For Donald Trump to take potshots at other nations is nothing new. But the US President’s latest potshot over trade relations with India, China and other developing nations saying that they ‘unfairly’ received subsidies from the US as “growing economies”, is once again keeping New Delhi from guessing just what his true intentions are. The fact that this practice came close on the heels of the US courting India for almost a decade and finally getting it to sign the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in the course of the 2+2 strategic dialogue last week would have added to the uncertainty for New Delhi.
This is not the first time that Trump has attacked India. Earlier this year, he slammed India for a high import tariff on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, calling it “unfair”, even as New Delhi slashed customs duty on high-end brands of imported motorcycles to 50 per cent.  What is even worse is that he is following up these practices with threat of action. His insistence on tough sanctions against all those continuing to engage with Iran and Russia limits India’s options on energy security and defence procurement. There is a heightened fear in New Delhi that it may be forced to compromise on Russia’s high-value platforms, such as the leased Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine and the Su-30MKI combat aircraft which are currently in India’s employ.
What could be behind Trump’s blow-hot-blow-cold approach?
A possible answer is that he is driven by a mercantile approach. On the one hand, he wants to assert that the US will have its way. On the other hand, he wants to reach out to India because he sees America’s military-industrial complex as the answer to India’s insatiable hunger for defence purchases. This explains his peculiar relationship with India, the rationale for his tough policy on trade tariffs and his coming down heavily against the Generalised System of Preferences – an arrangement by which the US provides very low duty or duty-free access to certain products imported by America. This is of particular expediency to India as more than 3,500 Indian products are exported to the US through the GSP facility.
That India is already firmly within the American sphere of influence is beyond doubt. In the last 12 years, since the signing of the nuclear deal, India has been pulled further into the US orbit. Concerns such as loss of sovereignty by becoming far too dependent on America for its defence purchases and fear of losing Russia and access to their weapons systems, makes one wonder if New Delhi is reaching a position where it will no longer be able to say no to America.
It is understood that America had and has done quite a lot for India. It was with the 2005 US-India Framework for Defence Relations that the US began opening the door for India to access American high-tech items. The COMCASA is part of a set of three military agreements that the US considers “foundational” for a functional military relationship – the other two being the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), the last of which remains to be done. The recent agreement comes close to the US granting Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA-1) status to India. The US also facilitated India’s membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement.
What is interesting is that the realignment of the India-US relationship – thanks to three former Presidents, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama – is a piece of assiduous workmanship that has been governed by one common factor of strategic interest to US, namely, the containment of China through India. In 2017, Trump unveiled his “America First National Security Strategy” giving India a “leadership role” in the “broader” Indo-Pacific region.
But the way the US is moving towards protectionist policies wherever possible is at variance with its strategic goals. Perhaps, Trump is taking a tough pose to impress his domestic audience in view of the referendum on his administration in November this year. That is his prerogative. But in being strategically propped up by the US, India must not lose sight of its “strategic autonomy”. The COMCASA may be a shot in the arm for New Delhi, but at the end of the day, it may be useful to remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch.