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India can’t continue to overlook Trump’s diplomatic slights. Time to redefine ties sensibly

Should India assist the US in restoring its primacy in Asia or build a reformed and stable world order that would inevitably require cooperation with other great powers?

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India-US ties are back in the spotlight with Donald Trump’s latest broadside on Kashmir at Davos 2020, expressed for the second time in the presence of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. Narendra Modi government’s enthusiasm for the relationship has led it to overlook such diplomatic slights from the White House. It appears both sides have discovered an efficient way to manage ties and construct a public discourse that does not let differences interrupt the trajectory of the relationship. But the fact is there are convergences and differences, and it is time we recognised this complex reality.

The substance

For the US, there are several advantages that come with a cooperative India. It helps strengthen US influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region; provides valuable ideological support for the US in Asia; offers a vast market for the US private sector including defence manufacturing firms; enables the US military to sustain its regional posture and buttress logistical networks in the Indo-Pacific; provides political leverage against China in the future. Perhaps, most consequentially, the US has succeeded in moving India to a position where it has been adopting a political and diplomatic posture of a positive abstention, if not outright support, in favour of the US vis-à-vis other great powers in the neighbourhood and Asia. That is a key strategic outcome for US foreign policy and has been achieved at very little cost.

A positive equation with the US benefits India too. It provides India with access to the international order and its key institutions, many of these still dominated by the West; it provides options for India’s economic development and modernisation; it provides access to advanced military capabilities; it provides a degree of leverage against Pakistan and China; it provides a certain space for India to rise without inviting containment or negative policies. Finally, US crisis management has benefited India on many occasions, including during the India-Pakistan standoff after the Pulwama terror attack last year.

 Also read: The world has a message for Modi: Brand India is severely damaged

India as a passive actor

Close engagement does bring mutual advantages across a range of issue areas. Yet, to make the leap from a clear-eyed picture, where different visions and interests do not come in the way of a mutually advantageous relationship, to one where we speak of a global strategic partnership, where interests are being jointly defined and geostrategies crafted together is a stretch too far. The moment the hyperbole begins, the contradictions surface.

One critique is that India has been a passive player in shaping ties, and that a stable relationship with Washington is increasingly seen as an end in itself rather than as part of a broader Indian grand strategy. When we talk of strategic convergence, it is usually about whether India is adhering to US preferences. The agenda-setting is rarely undertaken by India’s policymakers, think tanks or even the media, who more often than not reproduce or react to US priorities.

Take China, for example. When we talk of a rising China, it is the maritime rather than continental dimension that dominates most of our conversations. The West Pacific area is an obvious priority for the US, but a peripheral geopolitical concern for India. Even the ‘Quad’ is ultimately about getting India to share the burden on East Asian security, with no apparent quid pro quo on challenges closer to home: securing the northern frontier with China and hedging against the possibility of China-Pakistan military moves in a regional crisis.

Even on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South Asia, the absence of a meaningful India-US response to counterbalance Chinese influence stands out. In his recent visit to Washington, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi felt confident enough to make the case for a renewed US-Pakistan partnership that would run in parallel with China-Pakistan ties, and with Pakistan as a “bridge builder” in this triangle. Reports of Pakistan avoiding a negative ruling at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in Beijing last week should also be seen in this light: the US and China have a common interest in Pakistan’s well-being and often act in tandem when their ally is in trouble.

Look at regional security. Take the Pulwama-Balakot episode in February 2019. It was apparent that the US was not interested in embarrassing the Pakistan army or endorsing a coercive Indian policy. In fact, there was more continuity than a radical departure – a third party US role that promoted regional stability and sought to strike a fine balance between the security interests of its two main partners in the subcontinent.

The leverage that Pakistan has derived from the 18-year long US military presence in Afghanistan is well known. In all likelihood, if the US-Taliban deal, mediated by the Pakistan army, is struck in time, the main reason for Trump’s rendezvous to the subcontinent next month would to be to showcase success on that front.

Let us turn to defence. The spectacular growth in US exports in recent years obscures fundamental differences. The dominant discourse is focused on promoting US market access rather than India’s overall military modernisation. So, Indian attempts to pursue alternative technological options immediately invite negative policies and pressure. The points of friction, however, run deeper. Through its arms sales, the US aims to develop a network of states that would integrate into a broader US-controlled ecosystem of technologies and intelligence, and, would collectively share the burden of managing a US-led security architecture. But for India, such a concept is not only incompatible with the vision of an inclusive multipolar world order, it also undermines the very basis of strategic autonomy – where the ability to autonomously operate its military forces is vital for the independence of India’s foreign and security policies.

 Also read: US investors concerned over India’s economic slowdown, social unrest and Modi’s disinterest

Power transition 

What is complicating the India-US relationship today is the ongoing global and regional power transition in Asia. Fundamental questions have come to the fore. Should India seek to assist the US in restoring its primacy in Asia or seek to build a reformed and stable world order that would inevitably require cooperation with other great powers and regional powers many of whom the US is preparing to confront in the coming decade? Is India’s desire to be an independent great power and pursue “multi-aligned” foreign and economic policies consistent with the US approach that seeks exclusivity and conformity from its clients and partners? How would a more assertive US foreign policy in the coming years fit with India’s priorities for economic transformation and a stable neighbourhood where great power discord is limited?

During the mid-2000s, when Washington and Delhi were exuberant about the future of their relationship, the notion of a power transition was too remote a proposition to precipitate a real debate. We have now reached that turning point where the scale and scope of the India-US relationship needs to be sensibly re-defined and then pursued realistically. India cannot play the role envisioned by the US in the coming decade. Neither can the US pull Indian chestnuts out of the fire. High-flown rhetoric will get us nowhere. The Modi government should begin the process when Trump visits India next month.

Zorawar Daulet Singh is author of Power and Diplomacy: India’s Foreign Policies during the Cold War. Views are personal.

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  1. The US is still an Imperium albeit weakened by its many misadventures beginning with Clinton’s resurrection of the Cold War with Yugoslavia, and followed through by Bush and Obama with Iraq, Syria, Libya and so on. India si a third rate power politically, economically, socially, technologically and militarily.. All that the US wants is to sell weapons to India and use India for cannon fodder vis a vis China. I said this long ago when India was letting dare not wait upon I would to sign the defense co-operation agreements. As we can see clealry since the Second World War, the US does not treat any satellite as an equal. They are subordinates. While Clinton could refuse logistics facilities to Britain during the Falklands war, Britain dare not refuse the US anything. Not even escape from prosecution for crimes committed by Americans on British soil. US soldiers, sailors and airmen get away routinely, with raping Japanese girls in Japan. India is in the same position as Rhodes after the break up of Alexander’s Empire into Ptolemies, Antigonists and Seleucids. Too weak to be Neuitral due its own suicidal Colonial-Communist Quota (Reservations / License) and Corruption (Extortion / Percentage) Policies since 1947 . Its “Independence” is precarious and it is in danger of falling under Pax Americana if it has not done so already. after having enjoyed a brief period of dubious freedom from Pax Britannica. By not triangulation with Russia and Iran, India may have no alternative bu the Join the US-NATO-Sunni Axis (founded with Petro Dollars by Nixon, Kissinger and Bush in 1970) to avoid capitulation to China,

  2. Looks like a Chinese mouthpiece. Self-deprecating views about India. This is the exactly the approach that held back India in the last 75 years. Author is proposing a hibernation for another 75 years so Pakistan has enough time to overtake India’s capabilities. Looks like a sermon from Tukde Tukde Gang.

  3. Brilliant commentary on the Indo-US equation. The relationship for the US is more about how India’ can be leveraged to serve US interests in the region and military cooperation (read big defence market) underpins the strategic element. India on the other hand must look at this relationship more realisrically and not allow the US to make us believe that these periodic broadsides are only about Trump.
    India could well end up between a rock and a hard place in the Indian Ocean where it is pretty much in its own and would do well to consolidate itself there.

  4. With so much feedback coming from so many quarters and sources, this would be a good time to put the diplomats back in charge of foreign policy formulation.

  5. One must sometimes be cruel to be kind. We are not in America’s league, nor in China’s. A strong dose of realism is what Indian foreign policy requires. Setting our ambitions at a level that is supported by our capabilities.

  6. 1. With every country, relationships are made of converges and divergences and they are also highly nuanced. Take Russia or China or UK for that matter and it will be clear that with USA, we do not have any special complications which are absent with these two other countries. 2. Whether it furthers US strategic agenda or not, it is India which primarily needs USA (along with Japan, Australia etc as well) to take on China in IOR (forget Indo Pacific for a moment) while for land border issues with China or Pakistan, it is India which primarily needs Russian defense equipment. Hence, by aligning with USA, we are primarily serving our interests. 3. Against Pak, USA will not be much use due to its issues in Afghanistan. USA is interested in Pakistan at least till its entanglement in Afghanistan ends. 4. FATF black listing or nor, even India will not be seriously interested in disorder in Pakistan as it will be a dangerous for our security. Pakistan with its nuclear capacity, can do any damage to India, if its survival is at stake, not only due to a skirmish or war with India but even otherwise. So Pakistan ought to be finished in a slow and orderly manner bit by bit and it will eventually happen due to its internal fallacies. 5. USA is talking Kashmir as it has to please Pakistan as of now. Even if we take this seriously, what is going to happen if Trump mediates? What are parameters on which he can do this? If UN Security Council could not solve this question for last 70 years, what are the chances of Trump doing it? One hardly needs to spend time to answer this question! 6. Can USA India relationship be without frictions? Never. Of course, USA is more keen on selling its wares to us than the technology but France or Russia are doing the same, may be with some difference. After all, no one will help you build up your strategic defense capability. Hence, India is shopping from France, Russia, USA and elsewhere and also building up its own capability. The pace and the efficiency with which we are doing is this of course not up to expectations but the direction is clear.

    Thus, let Trump molly coddle Imran but India knows what it wants from USA and also from others and that clarity is evident in the policy followed by Modi. Another 10 years of purposeful work by DRDO, and we will be in a different level with China and Pakistan. Media should in fact welcome Trump’s offer of mediation and stump him to spell out what he has in mind, if at all he knows what is he talking about! Perhaps, Modi might have sold him the idea of helping in Afghanistan with Indian forces in return for support to take over POK and break Pakistan China physical nexus. This may be Trump’s idea of solution to the Kashmir issue! And even Russia will fall for this. And Afghan will of course welcome this wholeheartedly.

    So Zorawer, hold on- there is lot of water to flow down the Indus, Chenab and Ravi!

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