India and the United States are the world’s biggest democracies. They’re both capitalist countries, nuclear powers and former British colonies. They should be natural allies.
But over the past year, the Trump administration twice postponed high-level talks with India, citing scheduling conflicts. That left some in New Delhi feeling like the U.S. was taking India for granted.
Now, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in New Delhi for talks, they’ll seek to bring the two countries closer than they’ve been since the Cold War. Their agenda for Thursday’s talks is believed to include key issues such as anti-terrorism, maritime security and countering China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean.
But they may also have to reassure their Indian counterparts that the U.S. commander-in-chief is on board.
The Trump factor
Running for president, Donald Trump was one of the first candidates to film a campaign message in Hindi. He promised Indian-Americans he would be “best friends” with India.
“We love the Hindus!” Trump exclaimed at an October 2016 rally in New Jersey.
But last winter, footage of Trump clasping his hands and imitating Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went viral in India. Around the same time, a Washington Post report said Trump “has been known to affect an Indian accent” when talking about Modi in private meetings. Last month, another report, by Politico, said Trump mispronounced the names of India’s neighbors Nepal and Bhutan as “nipple” and “button,” and offered to set Modi up on a blind date. (The Indian prime minister is estranged from his wife.)
Modi, a right-wing nationalist who visited the White House in June 2017, nevertheless has a “fairly good relationship” with Trump, says retired Indian navy commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, who directs the Society for Policy Studies in India’s capital.
But, Bhaskar acknowledges, “You don’t know what will be tomorrow’s tweet that’s going to emerge from the White House.”
The U.S. and India are already at odds over H1-B visas for skilled Indian workers in the U.S. and tariffs on Indian steel. The U.S. motorcycle company Harley Davidson, which has criticized Trump’s decision to levy tariffs on imported steel, has one of its only overseas factories in India, just outside the capital New Delhi.
Any mistrust there could threaten U.S.-Indian cooperation in countering China – which, in the past decade, has taken control of strategic outposts across the Indian Ocean.
“China now has almost a permanent presence from Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota, where [it has leased] a port for 99 years, to parts of Myanmar and Bangladesh, where they are now going to provide submarines,” Bhaskar explains. “What it does is shrink the Indian profile — and we’re not even talking about Pakistan, Iran and the Persian Gulf.”
India feels surrounded, and doesn’t have as much money as China to finance regional projects. That’s one area where India would like the U.S. to step in.
In exchange, Washington may have some demands for India: Stop buying Iranian oil and Russian weapons.
India is the world’s largest arms importer, and Russia is its biggest source. This goes back to the Cold War, when India was officially nonaligned but signed a 1971 treaty with the Soviet Union and bought defense equipment from the communist nation. Russia inherited that relationship with India.
But last year, the U.S. Congress passed a law allowing sanctions on countries that buy “significant” amounts of defense equipment from Russia. The U.S. may grant India a waiver from those sanctions, allowing it extra time to wean itself off Russian arms, Bhaskar says.
“What President Trump and his administration are now trying to do is to accord a certain amount of space to India,” he says.
Over the past 10 years, India has been buying more weapons from the U.S. Since 2008, arms imports from the U.S. rose by 557 percent, making it India’s second largest supplier, behind Russia.
As for Iranian oil, the U.S. wants all countries to stop buying it by Nov. 5.
But with virtually no oil and natural gas of its own, India’s need is enormous. India has the fastest-growing major economy in the world, hungry for more energy. India is Iran’s No. 2 oil buyer, after China.
Visiting New Delhi in June, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley — born Nimrata Randhawa, to Indian immigrant parents — warned India to “rethink” its relationship with Iran.
But if Pompeo and Mattis make such a demand of their Indian counterparts this week, they’re likely to get rebuffed, says Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a security analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi.
“I think India will say, ‘That’s not going to happen – not completely,'” she says. “India will not want to be seen as taking a decision under American pressure.”
Rajagopalan predicts India will gradually reduce its reliance on Iranian oil, byt it’s not going to be “immediate and drastic,” she says. It’s doing so already, she says, and there are other options, including oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the U.S.
An Indian-financed Iranian port
India would be even more likely to comply with U.S. demands that it stop buying Iranian oil, Rajagopalan says, if the U.S. were willing to work out a deal on Chabahar, an Indian-financed port in southern Iran. It’s the one place where India is trying to do exactly what China has already done — finance strategic outposts across the region.
But after 15 years in development, Chabahar port is opening for business just as U.S. sanctions against such investments take effect. It’s unfortunate timing for India.
Through Chabahar, India could boost its trade with Afghanistan, without having to rely on land routes through Pakistan, India’s longtime nemesis. It would also open up links with Central Asian republics.
“But the question is, at what cost is it coming?” Rajagopalan asks, referring to the possibility of punitive U.S. sanctions. “A second issue about Chabahar is, OK, what if India doesn’t do it? Who’s going to do it? Will China fill the vacuum there?”
Last year, Sri Lanka handed over its Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease, after being unable to pay off debts to Chinese firms. Years ago, India had an opportunity to invest there but didn’t act quickly enough, Rajagopalan notes.
Access to “Hambantota port was originally [offered] to India,” she says. “But we took our own sweet time to take a decision on that, and in the meantime, China came in and they got the deal.”
If the U.S. were to waive sanctions against India for its use of Chabahar port in Iran, it may help one U.S. goal — countering China. But it may hurt another — isolating Iran.
It’s an example of the tough decisions that the U.S. may have to make in any negotiations with India.