The siren call of Uncle Sam : The Tribune India

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The siren call of Uncle Sam

Taking the cue from the White House, US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster threw the linguistic kid gloves aside to make an unadorned presentation of Washington’s expectations from India last week.

The siren call of Uncle Sam

The US letdown at the WTO triggered a rare Indian fusillade from minister Suresh Prabhu.

Sandeep Dikshit

Taking the cue from the White House, US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster threw the linguistic kid gloves aside to make an unadorned presentation of Washington’s expectations from India last week. Once he had dispensed with the usual diplomatic boilerplate language, Juster gave the impression of being in pursuit for the near and the immediate. Whether it is Saudi Arabia or India, all must pay for the privilege of having the White House in its corner. 

Juster’s take on the future trajectory of US-India relations is significant because it fills in the broad contours in the US National Security Strategy (NSS) about India’s obligations as a rising world power. The message that resonates strongly from a combined reading of the NSS and Juster’s speech is the need for India to immediately put its nose to the grind wheel of Indo-US bilateral relations and the fruits of its acquiescence might accrue later. Juster first dealt with India a quarter of a century ago and is well aware of the country’s political optics. It was no surprise that he himself posed the all-important question about the desirability of an intimate American embrace: ‘Is the US a reliable partner that will remain fully engaged in the region?’

The American carrot on the security side is tantalising but it requires India to step up to the plate; Juster like his predecessor is trying to coax India out of its tactic of maintaining ambiguity and preserving its options, an approach that helped India to steer clear of several geopolitical muddles in the past. It wants India to enact the more serious, actual war-fighting scenario in joint military exercises with the involvement of all the three services — army, navy and the air force. Joint military exercises are a sophisticated version of Western gunboat diplomacy of the last four centuries. The spectacle of all the three arms of both countries carrying out war-like manoeuvres is bound to send an unprecedented adversarial signal to the target country, in this case China.

The US has offered to balance out the difficulties and challenges for India in the neighbourhood if it takes a more adversarial positioning towards China. On offer are glossy military hardware and trade opportunities.

Much has been made of the US offer for cross posting of officers in each other’s military commands but it dates back to (Gen Claude) Kicklighter’s proposals of 1991 when the US made the first move to kick start defence cooperation with India. But the real meat and the potential is in the war-fighting equipment on offer with the US military industrial complex’s appetite already whetted by orders of over rupees one lakh crore. Juster does pay lip service to the requirement of patience in negotiating future deals but he gives the game away by seeking a one-year time line for wrapping up agreements that seek to edge out Russia and Europe from the Indian arms bazaar.

The payback for standing up to China and doing the American bidding in Afghanistan does not quite measure up on the trade front. The first part — easier entry for its financial and marketing behemoths is in keeping with the US approach of knocking down all closed national doors. But the second offer is intriguing for its in-built assumption of animosity: according to Juster, many US companies might want to make India the hub of their Asia Pacific operations in case the business climate in China becomes insufferable.

This proposed step-up in Indo-US intimacy is music for the Indian elite that has become a stakeholder in the Western system through ties of beti and roti.

The US envoy wanted Indians to stop doubting the positive spin-offs of the partnership and stop looking for another initiative to prove its worth. But the evidence on the ground does not quite add up. Juster was staggeringly silent on the bread-and-butter issues that are of importance for the vast Indian subaltern. Many an Indian would have noticed the changed American tone at both the World Trade Organisation Ministerial and the sole India-US Trade Policy Forum (TPF) meeting during the Trump era. 

Gone is the Obama era’s accent on collaboration and negotiations. Donald Trump’s chief objective towards India was never more bluntly spelt out. The top US trade official opened his remarks at the last TPF with a curt reminder to reorient the forum to a more balanced relationship.

The proceedings at TPF as well as Juster’s address were unapologetic about the immense American pressure on India to slash tariffs in its vulnerable agricultural and industrial sectors. The US bandied the $30 billion trade deficit as if was a grave Indian misdemeanor and not the usual play of market places. There is no doubt that hard times are ahead as India will have to withstand the demands to open its market in vulnerable and nascent sectors.

The American bullying and chicanery get worse at multilateral forums. Developing countries like India still repose trust in the UN and the WTO to get a fair deal in trade as well as on issues that ensure the wellbeing of their citizens, the two main criteria for regime stability and national welfare.

The US has remarkably changed its tone at the WTO. It reneged on a key priority issue for India — public stockholding for food security. Neither did it address issues of other poor countries that backed India’s bid to enlarge the policy space for food security. Trump and the developing world are headed for a clash on many other core development issues as well and not just at the WTO.

US reliability, thus, cannot be exclusively judged in security-commerce centric terms. Trump’s put-on conviviality towards India can be assuring but does not mask the self-serving tilt in American expectations.

 The harmony of interests between the US and India is neither complete nor polychromatic. There is need to cohere the Asia Pacific region around rules and norms, especially after much evidence has accumulated about China’s persistent misbehaviour.

But there are limits to an India-US tango because of the severely dented perceptions about Washington’s altruism. The WTO has been sent into a tailspin after the West pocketed its key demand for a Trade Facilitation Agreement. The efficacy of a world body that saved developing countries from many an unfair trade deal is now in doubt.

India needs a fluid and engaged relationship rather than a permanent embrace. The American blueprint comes at a cost: it overlooks the key demands of the marginal Indian and creates a more aggressive environment for political disagreements with China.

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