In his first policy speech since taking over as the US ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster pitched for greater strategic depth in bilateral ties, going to the extent of suggesting that military liaison officers be posted at each other's theatre commands. If we manage to temporarily suspend our reflexive suspicion of US diplomatic overtures, it is possible to see that the proposal signifies a natural progression of a relationship that is based on an extraordinary convergence of internal and external objectives.
Much of Juster's stress during the inaugural address on Thursday was on the strengthening of military ties with India. It is evident that the Donald Trump administration is serious about pursuing the goals laid out in its recently unveiled National Security Strategy (NSS) where India is lauded as a "leading global power" and its "leadership" role in the greater Indo-Pacific region has been encouraged.
The 68-page document, released in December, envisaged a "stronger strategic and defence partnership" and vowed to expand "defence and security cooperation with India, a Major Defence Partner of the United States, and support India's growing relationships throughout the region."
Juster was, therefore, staying true to the policy direction when he called for expansion of "officer exchanges at our war colleges and our training facilities, and even at some point post reciprocal military liaison officers at our respective combatant commands." His proposals also included a multi-service drill involving "armies, navies, marines and air forces of the two countries." This a departure from India's annual war games with the US which are single service exercises.
India and the US are already signatories to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which allows interoperability between two militaries and close logistical cooperation for repair and replenishment of supplies. Juster's proposal is the next logical step that ties in with the larger US plan to use India as leverage to put a check on China's bellicosity and, in graduated steps, upgrade the ties to a status that it shares with its NATO allies and close defence partners.
"We seek to assist India's efforts to build up its indigenous defence base and capabilities, as well as enhance the inter-operability of our two forces as major defence partners in the Indo-Pacific region. We need to patiently make step-by-step progress on these defence initiatives rather than expect to resolve all issues at once."
Does a closer strategic tie with the US erode our strategic autonomy? This is a baseless fear. For one, the bedrock of India's foreign policy still lies firmly in Nehruvian ideal of 'non-alignment'. Consider India's recent vote against the US at United Nations. Second, the US has no interest in turning India into its protectorate. India's usefulness lies in its rising strategic profile in South Asia which the US wishes to harness with an eye on China and the size of its economy, where the US perceives a mutually rewarding trade relationship.
Not surprisingly, Juster's speech had references to a free-trade agreement and he also welcomed "steps by India to continue its reform agenda, expand market access, and further enhance the protection of intellectual property," not forgetting to nudge New Delhi towards "expeditiously (resolving) trade and investment disputes."
India must leverage Trump administration's policy prerogatives to further its own objectives. Trump's rather exaggerated wooing of India might be rooted in self-interest, but that is exactly how foreign policy is formulated and the US is committing no sin in pursuing its interests.
As Akhilesh Pillalamarri notes in The Diplomat, "While India has its own national interests, which it naturally desires to itemise at its own convenience, the current US administration's NSS represents a good opportunity for India to enhance its influence and security... Other than China and Pakistan, few other countries would oppose India taking on a greater role in the Indo-Pacific. If another great power, the United States, wishes to facilitate this, then all the better for India to capitalise on the attitudes of the American government."
We need not take Trump's claims about being India's "true friend" at face value. This not only because Trump is given to rhetorical bombast, the US president's ability to stay a policy course is suspect. However, that, or India's historical aversion to military ties with the US should not influence us into spurning US overtures. Let's be real. The rise of an assertive China presents an unprecedented geopolitical, strategic, economic and military threat to India, and we will need a strong relationship with the US to ensure a semblance of balance in Asia's power equation.
The Trump White House presents India with the best opportunity to leverage bilateral ties. This is because in his transactional attitude to diplomacy, Trump sees a profitable venture in pursuing close ties with India, and he will chase the opportunity to cut a 'deal' which he feels will be favourable for the US. His unscrupulousness and lack of political correctness wash away institutional impediments that would have otherwise come in the way of swift policy changes.
>Why is it an advantage for India?
Notwithstanding ideological inclinations, political compulsions, policy frameworks or personal prerogatives, the Oval Office demands of its incumbents a moral balance and adherence to norms of presidency. The pressure of leading the world's most powerful country that wields unabashed exceptionalism sobers even the toughest of men. Not Trump. His moral turpitude, expediency and lack of an ethical mooring make him a unique POTUS.
As The Economist notes, Trump's "opportunism and lack of principle, while shameful, may yet mean that he is more open to deals than most of his predecessors."
For instance, the world was stunned when Trump grew impatient with US lawmakers' efforts to protect immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, and according to a Washington Post report, asked lawmakers, ""Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?"
He rooted for more immigrants from Asian countries because he felt "they help the United States economically," added the report. It is not for India to be judgemental about the nature of Trump's convictions. We should channelise a great power to our advantage. View More