[Modi and Trump at the “Howdy, Modi” event]
While the national interests of India and the United States overlap a little, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald J. Trump are personally in sync. This last is, perhaps, because they are alike — self-centered, autocratic, and relentless in playing to their political bases. So drama attends on any cooperation they can muster, especially in the foreign policy field because differing geographies dictate divergent approaches, tactics and strategies.
Dealing with the mercurial Trump is like traipsing through a minefield. He threatens termination of trade and US military presence abroad to get his way. He perceives India as a soft target and is ranging on it, complaining about unbalanced trade, Indian software companies exploiting the H1B visa regime, Delhi’s delay in activating the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement that will permit US forces to use Indian bases, and about India’s reluctance to manufacture under license the 1970s vintage F-16 fighter aircraft outfitted with new doo-dahs and designation (F-21). Trump’s bargaining method is to insist the other side meet his demands or face pain. It has fetched him success with NATO allies (anteing up $400 billion in additional defence spending) and China (removing $75 billion in tariffs).
To prevent Trump tilting against India, Modi’s strategy is one of placating the US with periodic buys of non-lethal, defensive, capital military hardware – P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft and C-17 and C-130J transport planes, Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters (a contract for 24 of these rotary wing aircraft may be signed to mollify Trump), or outdated weapons systems (M-777 howitzer) that don’t occasion controversy abroad or scrutiny in the US Congress. However, far from softening Trump’s attitude, it has strengthened his belief that he can keep pushing because Delhi has nothing to pushback with – a view Modi apparently concurs in. How else to explain that in the last four years vis a vis the US there has been no give and take, just give and more give on India’s part?
Toting up the pluses and minuses and weighing the outcomes, a dispassionate assessment shows meagre returns on Modi’s policy. On Pakistan-sourced terrorism – the PM’s signature tune, the US has limited itself to making anti-terrorism noises at the Financial Assistance Task Force and other forums amounting to ineffectual posturing because it is not followed up by hard pressure on Pakistan and China. This pressure the US won’t impose because it needs a helpful Islamabad to extricate itself militarily from Afghanistan. For the same reason, Delhi’s longstanding request for “raw intelligence” on Pakistan-based terrorist gangs has been denied, with only “processed”, meaning appropriately diluted, possibly doctored, information being onpassed to Indian agencies.
Further, despite Modi’s pleas, Trump is closing down the H1B visa regime, virtually eliminating the comparative low labour cost advantage of the $181 billion Indian software industry, and is pressing India to lift restrictions on US agricultural commodities and dairy products. With respect to the Indian government’s perennial hope of collaborating in advanced military technology development, the 2012 Defence Trade and Technology Initiative set up for the purpose has not resulted in even a single project. Delhi fails to appreciate that America won’t transfer in-date technology for love or money or disturb the military balance in South Asia it helps sustain.
And what of the shared geostrategic objective? The US is determined to avoid armed conflict with China at all cost. In practical terms, therefore, for India there’s little beyond arms sales and simple military exercises. The annual Malabar naval exercise, for example, graduated to joint fleet air arm maneuvers only in 2019, its 24th year. But huge diplomatic energy is expended in the “dialogue” process – frequent Modi-Trump meetings, 2×2 summits, etc.. If dialogueing mattered all that much, the Indo-US “strategic partnership” would be flying.
High time India explored an alternative security coalition organic to Asia of “rimland” states and offshore countries to strategically hamstring China. Such as a modified Quadrilateral involving the littoral and maritime assets-rich India, Japan, Australia and a Southeast Asian group of Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, an arrangement that would minimize an unreliable America’s role.
[A truncated version of this article with the title “Buying peace with useless arms” is published in The Week, issue dated March 1, 2020]