rights could be back on the US agenda. Which means Pakistan’s views on Kashmir could get a sympathetic hearing from Left-leaning liberals in the Democratic Party while centrists such as Biden would like to co-opt India as a partner vis a vis a rising China. Some Democrats had also questioned India’s move on Kashmir after the revocation of Article 370, demanding a restoration of communication links and freeing of political leaders

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