It might paper over the fact that the two sides have not yet been able to close the circle on a limited trade deal. A trade agreement between India and the US would always be difficult – “fair and reciprocal” mean very different things in Washington and New Delhi. It’s the one area in the bilateral relationship which stays out of the “strategic” umbrella, leaving both sides to squabble like Tom and Jerry. Cranberries, dairy, pecan nuts, poultry feed, grapes, ethanol, medical devices, walnuts, and almonds – this is the stuff of dispute and contention.
The growth of India-US relationship has been the strategic headline of the 21st century, even though viewership ratings have focussed on the US-China one – swinging between ‘G-2’ and ‘decoupling’.
A grand spectacle will dominate next week’s visit by US President Donald Trump. Trump loves spectacle, so does Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi will return the compliment of Trump gracing Houston’s ‘Howdy Modi’ last year by giving Trump possibly the biggest rally he can ever hope for. Please don’t be literal-minded or killjoys about numbers at the Motera Stadium ‘Namaste Trump’ tamasha. Indians are the progenitors of ‘over-the-top’, and we will deliver to gobsmacked audiences around the world.
That, by the way, will be the true gift from one politician to another, especially one going into a gruelling election cycle. It will be the biggest instance of a global leader addressing the Indian public, a political achievement in and of itself.
The USTR has long nursed an active dislike for India and India’s trading structures. They have company. India is bad news in trading circles in the US, Europe as well as Asia. Indian negotiators are famously prickly and unyielding, they have an annoying habit of making a virtue of a congenital inability to close a deal.
Not for nothing has Modi bumped up the negotiating team to the Cabinet level, entrusting it to the care of Piyush Goyal, Hardeep Puri and S Jaishankar. So, there was some disappointment when Robert Lighthizer, the tough-as-nails USTR decided to call off his visit, because, they believe India is one political-level meeting away from a deal. But, as a US official explained, the US had had enough of getting the royal run-around by the Indians for the past year and some.
The protectionist Trump administration has, despite the bluster and tariff walls, managed to squeeze through trade deals with Canada and Mexico, and a recent “phase 1” deal with China.
If you follow the timeline of the US-China trade negotiations for the past couple of years, Washington’s modus operandi is similar – pull back at the last minute for any number of reasons. Thing is, Indians have been playing the same game for years, because successive Indian governments have rolled with the same wish list of domestic business interests.
Our economy is doing swimmingly, unemployment is non-existent, say the Americans. We need not labour the point on the state of India’s economy, or that India’s growth is contingent on an open economy. To be sure, a $60,000 per capita superpower haggling with a $2,000 nation or even tagging India a “developed” economy is little short of extortion, so India pushing back is fair game.
But on the strategic end of things, the depth of political comfort has grown exponentially, and we can safely say the relationship enjoys excellent health. India is making strategic choices both in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific, sharing security and strategic goals with the US, which is, broken down to its fundamentals, a balancing of Chinese power.
In the Indo-Pacific, India is teaming up with the US, France, Japan and Australia. The most recent entrant in India’s close circle of partners is Indonesia, a relationship that should be followed. With the US, France and Japan, India has signed logistics sharing agreements (India should be able to announce completion of negotiations with the US on a BECA, the last of the foundational agreements). The Quad is creeping from talk shop to a ministerial level strategy platform.
What lies beyond the horizon for India and the US? There are three main areas that the two countries could aim for – technology, third-country cooperation and nuclear.
The field is vast in technology – just in telecommunications, India and the US can start with working together on 6G and 7G technologies. China is the acknowledged master of 5G. For this to happen, India should be part of the global rule-making systems on technology and telecommunications; it should go out of its way to attract minds, companies, inventions and investment in technology. India needs the US to help it navigate the tech sphere, and the US should have India by its side in the tech battle that will force the world to make tough choices. Space is another – India has demonstrated expertise and willingness, it remains for the two sides to take this to the next frontier.
The US deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, at the Raisina Dialogue spoke about the Blue Dot initiative, a new rating system to assess the sustainability and fiscal prudence of international projects. The US Build Act has started the process on improving US performance in projects overseas. India has sharpened delivery of its own international development projects. The US could start by giving Blue Dots to Indian companies, along with American, that deliver clean, sustainable projects overseas.
The third, and a key leftover of this partnership is nuclear. Modi 1 found some band-aid fixes for the disastrous nuclear liability law. But this law needs to be amended substantially for the Indian nuclear industry to grow. The US, meanwhile, is reworking its nuclear weapons. There is an obvious synergy here, we should pick up the bato