President Trump wants to boost exports to India, and play some role in regional security. But I am not certain these are sufficient reasons to fight through headwinds—and they are increasing: Richard M. Rossow


Indian elections not only make buzz locally, they create enough interest in US government circles too. More so out of curiosity about the prospective government and the leadership, which will be key in deciding the diplomatic and defence partnerships between the two largest democracies. Also, India is a key strategic partner in the US policy in South Asia and Asia-Pacific, hence the need for a stronger partnership. Strong Indo-American relations are what many US-based think tanks feel is urgent and both nations must work together to ensure a “developed and secured Asia and Indo-Pacific region”. Maneesh Pandey, Senior Executive Editor of ITV Network, spoke at length with Richard M. Rossow, Senior Adviser of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) and veteran on Indo-American affairs in Washington DC on a whole range of issues connecting the two nations on many counts, including China, Pakistan and Asia-Pacific security. Interestingly, the expert feels that the United States must engage India more in the Indian Ocean and not in Chinese waters, as is the case currently. Excerpts:

Q: Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump compliment each other and the latter has appreciated the Indian PM on many counts. For someone like you, who has analysed Indo-US relations for many years under different political heads, how do you see the current relationship?

A: The relationship seems practical, though there are gaps. Prime Minister Modi has key reasons to engage the United States, mainly to attract foreign investment and to get access to advanced defence technologies. I am still not certain if there is a singular driving force that will ensure President Trump keeps the relationship with India on a positive trajectory.

For President Obama, India was a crucial partner in combating climate change. But that topic is “off the table”. At best, President Trump wants to boost exports to India, and play some role in regional security. But I am not certain these are sufficient reasons to fight through headwinds—and they are increasing.

Q: Is that different from other US Presidents and Indian Prime Ministers?

A: Yes. Personalities and personal priorities play a key role in US-India relations. India still does not rank among the top US partners in terms of economic or security ties. The relationship is often driven by senior-level visits and political engagement. Lower-level bureaucrats are not able to drive major decisions, compared to the relationships the US has with other key partners.

As noted before, for President Obama, climate change drove his personal engagement. For President George W. Bush, his interest in engaging India was based on our shared security interests. For Prime Minister Modi, the US is a crucial economic partner, and the source of advanced military equipment. For Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, perhaps the biggest driver was the fact that the United States was willing to help shepherd India’s membership into crucial global institutions such as the non-proliferation regimes.

Q: Also as you have seen the late Mr Vajpayee and now Mr Modi, where one was known as a perfect statesman and a foreign affairs expert, the other (current PM) earned a lot of buzz because of his diplomatic initiatives overseas. How do you find the two BJP Prime Ministers in their style of dealing with the United States?

A: Prime Minister Modi is much more comfortable embracing the United States. This is partly his personality, but also because his two predecessors had thawed the ground between our two nations. If somebody like Mr Modi had come to power 30 years earlier, this level of comfort and engagement would have been much more difficult.

Q: You have been an advocate for Indo-US engagement in the Indian Ocean for bigger strategic reasons. Reasons for that argument and will that benefit India? Please elaborate.

A: A great deal of US-India security collaboration is based on the concern that China’s aggressive rise will continue and could impact our respective security interests in the region. To the United States, the South China Sea and the East China Sea often seem to be the primary contested spaces. But to India, the Indian Ocean is already a contested space. The Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLA-Navy) is conducting more operations, China is involved in port development in the region, and more. To strengthen India-US security cooperation, we need to make sure our shared agenda reflects the main concerns of both national capitals. So, when we think of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” operational elements must have roots in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Q: How can India be a strong partner in US policy in South Asia?

A: I prefer to let India make that determination. The US can do a lot in the region, so we prefer to let India chart its own course. What are the security functions India is preparing to handle? How should we coordinate in rising security challenges? As the major existing power in South Asia, the US should be certain to understand India’s perspectives and plans, adapting accordingly. Starting with the “U.S. Agenda” in India’s own neighbourhood is a certain path to more problems.

Q: In terms of defence and trade relations, how can the US engage India to bolster mutual economic and defence partnerships? The recent F16s manufacturing in India is a big step in Indo-US defence partnership. What do you say and what’s the buzz on that? But how can the US match the same to correct the current dullness in commerce ties between the two nations?

A: The United States and India are still in the process of understanding how to work together. India wants the US to make big announcements in terms of sharing advanced technologies and helping India’s nascent defence manufacturing sector. The United States on the other hand wants to start building a track record of cooperation, starting with smaller projects. Neither side is incorrect, but finding a path forward between these perspectives is crucial.

Q: How do you think the 2019 general elections are going to impact Indo-US relations? What is the viewpoint on Indian general elections among the South Asia experts and in academia in the US?

A: I have seen few signs that the Congress party leadership views the United States as a crucial economic or security partner. “Non-alignment” remains relevant; if Congress is elected, we may see India once again try to keep all potential partners at equal distance. While different than being “anti-America,” this mentality will not win stronger support in the United States to break ground in new areas of partnership.

If Prime Minister Modi remains in office, I suspect we will see similarities to this first five-year term in office. Smart economic reforms early in his tenure, a shift towards expanding social services, and progress in deepening our security relationship throughout.

Q: How closely is the US watching the coming state Assembly elections in India and then the grand finale, the general elections of 2019?

A: Indian elections still do not generate a great deal of attention in the United States. However, the US strategic community and business community will watch the elections closely. Our commercial ties continue to strengthen, as do our defence ties. The defence relationship has taken leaps forward under Prime Minister Modi. Change can be good, but stability is often preferred when we are making steady progress.

Q: Your recent article says that state elections and its political leadership are vital and key to US diplomatic relations with India. How do you analyse that politically in terms of US engagement with states in India?

A: There are multiple reasons state governments are important. But they essentially break down into two buckets. First, states chart their own development trajectories. If American institutions want to be development partners to India, they need to find willing state governments.

Second, state parties can have a big influence on Delhi. India has had coalition governments for most the last 30 years. In a coalition setting, a regional party with 15 or 20 seats can hold a veto over government decisions. For example, the Communist Party of India nearly derailed the US-India civilian nuclear agreement. And Trinamool Congress, among other parties, forced the Congress government to roll back retail trade reforms.

In rarer times, state parties have even helped spur and encourage smart reforms, such as when the Telugu Desam Party helped the Vajpayee government usher in key insurance reforms in 1999. This support helped lure the insurance regulator to Hyderabad, creating a win-win situation.

Q: Is the 2+2 Dialogue initiative the perfect step in taking Indo-US relations to a new high, both in the region and worldwide?

A: Creating a 2+2 Dialogue is helpful in bridging our security and foreign policy establishments. Both nations occasionally suffer from lack of coordination between these important groups. Though I am hesitant to say it is a “perfect” step. Our relationship cannot thrive in the long term unless we find a way to avoid or work through our tough trade obstacles.

The economic relationship is handled primary in different dialogues. While there is some benefit to having more detailed dialogues on these issues, both nations must look at our relationship more holistically. For example, we should have a platform to raise our concerns on market access for different products, but our negotiators should also ensure that smaller trade matters.

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