Beyond the Trump Turmoil

Donald Trump
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A new era in Indo-US relations

INDIA’S RELATIONS WITH the US have seen a measure of turbulence in recent months. But there is some good news on the horizon. An impending piece of legislation that would have injected bitterness in bilateral ties has now been suitably amended to take care of India’s sensitivities. The latest version of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a law meant to sanction countries that have close defence relations with Russia, now exempts India. This paves the way for New Delhi to go ahead with the purchase of an S-400 air defence missile system, a Rs 39,000-crore deal that had been in the works for long. The S-400 is an essential weapon platform for India’s security in an increasingly hostile environment.

With this exemption, the road is now clear for the ‘2+2’ summit between India’s Defence and External Affairs ministers and the US Secretary of State and Defense Secretary scheduled for September 5th. After repeated postponements, the 2+2 dialogue—touted as the next big thing in Indo-US strategic relations—was openly being cast in doubt by policymakers and commentators alike. That storm is largely over.

In the past quarter century, our bilateral ties have rested on two pillars: the strategic relationship and the economic one. The latter has always been friction-ridden: the US wants greater access to Indian markets and investment opportunities. India, for reasons of domestic politics, has taken these steps incrementally and often haltingly. This leads to confrontation at global fora like the World Trade Organization over a variety of issues. In contrast, the strategic relation has proceeded apace. In 1991, India could not dream of buying any American military equipment. Today, such cutting-edge hardware is available to India. Over and above all this, there are consultations over key security issues, often behind closed doors. The 2005 Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement—ending ‘nuclear apartheid’—was premised on close strategic ties.

All this took a hit under the Trump presidency when trade and strategic relations were linked together. This left friends of India in the US and those of the US in India aghast. With China now poised to match if not supplant the US as a global military power in the decades ahead, it is imperative that strategic relations be ring-fenced against any turmoil in other aspects of bilateral ties. The impending CAATSA waiver is a welcome step in that direction.