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3 October 2017, Gateway House

Indo-U.S.: gains from a ‘new phase’

India and the Trump administration are on a mutually appreciative footing. Two significant visits have given the bilateral a renewed focus and both countries are seeking ways to put their strategic and political convergence into practice

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Strategic and political convergence between India and the United States appears to be growing under the Trump administration as both sides align in seeking new ways to put it into practice.

New Delhi appreciates President Donald Trump’s willingness to take clearer positions on issues impinging on India’s security – be it terrorism emanating from Pakistan or promoting India’s uniquely stabilising role in Afghanistan or the need to keep the Indo-Pacific region free from domination by any one country.

India too has moved – it cut off trade with North Korea in response to U.S. requests and openly welcomed Trump’s South Asia policy. India also chose not to complain about the change in status quo and the new uncertainties unleashed by Trump’s policies.

While the Europeans expressed shock and dismay at Trump not fully honouring NATO’s article 5 and the East Asians mourned the passing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, India waited for the new administration to work out its new South Asia policy without advice or fear.

It didn’t take Trump the outsider long to figure out that “Pakistan had done a lot of harm to America and India had done a lot of good to Afghanistan,” as a senior Indian official put it recently. Two significant visits, one by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington, and the other by Defence Secretary James Mattis to New Delhi, have put new building blocks for growth in bilateral relations.

Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s defence minister, said the two countries were “entering a new phase” in their strategic partnership as she appeared for a joint press conference last week with Mattis. Mattis was the first Trump cabinet official to visit India.

The two made an interesting cast – one India’s first full-time woman defence minister, the other, “the warrior monk” who has devoted his life to the study of war – as they listed key planks of the “refreshed” relationship. Mattis went from New Delhi to Kabul, skipping Islamabad.

On the international front, the two emphasised the need for a strong, rule-based international order, freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded commerce, respect for territorial integrity, regional connectivity and peaceful resolution of disputes.

On the bilateral side, Sitharaman and Mattis focused on enhancing India’s defence preparedness with “further cutting-edge platforms” to meet “current and emerging threats,” re-energising the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), and delivering defence interoperability.

Mattis was effusive in praising India’s role in Afghanistan, calling it “a pillar of regional stability and security” and a “constant supporter of the fight against terrorists in Afghanistan”. He noted India’s development aid for “building the society” and public services.

The marked difference in attitude from the Obama administration, which sought to constrain India’s role for most of its eight years in power, is noteworthy as is the fact that India persisted in pursuing a responsible and careful policy on Afghanistan on its own. It created a “unique” image for itself, enjoying widespread affection among Afghans. To have succeeded despite objections from U.S. diplomats and Pakistan-inspired terrorist attacks on its embassy, aid workers and doctors, counts as a definite success. With the Trump administration loudly acknowledging India’s role, the twain have met.

Pakistan can take what message it will but the stronger public position by the U.S. in India’s favour is indicative of the shifting landscape. To claim that India has a “zero” political and military role in Afghanistan, as Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi recently did in New York, is wishful thinking.

If Pakistan can leave aside its obsession with India, Mattis has left the door open for it to come in. “I think Pakistan will find nothing out of line with India and the United States’ alignment in the same fight,” he told reporters on his way to New Delhi. Trump’s South Asia strategy is not “exclusive”, but inclusive, and it is Pakistan’s choice to join or not.

This is certainly different from the special treatment from Washington to which Pakistan has become accustomed over the years and early signs are that it’s finding it extremely hard to adjust. Islamabad has gone on the offensive both against the U.S. and India, but without much impact. Its new patron, China, recently signed on to the BRICS declaration, naming all terrorist groups in Pakistan’s keep.

On the Indo-U.S. bilateral front, the Trump administration appears more willing to make decisions to bolster India’s defences. Mattis used two interesting phrases – “pragmatic progress” and “steady engagement” – to characterise his department’s outlook for India in the years ahead.

The foundation stones will be the DTTI and designation of India as a “major defence partner” last year under the Obama administration. To make “pragmatic progress,” however, the regulatory environment for transfer of technology needs to change. Unclogging of the discretionary and cumbersome licensing process, which has resulted in some frustration, is essential.

Political intent, which has been articulated from the top, has to percolate down to the bureaucratic level. Since India is not an alliance partner and U.S. laws are written to favour allies, sharing of high technology becomes a struggle. Sometimes the White House finds the political will and the time to pursue this – and sometimes not.

It would be ideal if the strategic partnership were free of the burden of having to prove good intentions every time: words could then turn to action more quickly. This could be a “big” idea, constituting “pragmatic progress.”

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi

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