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The curious state of Indo-US relations

Both India and the US need to make each other understand about their self-interests as well as their limitations

India doesn’t want to be caught in an uncomfortable position when the US’s second set of sanctions get kicked in against Iran in the first week of November. (Reuters)

Martand Jha

On September 6, the first 2+2 dialogue between India and the US took place in Delhi. The ‘2+2’ symbolises the unique framework under which India’s external affairs minister and defence minister held talks with the US defense secretary and the US secretary of state. This comprehensive dialogue, whose framework was devised by prime minister Narendra Modi and US president Donald Trump last year, aimed to combine foreign and defence policy issues and deal with them in a coherent manner, rather than look at them separately. The significance of this dialogue is huge as it has been held at a time when India is increasingly showing its tilt towards the US. Global observers closely watched this 2+2 dialogue because it showcased the depth of the political engagement between the two countries.

This was also the first time India held a ‘2+2’ dialogue with any country at ministerial level and, therefore, expectations were high that it would boost Indo-US bilateral ties. The key issues discussed ranged from security, strategy, defence, economy and trade, especially regarding the import of Iranian oil. India doesn’t want to be caught in an uncomfortable position when the US’s second set of sanctions get kicked in against Iran in the first week of November.

India, being one of the largest importers of oil from Iran, has been in a catch-22 situation, especially after the US decided to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal in May. This 2+2 dialogue didn’t help India’s cause as the US remained non-committal on whether or not it would allow India a waiver from sanctions meant to prevent energy imports from Iran, and Pompeo made it clear that the US expects India to cut down its Iranian oil imports to zero.

Being a superpower that wants to desperately hold on to its status, the US looks India as a reliable partner and a possible ally in South Asia, which could act as a balancing force against China in the region. India, for long, has tried to refrain itself from choosing sides and has had friendly relations with most of dominant powers.

However, with India’s rising stature and power, the world expects India to play a bigger role in global affairs and thus India is finding itself in an increasingly uncomfortable position where it can’t have equally good relations with every major power. International relations are often tricky and complex, as they involves various players whose equations with one another keep changing due to the changing ‘self-interests’—there are no permanent friends or foes in this system. Many times nations forget this golden rule and strive to hold on to traditional ties even at the cost of self-interest.

Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), Indo-US relations reached a standoff when India went ahead to deal with Russia for the S-400 Triumf missile system, despite threats of sanctions. The other major issue between India and the US is the strengthening of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD)—at least the US wants the QUAD to take an institutional shape and thrive in the Indo-Pacific region as a counterforce to China and its allies.

India, on the other hand, wouldn’t want to complicate things with China, especially after the Wuhan Summit in April where PM Modi went to recalibrate Sino-Indian ties. In diplomacy, the two sides often try to find out where their self-interests converge. Both India and the US would be looking to find similar grounds of converging self-interests. Here, one has to remember that, in this case, one party, i.e. the US, is still a hegemon and India is still a middle power—the former’s self-interests are global in nature, while the latter’s are regional.

Thus, India needs to be cautious and should not put all eggs in one basket—India needs to make the US understand that there is a great possibility that what the US wants from India in return of the favours which the US could grant India may not be enough for India to align completely.

In a multilateral framework, over-reliance towards a superpower can prove costly. An aspirational power like India, which wants to create its own influence in the international system, needs to choose a middle path and put its self-interest over anyone else’s. Both India and the US need to make each other understand about their self-interests as well as their limitations in order to strengthen their diplomatic relations.

Junior Research Fellow, School of International Studies, JNU, Delhi

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