Tuesday, December 13, 2016

To be 'great' or 'stronger together'?

The American Presidential Election of 2016 is likely to be the most acrimonious in recent history as well as a peculiar contest where the outcome depended on who was less unpopular. But what would the outcome mean for India? Nothing dramatic, for the simple reason that India does not figure too high in the US scheme of things.
The elections have focused American attention on how bad things are at home — crumbling infrastructure, unworkable health insurance system, racism, sexism, no jobs for many people and so on. But, whoever is elected will very soon have to confront a world where American power and authority are being assailed. In some measure this is because of the continuing travails of its great ally — the European Union. But also because of the rise of China, and Beijing's choices, whether in building an alliance with Russia, or in challenging US power in the South China Sea.
President Obama understood some of this and tried to take the US away from its unrewarding external commitments such as Afghanistan and Iraq. But the missteps of the Europeans, primarily Britain and France, have created new quagmires in Libya and Syria, even though the Americans have, in the main, have tried to stay away from them. With all this happening, a stable India, which is comfortable with American power is a boon for Washington. India remains a regional power and has no problem creating potential like China and Russia.
Besides, India needs America more than the other way round and all this will be true regardless of who becomes the US President. Indian diplomacy is making little headway with Pakistan and China — its two problem-making neighbours. India needs the US to push back against both. India will be happy with whoever is the President because it understands that there is likely to be little change in the Washington-New Delhi dynamics. As it is the trend line in Indo-US relations is positive. Their strategic coordination is slowly solidifying into a strategic alliance and the more China and Pakistan misbehave, the more Washington will come to rely on New Delhi providing some leverage in the region.
But of course, the situation is not that simple. The emerging Russia-China axis poses challenges in different dimensions to both India and the US. From India's point of view, it distracts the Americans from their Asian pivot where New Delhi plays a larger role. In addition, it undermines the India-Russia relationship which has been one of the constants of the last fifty years. India's feeble domestic defence production capabilities compel it to seek Russian options because the US still remains niggardly in offering up cutting-edge weapons systems.
Then, viewed from another angle, the Sino-US relationship remains substantial and even close, the $659 billion in trade in goods and services between them says so. There is substantive economic interdependence and many suspect that what the Chinese seek is not to supplant the US as the global hegemon, but to be accepted as a partner of sorts. The Chinese relationship is simply too im­p­ortant for either the US or EU to disdain and they have a major stake in its stability and success.
A great of deal of the nature of the Indo-US relationship, under a new American president, will depend on how New Delhi pitches itself to the US. We will be wasting precious capital if we made our membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a major touchstone. New Delhi's obsession with the NSG membership is a bit of a mystery, considering we already have the waiver we need on nuclear trade, and the NSG itself has passed a key rule that would limit that trade.
Even more, it would be folly to do as the Modi government is doing — making terrorism the be all and end all of our foreign policy. In the last six months, almost every event, the most recent being the BRICS Summit hosted by us in Goa, has seen New Delhi focus on terrorism. This despite the fact that there has been no major mass-casualty attack targeting civilians (the common definition of terrorism) in the country since the Mumbai attack of 2008.
A new US President, even if it is Trump, is not likely to humour New Delhi on this issue. Pakistan remains important in the US calculus because of Afghanistan, sure, but Islamabad is intrinsically important to the US because it has nuclear weapons and it is close to China. The US is not about to turn its back on Islamabad because India says so.
At the end of the day, the quality of the relationship between India and the US under a new President will depend on the real substance of that relationship — trade, diplomatic give and take, military-to-military ties.
Mid Day November 8, 2016

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