The pursuit of a mere restorationist agenda will hardly address the need to recalibrate the partnership’s raison d’être.
In his bid for the US presidency, former Vice President Joe Biden deemed Donald Trump to have “surrendered our position in the world.” Now, with Biden slated to become the 46th president of the United States, his approach to the transatlantic partnership would be at the core of his promise to “once more place America at the head of the table.” However, the mere departure of Eurosceptic Trump won’t reinvigorate the partnership, as hurdles would be apparent owing either to longstanding issues and nascent divergences of the Trump years, or questions over Biden possibly repeating some missteps of the Barack Obama years.
On trade, although Biden would abandon Trump’s declaration of Europe being an American “foe,” tensions over longstanding disputes (like that over subsidies for Airbus and Boeing) are likely to persist. This is not to mention possible aggravation at the hands of nascent divergences, like Europe pushing for a digital tax on US tech giants. Similarly, on burden-sharing for collective security, Biden would probably dial-down the rhetoric on Europeans “free-riding” on US largesse. However, the push for NATO member-states to increase their defence spending to 2% of GDP would continue, as that target was set in 2014 during the Obama-Biden years.
On transatlantic divergences like that over Iran, which emerged entirely at the hands of Trump withdrawing from the Obama-era Iran Nuclear Deal, Biden’s reversal to a pre-Trump status-quo won’t be swift. A renewed transatlantic consensus on the matter could be impeded by Biden’s insistence on “follow-on negotiations” to expand the scope of the deal, or domestic constraints posed by Republicans possibly continuing to control the US Senate.
Finally, under Obama, questions over US credibility often riddled Europeans as Russian adventurism increased at NATO’s doorsteps, while Washington seemed to be “no more than peripherally involved in the struggle to restore stability to the region.” Hence, under Biden, Europe would keenly observe his appetite for a credible strategy of unified deterrence. Beyond security of the periphery, similar questions could also emerge over Biden’s commitment to continue to stand firm against China, just when a revived European “strategic autonomy” has informed Brussels’ recognition of China as a “systemic rival” and its contemplation of safeguards against predatory acquisitions by Chinese investors.
Hence, although the transatlantic relationship would be a priority for Biden, the pursuit of a mere restorationist agenda will hardly address the need to recalibrate the partnership’s raison d’être — to better tackle a range of divergences and continued questions over US credibility.
Echoes of Trump’s vilification of US internationalism are evident in progressives' push for Biden to reinvent American foreign policy.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is set to become the 46th president of the United States. However, far from the definitive repudiation of President Donald Trump (and his policies) that most Democrats hoped for with a landslide victory, the 2020 election was a close call. This was evident with Trump winning about 7 million more votes than his 2016 tally, Republicans increasing their chances of holding-on to the US Senate by successfully guarding vulnerable seats and even gaining a seat in Alabama, and Democrats slipping in the US House of Representatives to the “thinnest majority in about two decades.”
With the election results reflecting the polarisation of “two broad voting coalitions”, chances of Biden pursuing an ambitious domestic agenda without facing intense political gridlock are low. Not to mention, the pressures Biden could face from within his own party to jettison moderate positions — which could also further limit chances of any bipartisan understanding.
However, on crafting a prudent foreign policy to address the excesses of American internationalism, there is scope for Biden to cooperate with forces across-the-aisle and progressives within the Democratic Party.
In the post-Cold War timeline, bipartisanship on Cold War-era assumptions for sustaining American primacy largely continued. This included, maintaining unparalleled US military capabilities, championing free trade, and seeking the liberalisation of emergent powers.
Overtime however, this had counterintuitive results. In militarising US foreign policy, the over emphasis on hard power was evident in the “shock and awe” campaigns through the first Gulf War, intervention in the Balkans, and the post-9/11 Global War on Terror (GWOT). Further, in an effort to “prepare Americans for a world in which global economic forces failed to respect national boundaries”, free trade agreements only hampered America’s manufacturing base. While NAFTA displaced 851,700 jobs between 1993-2013, normalisation of trade with China cost 3.2 million jobs between 2001-13. Lastly, the liberal internationalist agenda of shaping China’s rise into a “responsible stakeholder” (despite its repeated deferral of reforms against pegging its currency at low levels, incentivising state-owned entities, and necessitating technology transfers), only fed its ascent as a near-pear competitor to the US itself.
Thus, although often deemed to be an aberration, Trump’s conservative nationalist movement around these issues was arguably a belated — yet entirely natural, consequence of the inextricable domestic impact of America’s actions abroad. Certainly, Trump wasn’t the first to highlight the excesses of American internationalism, especially since opposition to protracted wars began to brew in the final years of George W. Bush and was at the heart of Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. However, the systemic hold of American internationalism favouring an activist US foreign policy proved to be uncompromisable, which Obama himself described as the “Washington playbook” in one of his parting interviews.
Thus, despite his push to end Bush-era wars, further entrenchment in GWOT efforts, intervention in Libya, ten-fold increase in drone warfare, and expansive reading of post-9/11 Authorisations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs), only reaffirmed military power as the tip of the proverbial spear. Similarly, on China, the quest for cooperation on global governance encompassed the Obama administration ending its early imposition of tariffs on Chinese tires, and informed its ambivalence on transgressions such as Beijing backtracking on its pledge to not militarise the South China Sea. On trade, Obama unveiled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a trade agreement between 12 Pacific-rim nations to underscore the US as a “Pacific power”, which only went on to become a rallying point for progressives in his own party’s turn for greater attention to the working-class.
However, with Trump breaking the policy inertia on US internationalism by first altering his party’s worldview, opportunities for a renewed bipartisanship have emerged — as progressives on the Left are now similarly stressing on the inextricable link between foreign and domestic priorities.
The ‘America First’ foreign policy has gradually altered the Republican Party’s worldview, which otherwise championed internationalism. For instance, Trump’s conservative nationalist approach to “stop endless wars and bring our troops home” has increasingly garnered support from prominent establishment Republican lawmakers. During the campaign, Biden similarly promised to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East”. This was aimed at progressives in his party, who fear a Biden administration would merely engage in foreign policy restoration (to pre-Trump years) and not its reinvention owing to his past record on supporting military engagements. In echoing Trumpian opposition to nation-building abroad, progressive groups had urged Biden to adopt a foreign policy which “utilizes our military solely for the defense of the people of our country.”
Subsequently, the Biden campaign’s policy platform pledged to “repeal decades-old authorizations for the use of military force and replace them with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars.” This bold pronouncement was indicative of prominent progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s idea of foreign policy being “an enormous area” for pushing Biden “in a more progressive direction”.
Further, with his 2016 assertions over free trade hollowing-out the industrial mid-West, Trump withdrew the US from the TPP on grounds of it being detrimental to the American worker. This was another instance of Trump remaking the Republican worldview, as prominent lawmakers hailed the decision, in contrast to their party’s orthodoxy on supporting free trade. Whereas, like most Democrats, Biden criticised Trump’s decision. However, in face of progressives that similarly rally against the ills of free trade, he has not committed to rejoining the deal without first pushing for tougher labor and environmental rules. Going a step beyond Hillary Clinton’s 2016 about-face on the TPP (after initially calling it the “gold standard“) to appease progressives, Biden also pledged not to sign any trade deal that doesn’t include “major investments” in jobs and infrastructure, and labor and environment advocates on the negotiating table. In addition, Biden has proposed an “offshoring penalty surtax” and a 10% tax credit for companies manufacturing in the US.
On China, Trump ended the US’ post-Cold War policy dissonance on the degree of cooperation and competition with Beijing. Beyond rallying Republicans in support for a confrontational US policy towards China, one may argue, Trump also influenced a rightward shift across-the-board, on the need to address the China challenge.
This was evident with prominent Democrats supporting Trump’s initial impositions of tariffs against China, assisting Trump’s global campaign against Chinese primacy in the telecommunications domain, and complementing Trump’s policy with timely Congressional mandates on acting against China’s civil-liberties record. However, differences over the ideal approach to do so emerged during the presidential campaign when progressives frowned at Biden’s attempt to out-hawk Trump on China. In stressing that there are ways to address the China challenge which “is not racist and not nationalistic”, progressives informed Biden’s approach that is predicated on rigorous domestic investments.
Echoing Trump’s call to ‘Buy American and Hire American’, Biden’s ‘Buy American’ economic plan proposes US$ 300 billion investment in “Research and Development and Breakthrough Technologies — from electric vehicle technology to lightweight materials to 5G and artificial intelligence — to unleash high-quality job creation in high-value manufacturing and technology.” This, coupled with another US$ 400 billion bid to “power new demand for American products, materials, and services and ensure that they are shipped on US-flagged cargo carriers.” Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that Republicans could get behind such a holistic undertaking to confront China, which centres on strong government interventions (in contrast to their traditional apprehensions on ‘Big Government’). Sen. Marco Rubio for instance, has similarly argued for a government-led effort with tax incentives, rigorous investment, and regulatory rollbacks in the “same industries China is trying to dominate via their Made in China 2025 initiative”, because simply recalibrating America’s trading arrangements is “not enough.”
Certainly, a renewed bipartisan consensus may not occur overnight. Moreover, it could be riddled with new fault-lines, as with progressives wanting to go one step further on discouraging military engagements by also pushing for cuts in defence spending. However, on the broader aims of opposing lengthy military engagements abroad, pursuing free trade that takes cognisance of the working-class, and holistically confronting the China challenge, there is much scope for a renewed convergence of the American Left and Right.
In the larger scheme of Europe belatedly meeting its moment, Trump’s ‘disruptions’ that now unduly dominate analyses on transatlantic ties could eventually become mere footnotes to history.
US President Donald Trump’s break with tradition on transatlantic ties has involved Eurosceptic rhetoric and demands for balance in America’s economic ties with the European Union (EU) and under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Empirical evidence, however, shows that Trump’s record has in fact been mixed, with some notable policy-level achievements and other contentions predating his tenure.
On trade, after the Trump administration’s sweeping imposition of tariffs on imported steel and aluminium, and Europe retaliating with their own tariffs, the next significant point of tension came only in 2019. The US tariffed European planes, wine, cheese, and other products, after the World Trade Organization (WTO) permitted Washington to act on European exports of up to US$7.5 billion. This was in response to a 16-year dispute on the US accusing Europe of subsiding Airbus. Similarly, the spectre of Europe imposing tariffs on US$ 4 billion worth of US products emerged, after WTO ruled on Europe’s 2005 counter-complaint on the US subsidising Boeing. Apart from such issues that predate Trump, tensions mostly remained confined to the rhetoric level and the two sides even announced in 2020 their first duty reductions in over two decades.
Similarly, on collective security, Trump rallied against the lack of equitable burden-sharing amongst NATO members. However, his hyperbolic threats aside, Trump’s last two predecessors also repeatedly pushed for increased NATO defence spending, with Barack Obama even referring to Europeans as “free riders”. Moreover, in lending credence to Trump’s approach, the tally of NATO members that spend two percent of their GDP on defence has risen to 10, from just three in 2014. Furthermore, the Trump administration has supported collective security by re-establishing the Atlantic-based US 2nd Fleet, spearheading operational initiatives like the ‘Four Thirties’ on force readiness, and supporting regional capacity-building via platforms like the Three Seas Initiative.
Nevertheless, criticism of Trump’s record based on an idealised reading of transatlantic ties has continued, ignoring not only old faultlines but also recent policy gains. This has assumed a catalytic effect, resulting in the emergence of a push for greater European “strategic autonomy”. European leaders argue for an active European foreign policy by openly questioning US credibility: “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over”; “barriers behind which Europe could blossom have disappeared”; and, “thanks to him [Trump] we have got rid of all illusions”. Although initially limited to addressing Trump’s ‘disruptions’, as with Europe exercising greater control over its interests amidst transatlantic divergences on Iran (via measures like the INSTEX), European assertiveness is increasingly assuming its own character.
On addressing long-standing dissonance in European agenda-setting, deliberations are underway on shedding the requirement for unanimity amongst member states on foreign policy issues, in favour of “qualified majority”. This could be pivotal in forging, for instance, a pan-European stance on the Indo-Pacific. In addition, after long viewing China solely from an economic standpoint, the EU has now termed it as a “systemic rival” to formulate a holistic approach on defending its interests and values. This has been evident with proposals on guarding against predatory acquisitions by government-subsidised Chinese investors and limiting export of surveillance technology that helps operationalise China’s digital authoritarianism.
Therefore, in the larger scheme of Europe belatedly meeting its moment, Trump’s ‘disruptions’ that now unduly dominate analyses on transatlantic ties could eventually become mere footnotes to history.
Recent focus on convergence-based institutionalisation of bilateral ties has consolidated India-US defence ties, without the overbearing pressures of a formalised alliance
Speaking in New Delhi early this month, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun underscored a different approach for partnerships. In context of the Indo-Pacific region, while Biegun acknowledged the criticality of the United States’ post-World War II treaty alliances in underwriting peace and prosperity for about seven decades, the US diplomat expressed the need for recalibrating partnerships to better “reflect the geopolitical realities of today and tomorrow.” Although Biegun noted some alliances (as with Japan and Australia) to have already evolved to a degree, he noted the redundancy of following “the model of the last century of mutual defence treaties with a heavy in-country US troop presence.”
Biegun noted India to be one such partner with which the US has an emerging “organic and deeper partnership — not an alliance on the postwar model, but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests, and shared values.” Given recent developments under the US-India bilateral dynamic, there is much credence to that assessment as a renewed model for management of bilateral ties has been apparent in recent years. To which, the upcoming the India-US 2+2 ministerial dialogue bears testament.
Slated for October 27 in New Delhi, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will host their American counterparts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper. This will be the third iteration of the India-US 2+2 consultative dialogue between the two sides, since it was initiated after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first meeting with US President Donald Trump in 2017.
The same was indicative of the Trump administration’s intent to continue its predecessor Barack Obama administration’s push for instituting definite frameworks and standardised communication channels between India and the US. Furthermore, the India-US 2+2 ministerial dialogue replaced the India-US Strategic and Commercial dialogue between the two sides’ foreign and commerce ministers, which was initiated under Obama in 2015.
Subsequently, this indicated a sense of greater nuance to the need for institutionalisation of bilateral ties — towards not only graduating the bilateral dynamic away from over-dependence on chemistry between the top political leadership, but also design frameworks in a manner that maximise convergences between the two countries. The value of which, was apparent when trade frictions emerged under the Trump administration’s effort to exact renewed “fair and reciprocal” trading arrangements with America’s partners. As a result, over the last three years, as trade negotiations continually stalled over either long-standing market-access issues or nascent divergences like that over digital trade, US-India strategic ties progressed nearly unhindered.
The inaugural India-US 2+2 dialogue for instance, witnessed the two sides committing to “start exchanges between the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and the Indian Navy.” Whereby, the Indian Navy even announced that the defence attaché at the Indian embassy in Bahrain would subsequently “double up” as India’s representative at NAVCENT. This was crucial with regards to India and the US aligning their conceptions over the relevance of the north-west Indian Ocean region under the Indo-Pacific construct.
Similarly, the second iteration of the 2+2 dialogue oversaw the finalisation of the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) to “facilitate the exchange of classified military information between Indian and the US defence industries.” The same is an important step towards the long-belated actualisation of the Obama-era Defence Technology and Trade Initiative’s (DTTI) goal of graduating India-US defence ties away from a traditional “buyer-seller” dynamic and towards one based on co-production and co-development.
The focus on maximising convergences through specific consultative platforms has also been apparent with other strategic avenues. For instance, India and the US have identified complementarities between the Modi government’s aim to “diversify its [energy] import basket beyond the OPEC nations” and the Trump administration’s policies on “unleashing American energy dominance” through “new export opportunities” for energy producers. Since its establishment in 2018, the US-India Strategic Energy Partnership ministerial dialogue between India’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas and the US Energy Secretary has overseen bilateral hydrocarbon trade to increase to US$ 9.2 billion in 2019-20. Wherein, the US swiftly became India’s sixth largest oil supplier in 2020, with India’s imports rising to 1,84,000 barrels per day in 2019 (which was four times more than 2018 figures, and up from zero four years ago).
This focus on convergences and its institutionalisation through dedicated frameworks alleviates the pressures on the two sides to urgently contemplate formalisation of ties.
This emergent model of managing bilateral ties has also permitted greater military preparedness – on both sides – without the pressures of entering a formal arrangement like the one Biegun described. As a case in point, building on the Obama administration’s work on the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) was signed at the inaugural India-US 2+2 dialogue. LEMOA, COMCASA and last year’s ISA cemented India’s buy-in to the described model of convergence-based institutionalisation with the US, and is set to go further this year with the signing of the final ‘Foundational Agreement’ – the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geo-Spatial Cooperation at this week’s 2+2 dialogue.
The four Foundational Agreements serve as a framework for cooperation and interoperability between the US military and international partners such as India, with the first of these, the General Security Of Military Information Agreements (GSOMIA) signed in 2002 to enable the sharing of classified data between Government entities (but crucially, not private companies, which the ISA resolved last year). After protracted negotiations, LEMOA was signed in 2016, allowing both parties to benefit from each other’s logistics infrastructure, resources and consumables, while 2018’s COMCASA enables secure communications between the forces and governs access to sensitive US communications equipment and encryption. Whereas, BECA will allow the US to share satellite and other surveillance data to improve Indian navigation and targeting capabilities.
While LEMOA has already seen Indian warships refuel using US Navy tankers at sea and US patrol aircraft transit Port Blair, COMCASA and BECA will facilitate closer non-kinetic cooperation during crises such as the 2017 Doklam incident and the ongoing LAC stand-off. It is worth noting that while the USA was reported to have shared intelligence with India during the Doklam issue, that cooperation was inherently limited by the lack of formal structures to enable rapid, secure dissemination of information.
Despite a raft of defence agreements in recent years, increasingly complex joint exercises such as the tri-service Tiger Triumph series that began last November, and even strong US messaging on the recent India-China stand-off at the LAC, it is worth reiterating Biegun’s point that India-US military cooperation is not an alliance and is not leading to one. The US will not fight India’s wars, nor will the reverse be expected, but the burgeoning ties do reinforce a message – that of the US as a useful partner.
Wherein, India stands to gain significantly from the United States’ global footprint in terms of logistics and intelligence, and will benefit from American situational awareness, especially in the region, thanks to COMCASA and BECA. Nor is the relationship one-sided – just as India benefited from US inputs during Doklam and may well be doing so again at the LAC in 2020, the US has benefited from Indian defence spending, including LAC-related emergency buys this year. As Indian forces increasingly value US military hardware as being transparently priced and predictable to operate and maintain, the US will continue to benefit from being part of India’s military ecosystem going forward.
Absent true interoperability, these limited – but significant – convergences are worth keeping in mind in both capitals as the two countries explore the limits of what strategic cooperation can enable.
As Biden draws on the experience of the 2018 midterms to expand his appeal with women, Trump is prioritising mobilisation — and not persuasion, for a higher turnout of his 2016 women voter base
As with every presidential election since 1984, more women (58.1%) voted than men (53.8%) in 2016. This was central to Donald Trump’s victory as the major sub-electorate of white women voted 52-43 for him over Hillary Clinton — who otherwise won Black women (94-4) and Latino women (69-25). Behind Clinton’s loss of white women was the crucial subset of non-college-educated white women voting overwhelmingly (61-34) for Trump, and Clinton having a modest victory with college-educated white women (51-44).
Subsequently, that support came under question as a study of Trump’s first two years in office revealed a 13 percentage-point gender gap in his average approval rating with men and women. This was noted to be wider than his predecessors dating back to George H. W. Bush, and was apparent in the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections. In propelling Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives, they won women voters by 19 points (59-40) — a margin larger than their 1982 win (58-41). Apart from higher turnouts by women of colour and latino women, the victory was attributed to college-educated white women swinging to the left with 59 percent voting for Democratic House candidates.
However, Congressional midterms differ from presidential elections due to the Electoral College. Whereby, the outcome is determined by “a series of winner-take-all “districts”,” and not necessarily by a candidate’s vote margin. Hence in 2016, in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where Trump narrowly won by 0.2, 0.7, and 0.8 percentage points, the role of non-college-educated white women had a decisive impact in handing Trump the states’ combined 46 electoral votes.
Recognising this characteristic of the US electoral system that accords “disproportionate influence to voters” such as the white working class in swing states, the campaign of the Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden seems to have crafted its strategy accordingly. Drawing on the 2018 experience, the Biden campaign has focussed on the turnout of other women voter subsets in order to outweigh any continued electoral advantage that Trump may have with the working class. This is evident in Biden’s near-consistent double-digit lead nationally, which has been underpinned by women supporters — 56 percent of whom favor Biden over 39 percent for Trump. Wherein, even as Trump reportedly continues to lead (59-37) with non-college-educated white women, Biden’s numbers are fuelled by his lead with suburban women by 14 percentage points, senior women by 12 percentage points, African American women by 72 percentage points, and women under 30 by 60 percentage points.
Further, the Biden campaign has sought a shift in voter inclinations, which has mostly occurred over the past few months with former national security officials from past Republican administrations. Popularised as ‘Biden Republicans’, the Biden campaign’s strategy to replicate such a shift with women voters is linked to its alignment with conservative political action committees like the Lincoln Project, which aims to persuade “disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents” to unseat Trump.
With help from such entities that have engaged in an advertising blitz on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, law and order issues, and race relations, the Biden campaign has had the room to focus on women voters. By releasing its ‘Trump Has Failed American Women’ policy blueprint, the Biden campaign has highlighted the Trump administration’s actions such as, disbanding the White House Council on Women and Girls, and revoking the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order. In doing so, the campaign has sought to drive a wedge between traditional Republicans and Trump supporters, as those actions are not discussed as stemming from dogmas of the Republican Party, but as merely being reflective of Trump’s record with women.
This has helped the Biden campaign to attract conservative surrogates to complement its already impressive cohort of influential women headliners (Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Valerie Jarrett, etc). The Biden campaign has reportedly amassed help from influential ‘Biden Republican’ women like Christine Todd Whitman (former governor of New Jersey), and Susan Molinari (former congresswoman from New York). In states like Arizona — which could flip for Democrats for the first time in decades, the matriarch of the influential McCain family has also endorsed Biden. In her announcement, Cindy McCain addressed “suburban women” and asked them to “take a harder look at the race and perhaps step over the line the way I did.”
An alternate reading of the 2016 outcome suggests that Trump did not win because he successfully courted white voters in swing states with his nativist message. Instead, the primary factor behind Clinton’s loss could have been lower voter turnout as compared to 2012 figures. In the battleground state of Wisconsin for instance, Trump became the first Republican candidate since 1984 to win the state in a presidential election. However, Trump overall received just “about the same number of votes” as Mitt Romney in 2012, when he lost the state to Barack Obama. Whereas, Clinton “received nearly 240,000 fewer votes than Obama”. In Wisconsin, a decline in Black voter turnout from 79 percent in 2012 to 47 percent in 2016 could have alone cost Clinton about 88,000 votes — over three times Trump’s victory margin of a little over 27,000 votes.
As a result, Trump continuing to hold ground with non-college-educated women voters could then make all the difference yet again. Especially if mobilisation remains as the determinant also in view of new voter registrations plummeting across the nation due to the pandemic. Furthermore, if one were to consider the historic turnout among non-college-educated white voters during George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection, there is scope for Trump to strengthen his 2016 figures by 222,000, 175,000, and 130,000 additional voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania respectively. Hence, the Trump campaign has continued to organise large-scale rallies despite fears of the pandemic. Wherein, it has identified as much as a quarter of attendees who didn’t vote in 2016, put their coordinates into a database, and then reached out to them to register to vote via follow-up door knocks, phone calls and text messages.
In order to strengthen this effort in case of non-college-educated white women, the Trump campaign has launched the ‘Women for Trump’ bus tour which seeks to boost voter turnout in the smallest of centres in distant counties of electorally-crucial states. Some scheduled stops include, New Castle (population under 88,000) in Lawrence County (Pennsylvania), Boardman (population under 35,000) in Mahoning County (Ohio), and Greenville (population under 178,000) in Pitt County (North Carolina).
To mobilise women in such places, the Trump campaign has countered the Biden campaign’s effort at making Trump’s character or policy record with women a talking-point. In doubling-down on its 2016 mantra of women voters understanding the “difference between what offends them and what affects them”, the Trump campaign has stuck to its ‘law and order’ message and suggested that Biden’s policies on affordable housing would pose an existential threat to the suburbs. In addition, the campaign has hailed Trump’s decision to grant a full pardon to Susan B. Anthony — the most prominent leader of the women’s suffrage movement, in face of the Left’s “cultural revolution” against such figures’ questionable legacy on race issues.
Lastly, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Trump campaign has highlighted the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett (Democrat legislators have criticised her as someone whose Catholic faith would influence judgements) to rally conservative Christian women. Trump’s third Supreme Court justice pick in one term, Barrett’s nomination would cement the Supreme Court’s conservative bent for generations to come. It could be particularly consequential with respect to reproductive rights, in line with Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to nominate justices that “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade (the landmark 1973 decision that established a woman’s legal right to abortion). From the standpoint of the election, the nomination could become a rallying point for conservative women in view of Biden’s recent shift in favor of reproductive rights — such as his reversal on the Hyde Amendment (which bars federal funding for abortions) after years of supporting it during his time in the US Senate.
Hence, unlike Biden, the Trump campaign’s strategy has not been to widen the base by pursuing women voters from across the aisle. Instead, it has sought to deepen Trump’s hold on non-college-educated white voters — and especially women in that subset, to aim for a higher turnout.
As the Abraham Accord consolidates Iran’s centrality in the US' approach to the Middle East, Trump’s legacy of “maximum pressure” against Iran could prolong into a Biden presidency.
Iran has been central to President Donald Trump’s foreign policy for the Middle East since coming to power in January 2017. Having derided the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement throughout his campaign, Trump eventually withdrew the US from the same in May 2018. This drastic change in thinking sought to take back Iran into sanctions, economic isolation and military pressure, and thereby dismantle Obama’s efforts over eight years to end the US’ impasse with Tehran.
Through the Iran Nuclear Deal negotiations that lasted between 2013 and 2015, the Middle East was immensely divided with the Sunni block — led by Saudi Arabia, UAE and others, raising strong concerns over the ‘mainstreaming’ of Iran with its economic revival without the Shia power being forced to deliver on reigning-in its expansionist agenda — led by its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah in Lebanon and proxies in Syria, Yemen and other conflict theatres. The animosity against Iran had risen to levels, that the likes of Saudi Arabia and UAE clandestinely — but increasingly, started to warm up to Israel, with both sides seeing a common enemy in Iran. This was only coupled with rising questions over American security guarantees in the region with an increasing appetite in Washington to deploy fewer military assets to the region.
The killing of Iranian general Qasseim Soleimani by a US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020 brought the US–Iran dynamic to a point of no return. Soleimani, as the chief of the IRGC, was instrumental in the Shia power’s expansions within the Syrian civil war, and bringing Shiite militias to the borders of Israel — which pushed Jerusalem to launch direct attacks in and around Damascus and the contested Golan Heights region. As a result, the Trump administration, which initially had decided to withdraw troops from Syria was pushed to re-deploy merely months later by the likes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This, while US’s NATO ally Turkey, was both supporting local Islamist militias and banding with Russia to create an alternative buffer. Overtime, this only undermined the Gulf countries’ influence, who had started to review their approach towards Syria’s embattled leader Bashar al-Assad. The UAE had re-opened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, signalling a shift in both the Gulf power block’s approach to the crisis, and intra-Gulf understanding of the same as the Saudi-UAE led blockade of Qatar continued.
In June 2019, reports suggested that Trump had authorised strikes against Iran after the downing of a US military drone by Iranian surface-to-air missiles, only to then pull back mid-way of the operation. While a direct military confrontation with Iran is something the US under Trump had envisaged, the Gulf countries in the region, despite fighting proxy wars with Iran in theatres such as Syria, Yemen and beyond, worked to avoid a full-scale war. Instead, they wanted to offset the same via strengthened US push against the Iranian regime which could include tactical but limited use of military operations, and renewed rigour in intelligence and sabotage operations against Iranian interests.
Furthermore, the Sunni Arab world during Trump’s presidency has also gone through internal turmoil, for which the Trump administration’s support has been critical. This ranges from the impending accession of Mohammed bin Salman as King of Saudi Arabia, his role in the Jamal Khashoggi murder case and its fallout, Washington’s limited pressure against Riyadh and Abu Dhabi over Yemen and Libya, the intra-GCC crisis with Qatar, and other human rights issues — all whilst maintaining the Iran threat as the focus.
This unfettered US support has the Gulf capitals now pining for a Trump return. This has been particularly evident with the UAE–Israel normalisation in form of the Abraham Accords, signed between Israel, UAE and Bahrain on 16 September 2020 at the White House — handing Trump a significant victory for both US foreign and domestic policy optics.
However, even if Trump were to lose come November, Biden will hardly escape this fait accompli.
Under his pledge of “rescuing” US foreign policy after Trump, the Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden has committed to “rejoin” the Iran Nuclear Deal. Beyond reinstating the landmark deal of the Obama-Biden years, Biden’s motivation to do so also stems from dampening the impact that America’s withdrawal from the deal has had in accentuating fault-lines in Washington’s transatlantic ties. However, given the ramifications of the Trump years in terms of Iran gradually jettisoning its commitment to the deal — chiefly in terms of it now having over 10 times the amount of enriched uranium permissible under the deal, chances of a swift reversal in America’s position would be slim.
Furthermore, on Biden’s plan to “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy” and pursue that “as a starting point for follow-on negotiations”, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said Iran “will not renegotiate” the terms. Hence, to “claw back elements” of the earlier deal, at least in the short-term, a Biden administration could continue Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy to coax Iran — to at least have it return to pre-Trump adherence to the deal.
Biden could also face domestic opposition, especially if reports of Democrats being poised to take control of the US Senate do not actualise. At that point, a Republican-led Senate could once again emerge as an opponent to American participation in the deal, as in case of Senate Republicans’ declaration to not ratify the 2015 nuclear deal under Obama. Back then, in an apparent breach of diplomatic protocol and constitutional precedent on the executive branch’s hold over foreign policy matters, Senate Republicans even penned an open letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Trump subsequently did, the letter had warned Iran’s Supreme Leader of the constitutional provision of Obama’s successor to “revoke such an executive agreement” that is “not approved by the US Congress” with “the stroke of a pen.”
Moreover, in face of greater Israel-Arab alignment on the issue of Iran, it would be cumbersome for the Biden administration to once again temper Israeli and Arab opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal, as the Obama administration did by not encouraging their direct involvement in the P5+1 talks. With Israel specifically, the Biden campaign seems to have anticipated the coming challenge, and hence has announced its commitment to secure its preeminent ally in the region. In doing so, the campaign has prominently underscored the Obama-Biden administration’s 2016 finalisation of the largest of its kind aid package for Israel (US$ 35 billion over 10 years).
With the Abraham Accords however, as the region gradually reorders around Iran — and not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, prospects of the two being linked stand accentuated. For instance, Biden’s announced commitment to press Israel to not take actions that “make a two-state solution impossible” — like annexing the West Bank, could be used to consolidate a heavy-handed US approach to Iran. In pushing Biden to expand the scope of the deal for instance, Israel could once again raise the spectre of annexing the West Bank. In view of the annexation’s “temporary” suspension being at the core of the Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain normalisation, the political optics of those newly christened peace deals unravelling would bear on Biden’s calculations.
Moreover, additional security guarantees for Arab nations would stand in order. Especially since, a prime motivation behind UAE and Bahrain normalising relations with Israel has reportedly been towards potentially acquiring advanced US weaponry that Washington sells only to those Middle East nations that are at peace with Israel. Moreover, if other Arab nations also join in by normalising relations with Israel, the pressure to cater to Arab security concerns would multiply — and by that extension also their influence over a renewed deal. Hence, short of entirely untethering from the Palestinian cause, greater Arab alignment with Israel signifies a realpolitik realisation that the road to their common security interests and continued anti-Iran posture by the US, runs through Jerusalem.
For India, a Biden administration could certainly be sympathetic on strategic interests like the Chahbahar port, or its preference for reinstating Iran as a key source for its energy needs. However, owing to greater Israel-Arab alignment tying Biden’s hands, it would continue to be difficult for New Delhi to either seek some reprieve or insulate the issue of its relations with Iran from its engagement with the emergent Arab-Israel consensus.
Hence, with continued Iranian centrality in America’s approach to the Middle East, Trump’s legacy of “maximum pressure” against Iran could prolong into a Biden presidency.
While Trump attempts to expand his base from blue-collar whites to suburban white voters, Biden’s courtship of that crucial voting block stands eclipsed by his focus on the progressives
According to census projections, the United States is set to be a majority-minority nation by 2045, with racial minorities emerging as the “primary demographic engine of the nation’s future growth.” However, the electoral relevance of the white voter is expected to hold over the coming years.
The “minority white” scenario of 2045 suggests whites would gradually shrink to 49.7 percent of the US population. However, the “power of white voters” over the Electoral College due to their composition of swing states would continue. Whereas, the diverse multiracial majority (of 24.6 percent Hispanics, 13.1 percent African Americans, 7.9 percent Asians, and 3.8 percent Others) may not consolidate cumulatively under one catch-all political agenda. Moreover, they would have a lesser impact on the Electoral College as they are mostly concentrated in urban centres that tend to be liberal anyway. In recent times, whites have also steadily moved away from the Democratic Party in large-parts owing to the Republican Party’s hardening stance on immigration. Moreover, in a sign of there being greater scope for racial polarisation, a study revealed that 64 percent of white Democrats “believe that immigrants take jobs away from Americans” — leaving them open to be courted by continued anti-immigration positions by Republicans.
Both factors were pivotal in the 2016 election, with the five battleground states (Michigan, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida) that propelled Donald Trump to the White House being 73 percent white. And, the then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton witnessing the further defection of whites with Trump winning the demographic by a 20 point-margin (58-37) — particularly with its working-class subset galvanising around Trump’s linking of the hollowing-out of America’s industrial base to Washington’s globalist pursuit of free trade and immigration.
According to polls from early this year, Trump continued to hold onto his core base of white working-class men “which he won by nearly 50 points” and white non-college-educated women, “who Trump carried by 27 points in 2016.” The prevalence of Trump’s 2016 image as the champion of the ‘little guy’ seemed to only be reinforced by his administration’s record of renegotiating trade deals like NAFTA for increased market-access, the ‘Phase One’ deal on China increasing its imports by US$ 200 billion, protection of energy and manufacturing jobs under the Energy Dominance and Buy American policies, and executive actions on legal and illegal immigration. However, with the downturn in the US economy and rise in unemployment, recent reports suggest the white working-class could pivot away from Trump.
Nevertheless, Trump continues to campaign in crucial blue-collar states like Michigan, to assert that his Democratic opponent Joe Biden would “outsource American jobs and surrender America’s future to China”. However, his campaign’s focus on complementing their appeal across the Rust Belt states with affluent whites residing in suburban areas is apparent. The rationale for courting suburban counties that are two-thirds white also stems from the experience of the 2018 midterm elections, when they broke from their 2016 voting patterns to propel Democrats to take control of the US House of Representatives. Wherein, Republicans lost over three dozen Congressional districts, with sub-urbans backing Democrats by an 11-point margin.
For 2020, Trump’s courtship of the suburban whites, encompasses his promise to protect American suburbs in-line with his “law and order” messaging against violent protests that have ensued recently. In invoking racial anxieties, Trump has even warned that Biden would pursue a “dystopian vision of building low-income housing units next to your suburban house.” Moreover, given the central role of suburban women in the 2018 scenario, Trump has directed his assertion over Democrats wanting to “destroy the beautiful suburbs” at the “suburban housewife”.
This outreach also pertains to Trump’s announced opposition to the “left-wing cultural revolution” — referring to the excesses of the left’s “cancel culture” spurring the defacement of memorials, demand for renaming military bases, etc. On combatting institutional racism, the same has found relevance in the reemergent Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement’s call to “defund the police”, as a means to pursue police reform through redirecting their funds to social security programmes and limiting the scope of police duties. Although this has sparked some warranted discussions, Trump has rallied conservatives by asserting that “Biden wants to defund the police”. This has direct bearing on Trump’s electoral prospects in the suburbs, as 55 percent of whites said that “the anger of the BLM protests was fully justified.” However, 58 percent of “suburban voters opposed reducing funding for police”.
As a result, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a white couple who recently courted controversy for brandishing guns at BLM protesters outside their home in St. Louis, were given a prominent speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. With their address over safety of suburban neighbourhoods also seeping into the conservatives’ long-standing defence of the Second Amendment and citizens’ right to defend their property, the expansion of Trump’s base into the suburbs seems to be at the heart of the incumbent’s reelection strategy.
One would have hoped for the Democratic ticket in 2020 to have learnt its lesson from 2016, of not being dismissive of the white working-class, as with Hillary Clinton’s infamous labelling of Trump’s hinterland supporters as “a basket of deplorables”. Commentators often attribute that comment to have been perceived as embodying a “disdain for the white working class” underscored by urban Democrats’ cultural arrogance. Arguably, this cost Clinton the presidency as about one-third of the nearly 700 working-class counties that twice voted for Obama defected to Trump.
However, the Biden campaign, instead of focusing on not repeating that mistake, seems to be consumed by the so-called “young voter problem”. Wherein, a concern of being unfavourable to the young progressive stems from scepticism over Biden being a 77 year-old presidential candidate, despite the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders — the poster-boy of the progressives, is 79 years old. The source of tension between the American youth and Biden is also attributed to his political legacy of emphasising centrist positions over progressives ideas. Wherein, Biden’s voting record from his time in the US Senate does not sit well with the young voter.
Some cases in-point being, his vote in favor of a 1994 crime bill that disproportionately impacted minorities and his vote for the Iraq War. Moreover, recent instances like Biden urging Democrats to not be “too woke“, dismissing the backlash against his handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings, and allegations of sexual misconduct have only contributed to this youth disconnect. Hence, the Biden campaign has been focusing on courting this “Whole Foods bubble” — a loose section of the electorate that is young, college-educated, and are most often products of socio-economic privilege. While this demographic could account for nearly 40 percent of the electorate, the youth has consistently underperformed when it comes to actually casting votes. Moreover, they are concentrated in states like California and Massachusetts, where they constitute over half of the electorate. Whereas, in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania, they account for about a third, and in Wisconsin and Michigan less than a fifth of the electorate.
As a result, even if young voters come out in full-swing to vote for Biden, it won’t be enough to secure the Electoral College. Whereas, the white working-class form the backbone of the Electoral College. Hence, Democratic strategist James Carville recently said, “If you want to win back loggers in northern Wisconsin, stop talking about pronouns and start talking more about corruption in Big Pharma”.
However, at the Democratic National Convention, Biden’s speech on accepting the Democratic nomination did not cover issues plaguing the white working-class, like the opioid epidemic, outsourcing of jobs, and China’s unfair trade practises hurting businesses. This disconnect between Democrats and the white working-class is relatively nascent, as until the mid-90s, they found common cause with Democrats because they viewed the Republicans as the party of “rich people” and “Bible thumpers”.
Now, despite there being evident political sore-points against Trump, like his trade war hurting America’s argo-industry or his tax cuts for the wealthy, Biden seems to be squandering the opportunity by focusing on courting progressives who seem to be less enthusiastic to rally behind him despite consistent efforts. Hence, the 2020 election for Democrats could once again be a matter of a white backlash, or “whitelash”.
Although Biden has invoked Trump’s Indo-Pacific construct to promise continuity on US-India ties, the US Congress’ shift to a reformist — from its current preservationist, role could pose challenges
Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden has deemed President Donald Trump to have “abdicated American leadership”. In contrast, the Biden campaign has construed their candidate as someone who would restore America’s place “back at the head of the table.” As with his promise to “return to normalcy” on the domestic front, Biden’s foreign policy agenda also seems to be “looking at an across-the-board restoration project”. This includes invocation of familiar themes over the indispensable nature of US leadership and an expansive scope of threats facing America.
From the standpoint of US-India ties, if Biden wins, he would be the third US president that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would do business with. However, in addition to Biden’s time as Barack Obama’s vice president, he is seen as an old hand on Washington’s relations with New Delhi given his experience as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the passage of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008, and as the co-sponsor of a legislation (Naval Vessels Transfer Act of 2005) which led to India’s acquisition of the first US-built warship.
However, some commentators have warned of impending challenges under a Biden presidency owing to the Democrats’ heightened focus on defending values through America’s foreign policy.
At the October 2019 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on human rights in South Asia, Democrats rallied against Trump’s ambivalence towards the Modi government’s abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the communications lockdown that followed. Whereas, Republicans sought to temper criticism by making a case against Washington’s “high standards” on human rights — in-line with Trump’s idea of “divorcing” foreign policy from values, and some even called for the Modi government’s actions to be “applauded”. This partisan divergence on India stood compounded with the US-India dynamic being subject to politicisation from either sides. Cases in-point being, optics of Modi seeming to endorse Trump’s reelection at the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ rally (New Delhi has denied this), and the use of Modi’s speech at the ‘Namaste, Trump!’ event in Trump’s campaign advertisement aimed at courting the Indian American electorate.
Going forward, if a Democrat-controlled US Congress (given reports of their probability of taking over the US Senate) views US-India ties to have been politicised to the further detriment of shared values, their criticisms may be employed as a means to spur a change in behaviour.
Under Trump, a bipartisan effort to preserve some tenets of American internationalism against ‘America First’ impulses has been prevalent. However, following the 2018 midterms which led to a Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives, an effort to project an American foreign policy that ought-to-be also emerged. This included, increased scrutiny of Trump’s foreign policy owing to the House’s oversight powers (as with hearings on Trump’s Syria policy), contrasting Trump’s support for populism abroad (as with Democrats declaring their opposition to a no-deal Brexit threatening the Good Friday Agreement), and pushing a focus on human rights issues (as with mandating Trump to act on Chinese actions in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Honk Kong).
Under Biden, a Democrat-led House and Senate may not play such a preservationist role. Instead, it could seek to reform Biden’s foreign policy as commentators warn against his return to “a narrow Washington consensus that has failed our country and the world.” Although this may not occur in Biden’s initial years as pressing domestic agendas would take precedence, such a role can be imagined in view of the reported trend of progressives — that view Biden as a “man of the past” due to his promise of a restorationist foreign policy, ousting Democrat establishment incumbents in Congressional primaries this year.
In case of US-India ties, this could include invocation of Congressional authority to link the confirmation of envoys or clearance of arms sales to the Biden administration’s commitment to press New Delhi on issues over civil-liberties. One may argue, the prospect of this occurring would be in the long-shot of concerns eclipsing the many strategic convergences between New Delhi and Washington. However, a lot may depend on the Democrats’ evolving characterisation of the Modi dispensation — which some progressive legislators have already alleged of spreading “violent Hindu nationalism and hate crimes against Muslims.”
Moreover, in a sign of such voices already having considerable sway over Biden, recently, his campaign’s ‘Agenda for Muslim-American Communities’ noted the situation in Kashmir alongside references to the internment of Uyghurs in China and atrocities against Rohingyas in Myanmar, as instances that “pain” Muslim-Americans. Thereafter, following an uproar by other sections of the Indian American community, the Biden campaign underscored its vision for US-India ties.
Speaking at an event on India’s Independence Day, Biden said India and the US “share a special bond that I’ve seen deepen over many years.” His campaign also announced, “Biden will deliver on his long-standing belief that India and the United States are natural partners, and a Biden administration will place a high priority on continuing to strengthen the US-India relationship.” Biden’s campaign also released its ‘Agenda for the Indian American Community’, which is reportedly the first-ever such policy paper by a presidential campaign. Wherein, in a sign of policy continuity, it invoked the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific construct to underscore Biden’s commitment to “work with India to support a rules-based and stable Indo-Pacific region in which no country, including China, is able to threaten its neighbors with impunity.”
Furthermore, it hailed the Obama-Biden years’ record of supporting New Delhi’s capacity-building with the Major Defense Partner (MDP) designation in order “to ensure that when it comes to the advanced and sensitive technology that India needs to strengthen its military, India is treated on par with our closest partners.” Biden’s support on this front would also constitute a point of continuity, given the Trump administration’s record of not only continuing the MDP designation but also furthering the same with its classification of India under the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 category and finalising the Industrial Security Annex to facilitate transfer of sensitive technologies.
In addition, under Biden’s ‘normal’ foreign policy, one can expect a dampening of trade tensions that have come to mar bilateral ties under Trump. Although Biden has criticised Trump’s approach of levying tariffs as “alienating our allies and undermining the power of our collective leverage”, pressure to continue negotiations on India’s tariff/non-tariff barriers would likely persist. However, the Biden administration would differ in terms of not having such divergences play out in the open — in-line with the Obama administration’s ‘Carter mantra’ which dictated harnessing of strategic convergences without allowing differences to crowd out “minimal-yet-positive developments.”
However, US apprehensions over India’s ties with Russia could reemerge. Although the main scope of Democrats’ criticism of the Vladimir Putin regime remains to be election interference, Biden has also criticised Moscow’s use of Western financial institutions. In hinting at the possibility of US retaliation in this realm under a Biden presidency, prospects of India facing US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act could reignite. Although Trump has not accorded a waiver to New Delhi as per the provisions passed under Section 231 of the legislation, his administration has also not come down hard on India as in case of Turkey, for instance. Under a Biden presidency, questions over continuity on this ‘tacit waiver’ could assume the fore. Moreover, even if Biden were to pursue constructive ties with Russia on pressing matters like extending the New START treaty — a key foreign policy win of the Obama-Biden years, which expires in February 2021, a progressive US Congress could force his administration to get tough on Moscow on other avenues, such as its international dealings.
Certainly, it would be unfair to say that Biden would entirely remain beholden to power balances on the Capitol Hill, especially since foreign policy is mostly a domain of the executive branch under the “wide array of associated or “implied” powers” of Article II of the US Constitution. Hence, for instance, the trajectory of US-India counterterrorism cooperation or even the future of the QUAD with US-India defence interoperability at its core — two avenues that would interestingly also constitute points of continuity with Trump, would largely be animated by the Biden administration.
However, on other promises like Biden’s announced plan to reform the H-1B visa system and eliminate the limits on employment-based green cards by country, the role of the US Congress cannot be understated. Biden’s plan to “protect American and foreign workers alike” to ensure that “employers are not taking advantage of immigrant workers” which leads to undercutting of native-born workers on wages and opportunities, would require a comprehensive legislative undertaking to institute parity in wage levels. Moreover, against the backdrop of a downturn in the US economy and rise in unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic, even if Democrats were to gain a comfortable majority in both chambers of the US Congress, odds of them spending their post-election political capital on Biden’s plan for foreign workers would be slim.
Hence, although Biden has invoked Trump’s Indo-Pacific construct to promise continuity on US-India ties, the US Congress’ shift to a reformist — from its current preservationist, role could pose challenges.
The US President’s invocation of executive powers to continue unemployment benefits, is simply a smokescreen for his election-year politicking
US President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order on continuing unemployment benefits for millions of Americans out-of-work due to the coronavirus pandemic. In bypassing the US Congress’ constitutional mandate of determining federal spending, the order continues federal employment benefits — albeit reduced to US$ 400 per week as compared to US$ 600 under the Coronavirus Aid, Response and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Signed into law by Trump in March 2020, the US$ 260 billion-worth unemployment benefits under that US$ 2.2 trillion Congressional economic recovery bill expired on July 31.
Over the past few weeks, as negotiations for extending those benefits through 2021 stalled, Congressional Republicans alleged Democrats of working from a “my way or the highway” disposition as both sides differed on the scale of the recovery package. In accusing Democrats of having “obstructed people from getting desperately needed money”, Trump invoked his powers under the Stafford Act to repurpose US$ 44 billion from the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund to extend unemployment benefits. Trump hailed the same as his administration’s effort “to take care of our people” amidst the coronavirus pandemic impeding the US economy’s recovery.
This sense of urgency behind the announced executive actions stood in stark contrast to Trump’s record of often understating the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.
The United States has long defined its role in the world by purporting itself as an inherently exceptional nation — stemming from either its primacy of economic/military capabilities or the liberal tenets espoused by the “American creed”. A widespread belief in ‘American Exceptionalism’ has also animated US activism in its various forms abroad — from heady neoconservatism’s push to military adventurism in the post-9/11 timeline to liberal internationalists’ push to shape global economic interdependence in their own eyes.
However, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, belief in this extraordinary character of the United States has declined to an all-time low with “only 1 in 5 Americans” being “satisfied with the direction of the country.”
Compounded by policy gridlock at the hands of intense political polarisation, the United States — which is a mere four percent of the global population now accounts for a quarter of confirmed COVID19 cases. Moreover, the same has also spurred an economic crisis, with America’s unemployment rate rising from 3.8 percent in February — known to be amongst the lowest on record in the post-Second World War era, to 13 percent around May — after peaking with April’s 14.7 percent. These rates have also been noted to have surpassed the 2007-09 recession’s peak unemployment of a little over 10 percent.
Hence, despite the US’ long-known untoward distinctions of having the highest incarceration rate in the world or having the highest proportion of gun-related killings in its reported homicides, the coronavirus pandemic is being reported as a time signifying the end of American Exceptionalism.
Further compounding the pandemic’s impact on the socio-economic level, has been the international humiliation at the hands of America’s chief executive. Over the course of the pandemic, Trump has said the novel coronavirus would one day disappear “like a miracle”, blamed his predecessor for his administration’s weak federal response (“No, I don’t take responsibility at all… we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time”), and even suggested research into treating COVID19 by injecting disinfectants. Trump has even invoked American Exceptionalism in some inverse sense to argue that the US having the world’s highest number of confirmed COVID19 cases is “a badge of honour”, as that is indicative of his administration’s scale of testing.
With Trump now taking executive action to offset the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, it seems the US president has finally taken note of America’s ‘exceptional’ ordeal with COVID19. However, the underlying politics of his actions only disprove that.
In pushing for a comprehensive package worth over US$ 3 trillion under the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act passed by the Democrat-led House of Representatives in May, Democrats sought to take the lead on the post-COVID19 economic recovery and construe Republicans and the Trump administration to have dropped the ball on handling one of the “greatest challenges since the Great Depression.” Moreover, with their prescriptions, Democrats sought to also further their (increasingly leftward) socio-economic agenda such as gradually actualising the idea of universal basic income — by proposing another round of US$ 1,200 stimulus for adults making less than US$ 75k and families being eligible for additional US$ 1,200 per dependent (up to a total of US$ 6,000 per family). Wherein, immigrants without Social Security credentials, but with taxpayer identification numbers would also qualify.
In contrast, Republicans dismissed the same as a “liberal wish list” and criticised the bill for having “many provisions seemingly unrelated to the current economic crisis.” In rationalising their call for a “tailored and targeted” US$ 1 trillion package, Republicans underscored the turnaround in the US economy under Trump. In arguing against spending more federal money, Republicans referenced gains noted by recent jobs reports — as with the US economy adding 4.8 million jobs in June, to push for limiting unemployment benefits to 70 percent of the wages workers received before losing their jobs. In hoping to aid the trend of job creation, Republicans explained that as a measure to incentivise people to go back to work. In alleging many people to have made more money from unemployment benefits than when they were working, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said, “We should never pay people not to work.”
Trump’s executive action however, hardly solves the contention. Reportedly, some have noted his executive order’s mandate of states contributing 25 percent of the US$ 400 support as hardly being feasible with finances of many US states “already stretched thin because of the pandemic”
Nevertheless, Congressional Democrats find themselves in a quandary: If they challenge the legality of Trump’s actions (as some Democrats have suggested), they risk appearing as being against his efforts to arrest the economic collapse spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. Trump officials have already set the narrative for such an event. For instance, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “If Democrats want to challenge us in court and hold up unemployment benefits to those hard-working Americans that are out of a job because of COVID, they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.” Alternatively, if Democrats return to the negotiating table to broker a deal — most likely with a bigger compromise on their recent offer to reduce the HEROES Act’s ask by US$ 1 trillion, Trump scores a political victory for himself and his conservative agenda.
Moreover, Trump’s executive actions also included the deferral of payroll tax from August 01 through the end of the year. In proposing, “If I win, I may extend and terminate” the requirement for the late payment of those taxes, another predicament for Democrats emerged. With those deferrals to be due at the end of the year i.e. under a post-election lame-duck session, Democrats risk ending up with that as their cross-to-bear if Trump loses. Alternatively, Democrats would have to hit square-one with a re-elected Trump to manage the deferral’s impact on their perpetual agenda of securing social security programs, as initiatives like Medicare mostly depend on the 7 percent tax on employee incomes.
Hence, with the aim of strong-arming Congressional Democrats amidst negotiations for an economic package and towards the long-term conservative agenda of weakening social security, Trump’s recent executive actions constitute a mere smokescreen for election-year politicking.
Although London’s actions on Hong Kong and Huawei suggest a renewed US-UK alignment against China, it also exacerbates Washington’s asymmetric pull over the ‘special relationship’.
Early this year, reports emerged of a phone call between US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minster Boris Johnson, on the latter’s decision to permit Huawei in the UK’s next-generation telecommunications network. Trump reportedly “expressed his views in livid terms” over Johnson ignoring the US’ global campaign against Chinese telecommunications equipment. According to some reports, Trump even “hung up” on Johnson — which was deemed to be one of the reasons behind the postponement of the British prime minister’s visit to Washington.
The much-discussed “apoplectic” phone call was one amongst many instances which indicate that, beyond a supposed alignment of personalities, the US-UK ‘special relationship’ — as once characterised by Winston Churchill — stands marred with divergences on the policy level. Under Trump, ties have frayed over the UK continuing to support the Iran Nuclear Deal, Trump cutting US contributions to NATO ahead of the alliance’s 70th anniversary celebration in London, the Johnson government’s proposed digital services tax (against which the US has threatened to impose tariffs on British cars), the Trump administration’s refusal to extradite an American diplomat’s wife charged with killing a British teenager, and Trump occasionally weighing-in on the UK’s ongoing Brexit negotiations with the European Union (EU).
The much-discussed “apoplectic” phone call was one amongst many instances which indicate that, beyond a supposed alignment of personalities, the US-UK ‘special relationship’ — as once characterised by Winston Churchill — stands marred with divergences on the policy level.
However recently, the Johnson government’s actions on China have borne an upturn in US-UK ties.
The UK’s initial position on Huawei was to permit its inclusion in the UK’s 5G infrastructure — despite US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo deeming it as betraying Margaret Thatcher’s legacy of standing up to regimes that violate the “sovereignty of nations through corruption or coercion.” In a sign of the UK hedging between China and the US, it dismissed concerns over risks posed by integrating Huawei equipment, but limited Huawei’s inclusion to “no more than 35 per cent in the periphery of the network.”
However, following American sanctions that prevents Huawei from using technology or software of US origin, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre reviewed the security risks of Huawei technology and advised a change in policy. The UK then went on to ban Huawei from its infrastructure entirely, and has even cracked down on operators such as BT and Vodafone by giving them until 2027 to remove all Huawei equipment from their networks.
The US was quick to claim credit with Trump saying, “We convinced many countries, many countries — and I did this myself for the most part.” And Pompeo even hailed it as an instance of united “push back” against China.
The UK has not only criticised the National Security Law in Hong Kong, but also its implementation.
The Johnson government has also taken a firm stance on China’s implementation of the infamous National Security Law in Hong Kong — which gives China unprecedented administrative power and curtails the independence of the Hong Kong judiciary from the Chinese justice system. The UK has not only criticised the law but also its implementation. In alleging it to have contravened the 1985 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong in several ways, the UK has extended a unique set of immigration rules for those Hong Kong nationals who hold British National Overseas i.e. BN(O) visas, to provide them a path to citizenship in the UK. Johnson termed this as “one of the largest changes in the British visa system in history.”
Moreover, in escalating its response by suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and extending the arms embargo that the UK has applied to China since 1989 to now even include Hong Kong, the UK has complemented the Trump administration’s decision to end preferential economic treatment for Hong Kong.
Apart from the brewing global anti-China sentiment — trigged by the coronavirus pandemic, the UK’s actions seem to have also stemmed from recognising the solidifying US bipartisanship against China. Over the past two months alone, the Democratic-led US House of Representatives and the Republican-led US Senate have complemented the Trump administration’s policy on China. For instance, by passing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 to unanimously call for sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for the internment of minorities in Xinjiang, passing the Hong Kong Autonomy Act which mandates sanctions against Chinese officials and entities that assisted Beijing’s imposition of its security law in Hong Kong, and introducing a bipartisan set of legislations (Defending America’s 5G Future Act) to anchor the Trump administration’s actions on Huawei in US law. However, apart from greater alignment with the US, the UK’s actions on China will complicate the balance of the ‘special relationship’ by raising the importance of a US-UK trade deal.
On face value, given the Trump administration’s own focus on upending multilateral trading arrangements and opting for renewed “fair and reciprocal” bilateral trade deals instead, a deal with the UK — with which the US also enjoys a goods and services trade surplus of over $18 billion — seems obvious.
Despite their differences over the severity of Brexit, the Johnson government — much like its predecessor May government, has emphasised the criticality of negotiating bilateral trading arrangements with non-EU countries in order to underscore a post-Brexit “Global Britain.” Beyond looking to score such deals to reassure that the UK would “emerge bigger and better from the divorce” with the EU, a successfully negotiated deal with the US — which is the largest destination for UK exports after the EU, or China — the UK’s third-biggest export market, would also strengthen London’s hand in its negotiations with Brussels.
On face value, given the Trump administration’s own focus on upending multilateral trading arrangements and opting for renewed “fair and reciprocal” bilateral trade deals instead, a deal with the UK — with which the US also enjoys a goods and services trade surplus of over $18 billion — seems obvious. However, in holding out for more favourable terms on contentions such as unfettered access for US drugs and medical devices, the Trump administration has been more than willing to let negotiations prolong as it waits to “see what concessions and regulatory changes emerge” from UK-EU negotiations.
Now, in view of the Johnson government’s actions, there have been indications of China retaliating by choosing to “slow down or suspend” talks over a China-UK trade agreement. Apart from compounding the UK’s drift away from the EU, the possible stalling of UK-China trade talks will only increase the urgency of a prospective US-UK trade deal. This in-turn would exacerbate the power differential between London and Washington, with the latter in a greater position to “dictate” terms over contentions like the UK continuing the EU ban on import of chlorinated chicken from the US.
Apart from compounding the UK’s drift away from the EU, the possible stalling of UK-China trade talks will only increase the urgency of a prospective US-UK trade deal.
Moreover, even if US-UK negotiations prolong beyond the upcoming November elections — probably leading into Trump’s defeat at the hands of Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, London’s worries won’t go away.
Reportedly, former British diplomats have cautioned against a Biden presidency’s bid to reverse Trump’s derision of multilateralism — which could have the US return to dealing with the EU as its primary interlocutor in the region. With respect to the US-UK deal, there are also concerns over Biden picking-up on Barack Obama’s 2016 stance of the UK finding itself “at the back of the queue” for a US-UK trade deal if it were to actualise Brexit. In addition, Democratic leaders in the US Congress — which wields the power to put into force any trade deals negotiated by the executive branch, have already warned of blocking a US-UK deal if Brexit negotiations with the EU threaten the “seamless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.”
Hence, far from resolving the many divergences that plague US-UK ties, London’s recent actions on China will only enhance Washington’s hold over the ‘special relationship.’
As Biden’s ‘Buy American’ plan echoes Trump’s ‘America First’ vision, the upcoming election will oversee the further consolidation of economic nationalism in American worldview
Ahead of the 1992 election, President George H W Bush enjoyed an 89 percent approval rating following the success of Operation Desert Storm. Expected to trounce US elections’ long-standing dictum over the limited electoral relevance of foreign policy wins, later that year however, Bush lost to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. In focusing on the 1990-91 economic recession instead, Clinton had promised to “Make America Great Again!”
In 2016, Donald Trump adopted the lessons of 1992 beyond his repurposing of the MAGA clarion on red baseball caps. He mounted a conservative nationalist movement centred on promising an “American economic revival”. Now, in seeking a renewal of his mandate, Trump has adopted varied talking points — like rallying against the “invisible China virus” and the “new far-left fascism”. His focus on the economy however, continues.
In touting piecemeal gains such as the stock market having “its best quarter in more than 20 years” (mostly due to the largest-ever US stimulus package passed in response to the coronavirus pandemic) or the recent jobs report as per which the US added 4.8 million jobs in June (hardly offsetting the 22.2 million jobs lost this year), Trump has made a case against the Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden. Deriding his plans to raise taxes, the Trump campaign has warned that Biden will kill the “Great American Comeback”.
This seems to have worked as a recent poll revealed that Trump has maintained the backing of “a majority of voters on the economy, with 54% approving of his handling of the matter, a record high in the poll” — even as his overall rating against Biden dropped by 11 percentage points. This has prompted Biden to mirror Trump’s message on overseeing the revival of the US economy.
In a speech from his home-state of Pennsylvania, Biden unveiled his own populist vision for the economy. With his new slogan (“Build Back Better”), he advocated for domestic investments to “spur domestic innovation, reduce the reliance on foreign manufacturing and create five million additional American manufacturing and innovation jobs.”
Echoing the economic nationalism of Trump’s 2017 executive order on ‘Buy American and Hire American’, Biden said: “When the federal government spends taxpayers’ money, we should use it to buy American products and support American jobs”. Reported as Biden’s ‘Buy American’ plan, it proposes an US$ 300 billion investment in “Research and Development and Breakthrough Technologies — from electric vehicle technology to lightweight materials to 5G and artificial intelligence — to unleash high-quality job creation in high-value manufacturing and technology.” And another US$ 400 billion as federal investment to “power new demand for American products, materials, and services and ensure that they are shipped on US-flagged cargo carriers.”
Speaking at a metalworks factory in the electorally-crucial state which Trump won by 0.7 percentage points in 2016, Biden’s target audience was undoubtedly the blue-collar voter. Addressing their economic woes, Biden even alleged Trump to have failed in bringing back manufacturing jobs, and deemed him to be “singularly focused on the stock market, the Dow and NASDAQ. Not you. Not your families”.
In 2016, Trump had galvanised the working-class whites for instance, by attributing their economic hardships to the hollowing-out of America’s industrial base. Trump rallied against the destruction — in terms of loss in manufacturing jobs and increase in immigrant labour, wrought by incessant globalisation due to the American political establishment’s pursuit of free trade. This was pivotal in catapulting Trump to the White House, with Hillary Clinton — accused of being the embodiment of American internationalism, failing to win “more than about a third of the white working-class vote” in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Hence, upon assuming office, the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ vision deemed the recalibration of trading relationships as a top foreign policy priority.
In 2016, Trump had galvanised the working-class whites for instance, by attributing their economic hardships to the hollowing-out of America’s industrial base. Trump rallied against the destruction
In a sign of Trump now replicating his 2016 approach, the Trump administration’s chief trade negotiator recently penned a series of articles. Touting the efficacy of exacting “fair and reciprocal” trade deals via employing punitive measures against friends and foes alike, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer argued: “From January 2017 to January 2020, 500,000 new manufacturing jobs were created and real wages for manufacturing workers rose by 2.5 percent, compared to a decline of 0.6 percent from January 2009 to January 2017.”
Whereas, Biden’s ‘Buy American’ plan aims to arrest a decline in American manufacturing jobs through rigorous domestic investment. He has even pledged to “not sign any new trade deal until we have made major investments in our workers and infrastructure.”
Both candidates have drawn on economic nationalism also in view of it being conducive towards targeting their opponent’s political vulnerabilities. For instance, the Trump campaign has been highlighting Biden’s past-record on free trade.
As his 2002 Senate vote to authorise the Iraq War continues to impede Biden’s attempt to project himself as being level-headed on foreign policy, his 1993 vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NATFA) often derails his attempt to connect with blue-collar workers. Reportedly, NAFTA overtime spurred the loss of about 700,000 jobs as manufacturers moved operations to Mexico. The potency of highlighting Biden’s NAFTA vote stands exacerbated with progressives from the Democratic party also often rallying against his track-record on free trade being detrimental to workers.
In addition, as vice president, Biden was a vocal supporter of the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Whereas, three days after he assumed office, Trump withdrew from the TPP and hailed the move as a “great thing for the American worker.” His administration had criticised the agreement’s ‘rules of origin’ clauses which would have been exploited by countries like China to move portions of their production to TPP nations — to gain duty-free treatment, and eventually further flood the US market.
For Biden, the scope for targeting Trump on trade is limited due to his administration’s successful negotiation of limited deals with South Korea, Japan, China, and replacement of NAFTA with the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
However, his administration’s approach of engaging in trade wars has been controversial. Trade war with China for instance, cost US businesses US$ 50 billion in additional duties, agricultural exports to China dropped from US$ 19.5 billion in 2017 to US$ 9 billion in 2018, and bankruptcies amongst farmers increased by 20 percent in 2019. To mitigate the damage, the Trump administration announced taxpayer-funded payments worth US$ 26 billion for farmers. In highlighting such ramifications, Biden has construed the correction of trading arrangements as a matter of putting the cart before the horse, if not predicated with rigorous domestic investments.
Beyond these political and electoral considerations informing the candidates’ invocation of economic nationalism, there is evidence that the debate over revitalising American manufacturing goes beyond the binary of which candidate’s approach is better.
Beyond these political and electoral considerations informing the candidates’ invocation of economic nationalism, there is evidence that the debate over revitalising American manufacturing goes beyond the binary of which candidate’s approach is better
In 2016, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union endorsed Hillary Clinton, but “a higher-than-normal 32%” of its members voted for Trump and were crucial in flipping Michigan from blue to red. Once in office, as Trump repeatedly deferred on imposing tariffs on automobile imports, UAW leaders conveyed that “targeted” tariffs would be a good idea. Similarly, after endorsing Clinton in 2016 (and now Biden for 2020), the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) supported Trump’s Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminium, and even backed the USMCA — as their first endorsement of a trade agreement since 2001.
Hence, the 2020 US presidential election will oversee the further consolidation of economic nationalism in American worldview.
American conservatism’s push for unilateralist solutions outweighs the imperfect solution of the equalisation levy
Last month, the US announced a Section 301 probe into India’s 2% digital services tax (DST), known as the equalisation levy for non-resident companies conducting “online sales of goods and services to, or aimed at, persons in India”. The equalisation levy – which went into effect on April 1 – applies only to companies with “annual revenues in excess of approximately Rs. 20 million (U.S. $267,000)”.
Under Section 301 (‘Relief from Unfair Trade Practices‘ statutes) of the 1974 Trade Act, the US can initiate investigations into foreign nations’ tariff/non-tariff barriers that may be deemed unfair/discriminatory. Through the US Trade Representative (USTR), the US can then pursue punitive actions. Although Section 301 probes are considered to be antithetical to the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanisms, the Trump administration’s push for seeking “fair and reciprocal” trading arrangements has fanned American conservatism’s abhorrence for multilateral authority under USTR Robert Lighthizer. Examples of which range from his time as the deputy USTR under Ronald Reagan to pry open Japan’s semiconductor market, and most recently, Section 301 actions initiated the US-China trade war. Furthermore, this probe into India comes as US-India trade talks have continually stalled.
Negotiations have stalled either due to long-standing contentions — like those over India’s price caps on pharmaceutical imports – or nascent divergences, with respect to Indian insistence for data localisation for instance. In addition to the US’ Section 232 tariffs on Indian steel and aluminium (March 2018) and India’s retaliatory tariffs (June 2019), the US revoked India’s status under the Generalised System of Preferences programme, and momentarily contemplated limiting Indians’ H1B visas quota to 15 percent due to differences over e-commerce regulations.
The US’ focus on India’s digital space emerged as a contention with the USTR highlighting India’s “restrictions on cross-border data flows and data localisation requirements” as “onerous” in its 2019 National Trade Estimate (NTE). Apart from the American motivation to exact added leverage over ongoing trade talks via identifying nascent contentions, this stemmed from US frustrations over India continuing to construe trade tensions as a matter of correcting the trade imbalance between the two countries. American apprehensions over this difference in approach peaked in early 2019, with reports of the Trump administration contemplating a “full-blown [Section 301] investigation” into Indian barriers at-large. Eventually, there was no follow-through on such a probe, in hopes of a partial US-India trade deal. Ahead of Trump’s maiden visit to India in February 2020 however, negotiations even for a “mini-deal” broke down.
With the COVID19 pandemic feeding nativist impulses which may further complicate American negotiators’ attempt to seek renewed trading arrangements with reduced market-access barriers from its partner nations, the US seems to be increasing pressure. Hence, in rationalising its decision to launch a Section 301 probe, the same was deemed to be targeting US companies (even though India’s levy is clearly origin-neutral). In a statement, Lighthizer said, “President Trump is concerned that many of our trading partners are adopting tax schemes designed to unfairly target our companies”.
With the COVID19 pandemic feeding nativist impulses which may further complicate American negotiators’ attempt to seek renewed trading arrangements with reduced market-access barriers from its partner nations, the US seems to be increasing pressure
With the US crying foul, the expectation remains that this will not be followed with a full Section 301 investigation into India, especially since nine other countries have also been identified by the US for either levying (or currently considering) digital taxes. Moreover, the US has also been at odds over this issue with some of its long-standing partners. For instance, its negotiations with the European Union broke down last month as the EU continued to push for a digital tax. French finance minister Bruno Le Maire termed the US withdrawal from negotiations as a “provocation” as the Trump administration threatened tariffs on French wine, handbags, and cookware at the risk of starting “another trade war”.
|Country||Tax||Scope of the tax||Status|
|Belgium||3%||Selling of user data||Proposed with an adjusted proposal in June 2020|
||Proposed but delayed until 2021|
|Poland||1.5%||Audiovisual media service and audiovisual commercial communication||Implemented|
||Proposed and amendments to be made in budget commission|
|Turkey||7.5%||Online services including advertisements, sales of content, and paid services on social media websites||Implemented|
||Implemented through its Finance Bill 2020|
|Mexico||16%||Digital services like downloads, images, movies, text, information, video, audio, music, games, other multimedia content, multiplayer environments, mobile tones, online news, traffic information, weather forecasts and statistics, online clubs, dating websites, long-distance teaching or testing||Implemented thorough a withholding tax|
|Tunisia||3%||Services to be determined||Implemented|
The current 2% tax follows the equalisation levy which India had introduced in 2016. At the time, it was dubbed the “Google Tax” and largely pertained to levying digital advertising companies with a 6% tax — with other online services left out of its ambit. The tax applied to digital advertising services which were procured from a non-resident without a permanent establishment in India and the services had to be in excess of Rs 100,000. There was fear that the equalisation levy would make services and products more expensive as they would pass on the tax to the end-customer. Nonetheless, the tax brought the government an income of Rs 560 crore from local advertisers in 2017-18.
The tax applied to digital advertising services which were procured from a non-resident without a permanent establishment in India and the services had to be in excess of Rs 100,000. There was fear that the equalisation levy would make services and products more expensive as they would pass on the tax to the end-customer.
The Indian government said that it introduced this tax as part of its obligations to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 2013, the OECD released a report on the phenomenon known as Base Erosion Profit Shifting (BEPS), a series of corporate tax planning strategies where large multi-national firms would shift the profit from higher tax jurisdictions to lower tax jurisdictions like Ireland and the Cayman Islands. These structures allowed companies like Google to pay merely $16 million in taxes from sales worth $18 billion from 2006 to 2011 in the UK.
The OECD’s 15-point action plan called for the implementation of BEPS project globally, the development of an inclusive framework by early 2016 and the involvement of non-G20 countries as well. In 2015, the OECD released a report identifying three options that countries could adopt:
UK imposed the diverted profit tax which looked to plug loopholes related to permanent entities. Japan has an eight percent consumption tax for cross border digital services
The equalization levy is far from perfect right now and there are still many debates to consider – for example determining whether the levy is a direct or an indirect tax – and interpretations that need to be applied. With regard to the two percent levy on e-commerce transactions, there are still many definitions which need to be spelt out. The text of the finance bill mentions terms like “e-commerce operators”, “online sales”, “electronic facility”, “platforms” etc, but does not specify what they would mean in terms of income tax rules.
As e-commerce bleeds into the offline world with multiple business models, greater clarity is required for these definitions. For example, it is unclear if the e-commerce equalisation levy will apply to online sales of a service or good (say a purchase of an e-book) or whether it will apply to an online sales generation when the service is carried out offline (like in the online-to-offline aggregator models). There are still questions regarding the intent of the levy. Tax statutes need to be interpreted strictly as per the language used in the legislation, but literal interpretation may produce unjust and absurd results. A more consultative approach before introducing the tax would have clarified matters.
All things considered, the US response to the digital sales tax – initiating a Section 301 investigation – is disproportionate, considering that it is part of the OECD and G20 and had been abreast on the developments on the various taxation measures other countries were adopting. In the absence of a global governance architecture on regulating e-commerce spaces, the issue of American conservatism’s push for unilateralist solutions outweighs the imperfect solution of the equalisation levy.
In its attempt to assimilate the progressive faction of the Democratic Party, the former vice-president’s campaign is ceding ground on its promise of a restorationist foreign policy
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign recently released its “Agenda for Muslim-American Communities”. In outlining their vision for the community, the document also highlighted Biden’s inclination to “champion human rights and democracy globally” with reference to the internment of a million Uyghur Muslims, and mass extermination of Rohingya Muslims. This even included Biden’s call to the Indian government to “take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir”, and noted the former vice president to have been “disappointed by the measures that the government of India has taken with the implementation and aftermath of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act into law.” It deemed such measures to be “inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy.”
On being clubbed with the events in China and Myanmar, the criticism invited ire from Indian commentators (“To appease the world’s Islamists, Joe Biden snaps ties with truth on Kashmir, CAA, NRC”) and a group of Hindu Americans even reached out to the Biden campaign to lodge their “resentment to the language used against India” and asked for “a similar policy paper on Hindu Americans.” Within days however, news coverage in India turned to Biden’s announcement of strengthening the US’ partnership with “natural partner” India as “a high priority” if he’s elected president, and his opposition to Trump’s suspension of H-1B visas which are the “most sought-after by Indian IT professionals”.
Beyond this funambulism on courting the Muslim-American community and refraining from ‘rocking the boat’ on one of America’s most consequential bilateral relationships, the criticism is reflective of the progressives’ hold over the Biden campaign.
Over the past year, as US bipartisan support for India has come under strain, analyses have emphasised on certain personalities for throwing a proverbial spanner in the works. For instance, last year’s Congressional hearing on human rights in the region, which turned out to be dominated by the situation in Kashmir, Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN-5) comments — bereft of any nuance over the untoward role of cross-border militants in Kashmir, accrued the spotlight. Similarly, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) addressed the Islamic Society of North America and said that he was “deeply concerned about the situation in Kashmir”, analyses pointed to the undue influence of Sanders’ Pakistani-American campaign manager Faiz Shakir.
Beyond such influences however, bipartisanship on India is set to come under further strain on account of the rising currency of progressives in the Democratic Party.
With progressives recounting Democrats’ failure to deliver on the liberal agenda, the party’s ambivalence towards pursuing campaign finance reform, governance of big corporates, and comprehensive social security programmes have become major rallying points. Furthermore, with Trump’s 2016 takeover of the Republican Party via galvanising conservatives’ socio-cultural anxieties, the progressive faction’s own anti-establishment rhetoric grew into vilification of the Democrats’ post-Cold War foreign policy bipartisanship with Republicans on corporate-friendly immigration laws, anti-indigenous free trade agenda, etc. This schism within the Democratic Party was evident during the primaries, with moderates coming at odds with the progressives. While the former advocated for reclaiming the centre of the American political spectrum, the latter argued for a more progressive agenda centred on socio-economic populism. However, Biden — the most prominent establishment politician gunning for the nomination, pulled ahead of Sanders — the poster boy of the progressives, with massive wins on Super Tuesday (winning 92 percent of the 1,344 delegates), mini-Super Tuesday (winning five of the six states), and proved his capability to perform in must-win states for Trump (like Arizona and Florida).
Despite these wins — indicative of the Democratic voter base’s evident inclination towards a moderate platform, the Biden campaign has sought conciliation with progressives. This seems to be aimed at averting the resurgence of a 2016-style ‘Bernie or Bust’ movement, a group of progressive voters disgruntled with Hillary Clinton’s nomination either engaging in no-shows or opting to vote for Trump instead. With some studies suggesting that nearly 12 percent of Sanders supporters “crossed party lines” to vote for Trump, the brewing #NeverBiden movement has spurred Biden’s campaign to join hands with Sanders to announce “joint task forces” towards a unified platform which assimilates progressive policies. Wherein, it is expected that Biden’s foreign policy agenda would witness the most substantial shifts given his little room for manoeuvre on ceding concessions on domestic issues like abolishing private insurance in the progressives’ call for ‘Medicare for All’.
On foreign policy, Biden has run as a restorationist who can reinstate America’s standing in the world. In criticising Trump’s abandonment of allies and initiation of trade wars, Biden has spoken of his vision as a matter of “rescuing US foreign policy”. However, with Biden’s continued advocacy for American internationalism, progressives view him as a “man of the past“, given their preference for a restrained American outlook and greater emphasis on values in foreign policy.
On the former, as Trump alleged Biden to have been weak on China, the former vice-president’s campaign briefly sought to out-hawk Trump in its approach before dialling it down. With their continued prodding for Biden to accept a more nuanced approach to China, progressives claimed credit. Sanders’ foreign policy advisor Matt Duss said, “I think they [Biden campaign] took those concerns and criticisms on board, and they understand a hawkish race to the bottom is unwise both politically and on policy.”
On the role of values, although Biden speaks of America’s role in moralistic terms (“The United States must lead not just with the example of power, but the power of our example”), progressives deem a mere restorationist foreign policy to hardly cut it. In addition, Biden’s track record (like his vote to authorise the Iraq War) and some nascent positions (like his refusal to condition US military aid to Israel to exact commitments for a Palestinian state) irk progressives.
The push for a greater role for values also stems from their abhorrence of Trump’s values-bereft ‘America First’ conduct of foreign policy, as they allege in case of his administration’s response to the Kashmir matter. And given Biden’s role in the cultivation of US-India bilateral ties — from his 2005 bipartisan legislation with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) which led to India’s acquisition of its first US-built warship, to his role in setting the US$ 500 billion goal for US-India bilateral trade — the pressure to assimilate progressive views stands accentuated.
Case in-point being, the Biden campaign removed Amit Jani as its Muslim Outreach Coordinator early this year. The long-term Indian American Democratic operative had come under fire after multiple online petitions called for his ouster on account of alleged “Islamophobia” reflected in his family’s closeness to India’s Prime Minster Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP. In addition, although picked as the co-chair of the joint task force on healthcare policy, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-07) — known for tabling the controversial House Resolution (H. Res. 745) on “urging the Republic of India to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible and preserve religious freedom for all residents”, has been accorded a prominent position in the campaign’s deliberation for a unified platform.
Hence, a ‘return to the past’ foreign policy won’t be guaranteed under Biden, and unbridled support for India could be a chief casualty of his political bargain with the progressives.
Chinese advocacy for economic interdependence, owing to its centrality in global supply chains, could be met with a renewed transatlantic consensus centered on China.
Even as the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, China has sought to further its strategic aims. In April, China officiated its territorial aggrandisement in the South China Sea by announcing administrative structures to govern much of its nine-dash line claims over the contested Paracels Islands, Macclesfied Bank and the Spratly Islands. Starting mid-April, China stepped up its presence around the disputed Senkaku Islands — setting an all-time high record of operating in the contested space for 65 consecutive days as per the Japanese Coast Guard.
In May, the Chinese National People’s Congress approved a proposal to introduce a contentious national security law in Hong Kong, which would ban “secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, foreign intervention” and permit mainland China’s security apparatus to operate in the semi-autonomous city. Most recently, China and India engaged in a border skirmish which claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers, in an incident reported to be the first such “deadly clash in the border area in at least 45 years.”
Starting mid-April, China stepped up its presence around the disputed Senkaku Islands — setting an all-time high record of operating in the contested space for 65 consecutive days as per the Japanese Coast Guard.
Amidst its pursuit of long-standing strategic aims however, Beijing’s advocacy for economic interdependence is set to pick up pace.
Over the past three years, US President Donald Trump’s anti-globalism message has been met with increased Chinese calls for economic interdependence. Notably, at the 2017 World Economic Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “We must remain committed to developing global free trade and investment, (and) promote trade and investment liberalization.” China’s turn as the supposed vanguard for economic interdependence stemmed from its intent to preserve its thirty-year stint as the world’s leading manufacturer against a wave of protectionism.
Over that period, the world’s dependence on Chinese goods either accorded it outright monopoly — like in case of China being the largest producer of tires with an estimated 759.3 million units manufactured in 2019, or handed it crucial leverage points — as with China accounting for 40 percent of the world’s requirement for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients.
In a bid to arrest the decline in its prowess as an exporting behemoth, China is set to further its advocacy for global commerce.
Following the coronavirus pandemic however, global sentiment against relying extensively on China for crucial imports is set to rise. (China exports plummet by 17% as coronavirus takes its toll) In addition, nations have also eyed this as an opportunity to encourage the “sell where you make” model, attract lucrative foreign investments, and spur a “manufacturing exodus” from China by offering incentives. Hence, in a bid to arrest the decline in its prowess as an exporting behemoth, China is set to further its advocacy for global commerce.
As other nations’ fight with the pandemic impedes their return to normalcy amidst multinational companies becoming increasingly eager to resume production, China has sought to capitalise on its ‘first mover advantage.’ For instance, by March-end, China had already hailed resumption of economic activity, with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology claiming that 98.6 percent of industrial firms had resumed work with 89.9 percent of employees returning to their workplaces. However, China’s attempt to sustain its role as the “factory of the world,” could be met with resistance — starting with the consolidation of anti-China political will in the US.
In eyeing its market potentialities, post-Cold War Democrat and Republican administrations prioritised engaging China from an economic standpoint over confronting the strategic challenges it presented. Chiefly, the Bill Clinton administration’s Permanent Normal Trade Relations legislation (which ended US policy of reviewing China’s trade status owing to its record on civil liberties) paved the way for the George W. Bush administration’s facilitation of China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation.
In recognising the cruciality of blue-collar workers from the industrial mid-West in Trump’s 2016 electoral arithmetic, Democrats have thus come around to supporting Trump’s ‘America First’ approach to China.
The political folly of this approach was apparent with Trump’s 2016 campaign message which attributed the hollowing out of America’s industrial base to past American policymakers’ ambivalence towards China’s rise as a near-peer competitor. In recognising the cruciality of blue-collar workers from the industrial mid-West in Trump’s 2016 electoral arithmetic, Democrats have thus come around to supporting Trump’s ‘America First’ approach to China.
An early sign of a renewed US bipartisanship was apparent with the Democrats’ support for the 2018 round of US tariffs on China. They referred to it as “a leverage point” against China’s “regulatory barriers, localisation requirements, labour abuses, anticompetitive ‘Made in China 2025’ policy and many other unfair trade practices.” After winning control over the US House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, Democrats continued their support with complementing initiatives. For instance, even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led the charge on assuaging European concerns on fraying transatlantic ties under Trump, her February 2020 visit across the Atlantic saw her to be one with Trump’s campaign against nations opting for Chinese telecoms gear giant Huawei’s 5G propositions.
Furthermore, in reinstating focus on China’s civil liberties record, the House passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Tibetan Policy and Support Act. Amidst the pandemic, House Democrats have even doubled down to pass the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. Finally, they are reportedly now also considering the recently approved (Republican-held) Senate bill on delisting noncompliant Chinese companies from US stock exchanges.
Under Trump, transatlantic rifts have widened on account of his decision to view European economies as trade competitors, the US’ withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal and increased pressure on European nations to raise their defence commitments. Europe’s relationship with China has also been a sticking point. For instance, when the UK’s Boris Johnson government announced that the Chinese telecoms giant would build up to 35 percent of its 5G infrastructure, American legislators warned that the move could endanger US-UK intelligence sharing.
However, now in the wake of rising “backlash among Conservative MPs against Chinese investment and a lack of transparency around Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic,” Johnson has reportedly asked for draft plans to reduce Huawei’s involvement. Moreover, in “entering a period of realism with China,” Johnson announced the UK could ease visa restrictions and put millions of Hong Kongers on a path to citizenship as Beijing looks to impose the discussed security law. Furthermore, in a recent video meeting between the 27 EU member foreign ministers and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the EU’s Foreign Affairs High Representative Josep Borrell called for “a more robust strategy” on China and underscored the importance for Europe “to stay together with the US in order to share concerns and to look for common ground to defend our values and our interests.”
Under the tabled proposals, EU officials could force investors to share acquired technology with competitors.
Moreover, beyond rhetoric, the European Union has also sought tighter restrictions against Chinese investments, following rising calls for Europe to have investment safeguards much like the inter-agency mechanism in the US, i.e. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). After last month’s “opportunistic acquisition” of a stake in Norwegian Air by a Chinese government-controlled company, the European Commission announced proposals “intended to prevent foreign investors from using government subsidies to outbid competitors for European assets.”
These proposals evidently pertain to China (which the EU now dubs as a “systemic rival”) given its focus on imposing “conditions on (government) subsidised investors” which through their investments also get their hands on advanced and/or sensitive technology. Case in point, China National Chemical Corp’s 2015 acquisition of Italian tire-giant Pirelli accorded the state-owned entity access to technical knowhow on premium tires. Under the tabled proposals, EU officials could force investors to share acquired technology with competitors.
Hence, increased Chinese advocacy for economic interdependence owing to its centrality in global supply chains, could be met with a renewed transatlantic consensus centered on China.
From rising impatience with the ‘Black faces in high places’ approach to dampening conservatives’ ‘Blue Lives Matter’ clarion, George Floyd’s death presents diverse ramifications for the election
Last month, George Floyd’s death came as the latest in a line of killings of African Americans by American law enforcement officers. Reported to have died of asphyxia, Floyd was seen groaning for help (“please, I can’t breathe”) in a widely circulated video. In which, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, was seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. In sparking nation-wide protests, this incident has reawakened African Americans’ anger against police brutality and rekindled their long-standing struggle for racial justice in the US.
With respect to the 2020 election, this incident closely followed the presumptive Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden’s gaffe over his party’s presumed hold over the African American community. In an interview, Biden said: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” For President Donald Trump, the incident comes at a time when he has been seeking to pivot the conversation away from his lax federal response to the coronavirus pandemic — which disproportionately affected African Americans with deaths nearly “two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population.” Moreover, Floyd’s death and the unrest thereafter is set to impact the election in the following ways:
With the incident, support for the consolatory approach of fighting racial injustice with gradual induction of African Americans in positions of authority is coming under strain. In an interview, civil rights activist Cornel West declared “black faces in high places” to have failed in translating into change because individuals often succumb to the “capitalist economy” and “militarized nation-state.” He continued: “The Black Lives Matter movement emerged under a black president [Barack Obama], black attorney general [Eric Holder], and black homeland security [Jeh Johnson] and they couldn’t deliver.”
Impatience with this approach is set to upend Biden’s shortlist for a running-mate. After committing to have a woman on the ticket, there have been calls for Biden to go for a woman of colour. In recognising the centrality of black women voters in the 2018 midterms which propelled Democrats to flip control of the US House of Representatives, that prescription also seeks to correct the “abysmal turnout among registered black voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2016.” However, with the reinvigoration of conversations around systemic racial injustice, two African American vice-presidential hopefuls — Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Val Demings (D-FL-10), now find their records under renewed scrutiny.
Sen. Harris’ record as a California district attorney and later as the state’s attorney general has invited controversy. Chiefly, over her support for a “state legislation under which parents whose children were found to be habitually truant in elementary school could be prosecuted, despite concerns that it would disproportionately affect low-income people of color.” Similarly, Rep. Demings, who served as Orlando’s first woman police chief has often been criticised of doing little to change the Orlando Police Department, which reportedly paid nearly US$ 3.3 million in damages towards 47 lawsuits over false arrests, excessive force and other complaints between 2010-14.
In the years following the Black Lives Matter movement — which espoused progressives’ push against institutionalised racism, conservatives rallied around a corollary movement. Blue Lives Matter sought to limit officers’ responsibility on assimilating communities due to credible threats to their own well-being.
The conservative coalition around law enforcement groups emerged as a key voter base for Trump, evidenced in chants of ‘Blue Lives Matter’ at the Republican National Convention in 2016. Unions representing Border Patrol agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers even made their first presidential endorsements in favor of Trump. Once in office, he has overseen a decrease in the Justice Department’s oversight of law enforcement, in contrast to Barack Obama’s support for civil rights inquiries into the Ferguson and Baltimore police departments. Trump’s support for the Blues, has also fed conservatives’ call for designating violence against officers as a federal hate crime, opposing Obama-era policy of curtailing federal transfer of “surplus military equipment to local police departments”. It also heightened invocation of conservative theories like the “Ferguson effect” — which purports that protests in response to police actions empower criminals and demotivate local forces.
However, with Floyd’s death being captured in a graphic video (without an apparent threat to the kneeling officer), conservatives are hedging bets on their usual ‘Blue Lives Matter’ clarion. Instead, they have opted to retort with the illegality of the protests that have followed. Conservative pundits and the president himself have referred to protestors as “Criminal Mobs”, “Thugs”, and “radical rioters exploiting this death of Mr. Floyd, committing crimes, justifying crimes, threatening more violence.” Trump has even sought to construe himself as “your president of law and order” by calling protests “domestic acts of terror” and vowing to use the military to quell the unrest.
In construing the protests as a law-and-order matter, Democrats have thus found themselves in a quandary, balancing support of their most loyal voter base with refraining from coming across as condoning the disruption of law-and-order.
With the epicentre of protests in Minneapolis, the local politics of Minnesota which is already a crucial Rust Belt swing-state, is set to come under national spotlight. For starters, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar may “end up as the first political casualty of the Minneapolis unrest.”
Over her eight-year tenure as the chief prosecutor in Minneapolis, Klobuchar was known to have pursued policies that “shored up her support in white suburbs at the cost of unfairly targeting minorities and declining to prosecute police shootings.” Klobuchar’s record has now come under renewed scrutiny due to her history with Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck. During the last year of Klobuchar’s tenure, Chauvin was involved in a police-related shooting for which he and five other officers had no charges levied against them. Although she had left office by the time his case reached a grand jury, critics have purported a “direct line of culpability between Klobuchar and this officer who lynched a man” and some have even called for her resignation.
Amidst Democrats mounting an offensive to gain control of the Republican-held Senate in the 2020 election, Klobuchar’s declining fortunes could complicate their position in the already tight 53 Republicans – 45 Democrats + 2 independents profile of the US Senate. Further, the Minneapolis unrest will only compound the politics over Minnesota’s urban-rural divide. Its credential as a swing-state stems from the tussle between “the liberal Twin Cities [Minneapolis & St. Paul] and a sea of red [conservative] in much of the surrounding farmland”. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Minnesota by less than 2 percentage points (under 45,000 votes) at the hands of the “population-rich Minneapolis-St. Paul area.” Stoking that urban-rural divide in an attempt to appeal to those that have frowned at the protests upending law-and-order, Trump has blamed the city’s Democratic leaders. He tweeted, “A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right”.
Hence, from rising impatience with the ‘Black faces in high places’ approach to dampening conservatives’ ‘Blue Lives Matter’ clarion, George Floyd’s death presents diverse ramifications for the election.
Trump’s re-election narrative is taking shape as he continues to support anti-lockdown protests, fans the Obamagate conspiracy, and seeks to validate the ‘America First’ approach on China.
As the presumptive Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden remains confined to his basement, President Donald Trump has taken advantage of his role as the incumbent president to organise “thinly veiled campaign events” amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Trump recently visited a Ford manufacturing plant in Michigan, with the purpose of surveying its altered operations to produce ventilators. But Trump’s visit also came from the standpoint of his re-election bid.
Much-like his 2016 campaign, Trump’s focus once again seems to be on courting blue-collar workers. However, this time the bogeyman he is seeking to vilify is much closer to home.
In his contest against Hillary Clinton, Trump pulled off a win in the swing-state of Michigan by a narrow margin. He galvanised white working-class voters by tapping into their anxieties on immigration and playing-up job losses in the mid-west due to America’s industry-base shifting to countries like China. This time, Trump is construing Democrats as the ones impeding his post-COVID-19 economic revival.
Biden has stepped up attacks on Trump’s unfulfilled promises, by alleging him to have “turned his back on Michigan’s working families.” In response, Trump has singled out swing-states ruled by Democrats in his support for protestors “who chafe against social distancing as an infringement on freedoms.” Thus, at the Ford plant, Trump presented himself as the standard-bearer for those vying for an American economic reawakening: “Americans who want and need to return to work should not be vilified — they should be supported.”
Trump’s strategy of supporting local protests has emerged as the ideal approach by which he can avoid the elections from becoming a referendum on his handling of the pandemic.
Furthermore, as US states grappled against Trump’s slow-walked response to the coronavirus pandemic, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer emerged as a vocal critic of a meek federal response. Her rise to national prominence also fed speculations of her being picked as Biden’s Vice President. But on the local level, she has faced armed demonstrators in multiple rounds of protests at the Michigan State Capitol and reportedly has also been the subject of “credible threats” of assassination. Given her prospects with Biden and her role as a Democrat overseeing an electorally-crucial state, Trump’s strategy of supporting local protests has emerged as the ideal approach by which he can avoid the elections from becoming a referendum on his handling of the pandemic.
Thus, Trump has similarly focused on swing-states ruled by Democrats. Trump has alleged Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to have continued lockdowns without a credible rationale: “You have areas of Pennsylvania that are barely affected and [Wolf wants] to keep them closed.” And in Wisconsin, Trump’s anti-lockdown rhetoric has spurred local Republicans to call for “liberating” residents from stay-at-home orders by Gov. Tony Evers.
In the 2016, Trump often derided Clinton as being supported by the US political establishment or the “swamp”. In alleging that group of elites to have “rigged” the election against him, Trump further galvanised support for his conservative nationalist movement.
Trump is now repurposing that narrative to allege a deep-rooted conspiracy against his presidency. Calling it “the biggest political crime in American history,” Trump has accused his predecessor Barack Obama administration for “masterminding the Russia investigation and engineering a ‘deep state’ campaign to undermine Trump’s presidency before it even began.”
In 2016, while alleging that group of elites to have “rigged” the election against him, Trump further galvanised support for his conservative nationalist movement.
The theory revolves around Trump campaign advisor and subsequently his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In 2017, Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition. In the final days of the Obama administration, their conversations were recorded as part of routine US surveillance on Russian officials. Generally, the identity of any US citizen in such surveillance is redacted, but is open to “unmasking” requests by US officials. Under the alleged conspiracy, senior Obama officials “unmasked” Flynn to have him set up for prosecution for lying about discussing US sanctions with the Russian envoy. However, such requests are standard practice used by policymakers to better comprehend gathered intelligence. But Trump’s agenda in fanning the conspiracy seems to be geared towards offsetting an issue unique to his 2020 re-election bid.
In 2016, Trump was “neck-and-neck” with Clinton on the electorate’s perception of their respective “trustworthiness.” In 2020 however, possibly due to Biden’s benign reputation as “Amtrak Joe” or the “scrappy kid from Scranton,” he has had “a 15-point advantage over Trump on the question of being “honest and trustworthy.” Although the ‘Obamagate’ conspiracy now seems to be getting debunked with reports emerging on Flynn’s name never having been redacted in the first place, one can expect Trump to nevertheless double down on the conspiracy to taint Biden. And to his advantage, Biden has confirmed that he attended a meeting in January 2017 with President Obama and other officials, which covered the counterintelligence investigation into Flynn.
In possibly recognising the impact that this conspiracy may have on his ratings, the former vice president recently called it a “diversion” from pressing issues and refused to “get down in the mud” with the Trump campaign.
In 2016, Trump alleged the US political establishment’s bipartisan support for free trade with China to have resulted in “unacceptable outcomes” for America’s industrial mid-west. In office, Trump engaged in a trade war of tariffs and retaliatory tariffs with China for over 18 months, before announcing the limited Phase One trade deal. Wherein, Trump exacted Chinese assurances to increase imports by at least $200 billion over the next two years.
China has reportedly been lagging on its Phase One commitments. This has presented Trump an opportunity to once again demonstrate the efficacy of the ‘America First’ worldview, in face of the Biden campaign construing his approach as being “tough talk, weak action.”
Although the same meant gains for Trump’s effort to balance the US’s trade deficit with China ($378.6 billion in 2018), the deal had little on the US’s interests to seek Chinese structural reform against its history of engaging in intellectual property theft, incentivising state-owned enterprises, and necessitating technological transfers in exchange of foreign manufactures entering its market. Hence, the ‘America First’ agenda on China remains unfinished.
Now, ahead of the 2020 election, the coronavirus pandemic has presented Trump an opportunity to once again tap into anti-China sentiment. According to a recent poll, largely owing to the pandemic, Americans hold an unfavourable view of China by a margin of 66 to 26.
In addition, China has reportedly been lagging on its Phase One commitments. This has presented Trump an opportunity to once again demonstrate the efficacy of the ‘America First’ worldview, in face of the Biden campaign construing his approach as being “tough talk, weak action.” Thus, as reports have emerged of China’s increase in import of US products being “at just one-third the pace needed to reach the targets” and its continued lag on purchase of US energy (a mere $320 million worth in March instead of the mandated monthly average of $2.2 billion), Trump has raised the pressure.
For instance, the Commerce Department announced its tightened regulation “to bar Huawei and its suppliers from using American technology and software”. A significant escalation, the rule “will block companies around the world from using American-made machinery and software to design or produce chips for Huawei or its entities.” With such actions, Trump has reckoned Beijing would most likely prefer Biden in order to get respite from his administration upping the ante.
Thus, Trump’s re-election strategy currently encompasses his effort to construe Democratic governors as the ones impeding resumption of economic activity, target Biden’s favourability by propagating Obamagate, and capitalise on anti-China sentiment to validate his ‘America First’ approach.
As the US doubles down on its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, India and Europe can cooperate to stem the tide against the surge of Iranian hardliners.
In March, Iran became the first major COVID-19 hotspot outside Asia and until April, remained as one of the worst affected. In all, Iran’s fight with COVID-19 has been costly, with over 100,000 cases and a death toll of over 6,500. Iran’s Health Ministry has even warned of a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, despite a flattened curve after two months of containment efforts.
Despite the severity of the situation, the Donald Trump administration has doubled down on its “maximum pressure” campaign by announcing new sanctions on Iran.
The American calculation seems to have been aimed at one of two possible outcomes. Either the two-front challenge of a domestic health crisis and tighter sanctions coaxes Tehran to return to the negotiating table for a new nuclear deal. Alternatively, the incumbent regime capitulates under heightened domestic protests over its incapability to handle the ongoing emergency. However, this policy is turning out to bear counterintuitive results.
Contrary to intended US outcomes, the situation seems to be devolving with the consolidation of Iranian hardliners. The pro-reform, moderate and/or non-ideological technocratic faction of the Iranian political spectrum is under duress — in stark contrast to their popularity following the 2015 finalisation of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Trump’s withdrawal from the same and his subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign has hastened the downturn of the moderates’ fortunes — all whilst validating the hardliners’ mistrust over the US’s dependability.
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, calls for consolidating “insular rule internally and hard power abroad” against “hostile foreign forces” are increasing. According to a poll, moderate President Hassan Rouhani is now less popular than his 2017 election opponent and conservative Ebrahim Raisi — who was recently elevated by Iran’s Supreme Leader to the position of judiciary chief.
Trump’s withdrawal from the same and his subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign has hastened the downturn of the moderates’ fortunes — all whilst validating the hardliners’ mistrust over the US’s dependability.
The current crisis has also presented the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with an opportunity to engage in a public relations campaign following its heavy-handed response to the November 2019 protests and their January 2020 shooting of a Ukrainian civilian aircraft. Reportedly, the IRGC has now been projecting “itself as the guardian of public health and the champion of the fight against the invisible enemy.”
Even moderate Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s call for unity and continued global engagement was discounted in the Supreme Leader’s address on the Iranian New Year. In the speech, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei defended Iran’s “model of religious governance, rejected US assistance, and suggested that the United States could be behind the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Iranian hardliners’ rising influence is set to hasten Tehran’s pivot away from its initial strategy against “maximum pressure” — to remain compliant with the nuclear deal and gather political support from the international community. Already, this shift in Iranian foreign policy has led to a string of attacks — on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and even Saudi oil refineries. Iran’s missile barrage on the US’s Al Asad military base in Iraq also demonstrated that it “could land missiles with extreme precision, circumventing US-manufactured air defence systems.” Tehran has also reduced its compliance to the nuclear deal by tripling its stockpile of enriched uranium.
These retaliatory escalations raise the prospect of miscalculations with US forces, and as a result threaten the interests of other powers. India and the European Union for instance, have announced their congruent support for the Iran Nuclear Deal and its pursuit of a nuclear-free Iran under a “non-proliferation framework” that seeks “international peace, stability and security.”
Powers like Europe and India — that have been advocates for a peaceful pathway to a nuclear-free Iran, hold an imperative to balance the fallout from heightened US antagonism.
If the situation however devolves into a US-Iran conflict, the EU’s plans for pan-Eurasian connectivity under the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) would be upended. Also, another wave of north-bound refugees could exacerbate Europe’s challenge with anti-immigrant populist movements posing an existential threat to the EU experiment. For India, its strategic investment in Iran’s Chabahar Port and its International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) connectivity project would be at risk. Moreover, a US-Iran conflict can reverse US-India partnership’s gains on isolating Pakistan over its support for transnational terror networks. Much like in the case of the US war in Afghanistan, an American military effort in Iran would once again increase US operational dependence on neighbouring Pakistan — to effectively degrade the solidifying bipartisan consensus in Washington against Islamabad’s duplicity on counterterrorism efforts.
Hence, powers like Europe and India — that have been advocates for a peaceful pathway to a nuclear-free Iran, hold an imperative to balance the fallout from heightened US antagonism. And the coronavirus pandemic, offers an apt opportunity to do so by strengthening the Iranian moderates’ call for continued Iranian global engagement over reactionary belligerence.
Although humanitarian items like medicines and pharmaceutical equipment do not fall under the purview of US sanctions, nations have been reluctant to do business with Iran.
This stems from nations’ experience with the Trump administration threatening coercion to seek compliance on its “maximum pressure” campaign. For instance, after the US withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal, transatlantic relations worsened as European powers refused to follow suit. However they caved on trade as multinational companies (like France’s Total, Germany’s Siemens and Denmark’s Maersk) refused to do business with Iran out of fear of US sanctions. Similarly, India ceased import of Iranian oil in face of US secondary sanctions, despite having favourable arrangements like 60-day creditline, free insurance, and cheaper shipping.
Although humanitarian items like medicines and pharmaceutical equipment do not fall under the purview of US sanctions, nations have been reluctant to do business with Iran.
However, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, European nations have employed the INSTEX — a French-registered trade mechanism developed to circumvent US-led payment channels, launched in 2019 against Trump’s policy of economic coercion. In March, Germany announced the first successful transaction with Iran under INSTEX. Subsequently, Germany, France and the UK used the system to send medical supplies worth Euro 5 million to Iran. This move was even met with equanimity from the US president: “Medical good?… that doesn’t bother me.” This presents a window of opportunity for India to engage with Iran — without incurring US coercion that may have held it back thus far.
Since lifting its ban on exporting Hydroxycholoroquine — an antimalarial drug with “anecdotal” evidence of being effective against the novel coronavirus, India has exported the same and other common drugs to about 24 countries and donated supplies to another 31 countries under its “medical diplomacy” initiative. As of mid-April, requests from Iran on such supplies however, were reportedly on hold following a call between Zarif and his Indian counterpart on “illegal and unilateral US sanctions.” If India and its European partners now together heed to Iranian requests, they could also contribute in arresting Iranian hardliners’ recent surge.
Without such a timely gesture of apolitical international cooperation in face of a pandemic, the current spate of crises compounded by US pressures will definitely alter the Iranian moderates’ fortunes in the upcoming 2021 presidential elections. Time is of the essence, as one would recall: after the George W. Bush administration’s ‘Axis of Evil’ antagonism followed moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s 1998 call to break the “wall of mistrust” between Iran and the US, conservative hardliner and firebrand politician Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to power and impeded Iranian engagement for the entirety of his eight-year rule.
Hence, India and Europe’s medical diplomacy can be pivotal in strengthening Iranian moderates’ call for continued global engagement even in times of greater antagonism by the US.
Even as the coronavirus pandemic strains European solidarity, its ideas on social protection experience a fillip — but this time on the other side of the Atlantic.
The novel coronavirus originated in China, but the west has suffered the brunt of the ensuing pandemic the most. In terms of active cases, the US is now the epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis. With over a million cases, it accounts for a third of the world’s total cases and over ten times that of China’s total cases. In Europe, even as Germany reaches its peak, the death toll in Italy, Spain and France has crossed 24,000 each. Cumulatively, deaths in Europe (including UK figures) have been about twenty times that of China’s figures. Even as both sides of the Atlantic continue to reel under the novel coronavirus, traditional prospects for transatlantic cooperation remain elusive.
The United States and Europe have been the standard-bearers of the liberal world order. This has encompassed championing economic interdependence and free movement of people, all whilst being held together under the “most successful” multilateral security alliance in the world. Over the past three years however, the Donald Trump administration has strained US ties with Europe. His administration has broken from US foreign policy precedent by viewing EU economic cohesion as a competitive force to American economic primacy, fanning right-wing populism on the continent by continually weighing-in on UK-EU Brexit negotiations, and construing European defence as a drain on US largesse towards the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
With COVID-19, the administration has now even attributed the spread of COVID-19 in the US to Europe serving as a stepping stone for the virus to reach the arrival lobbies of American airports. Announcing the suspension of flights from Europe in mid-March, Trump said, “The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hotspots. As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travellers from Europe.”
With COVID-19, the administration has now even attributed the spread of COVID-19 in the US to Europe serving as a stepping stone for the virus to reach the arrival lobbies of American airports.
The Trump administration has also engaged in beggar-thy-neighbour policies by ordering US companies like 3M to halt export of N95 masks to foreign markets. In one instance, a shipment of 200,000 masks on its way to Germany from a 3M factory in China was even “confiscated” by US officials in Thailand. Over the past few weeks, French and German officials have even complained about the US having engaged in “Wild West” tactics to outbid for medical equipment. This latest thorn in transatlantic ties comes at a time when the coronavirus has begun to pose an existential threat to European solidarity.
European solidarity was already put in jeopardy in 2016 when the UK — the second largest economy in the European Union, voted to leave. More so, with the elongated UK-EU discussions over the terms of Brexit, Brussels faced a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario. If it were to hand the UK a favourable severance deal, it would risk accentuating calls for breaking away from the Union in other EU states. If it were to play hard-ball on negotiations to set a precedent against any future defections, it would counterintuitively only fan right-wing populist dogma over Brussels holding every member-state’s sovereignty on a tight leash.
Now in face of the COVID-19 pandemic, old fault-lines over the fiscal management of the Union are re-emerging. For instance, last month, the European Central Bank (ECB) announced that it would buy an additional €750 billion worth of European corporate and government bonds this year, to “offset the adverse economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak.” The ECB relaxing its “self-imposed restrictions” on purchasing government bonds, also reignited the stalled debate on a Eurobond — a “common bond that financial institutions across Europe could use as collateral when borrowing from each other and from central banks.” Although wealthier northern European governments grudgingly accepted the additional purchase of bonds, countries like Germany, Austria and the Netherlands have long opposed the idea of introducing a common bond citing “fears that irresponsible governments could use the eurobond to go on a spending spree.”
The ire has been directed against high debt-to-GDP ratio member-states like Italy and Spain — which now incidentally are also most in need as the worst-hit by the coronavirus.
Their concerns with even a one-of common bond (like say, ‘coronabonds’) pertain to the slowing of austerity measures by encouraging the “mutualisation of debt.” The ire has been directed against high debt-to-GDP ratio member-states like Italy and Spain — which now incidentally are also most in need as the worst-hit by the coronavirus.
In addition, the impulse for beggar-thy-neighbour approaches isn’t limited to the US. In the early stages of the coronavirus’ spread in Europe, France and Germany had banned the export of essentials like masks to other EU member-states, despite “the fact that the EU is supposed to be a single market.” In France, the ban was also applicable to the export of products by international companies that merely had their distribution warehouses there. For one such Swedish company, the French “confiscation was tantamount to nationalising a private company belonging to a European partner.” Amidst this compounding strain to European solidarity, its long-championed ideas on social protection are gaining popularity — but across the Atlantic.
On the campaign trail, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) often touted the European model of mixing welfare state with markets. In making single-payer ‘Medicare for All’ the centrepiece of his campaign, Sanders cited European and Scandinavian successes with government-run healthcare systems.
As this health crisis exposes the frailty of the current US social protection system, the COVID-19 pandemic in many ways is serving as a validation of Sanders’ vision. It is reported that the US’ fight against coronavirus stands impeded as nearly 12 percent of the US population remains uninsured and 23 percent are deemed to be underinsured. In addition to these 87 million that are uninsured or underinsured, over 150 million Americans — who have health insurance through their employers, are now facing uncertainty in these times of rising unemployment. Thus, the devastation “wrought by the coronavirus could push US voters to favour policies supporting social security measures like universal healthcare or stronger retirement schemes.”
But, Sanders failed to muster enough momentum after early wins in New Hampshire and Nevada to come within striking distance of the Democratic nomination. However, after now suspending his campaign and endorsing former Vice-President Joe Biden, Sanders and his “progressive” constituency still have an opportunity to shape the debate on healthcare against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.
It is unlikely that Biden will eventually come around to fully embrace Sanders’ position on ‘Medicare for All’ which would controversially also entail abolishing private insurance (a move Biden has opposed).
The Biden campaign is now reportedly discussing a “unified platform” in consultation with the Sanders camp. Wherein, he is expected to embrace some of Sanders’ positions that are popular amongst young progressives — a voting group that Biden has struggled with. Although Biden is mostly expected to make the biggest accommodations on foreign policy issues, he has already come partially in support of some progressive domestic ideas, like that over student loan relief, bankruptcy reforms, and Medicare for 60-year-olds.
It is unlikely that Biden will eventually come around to fully embrace Sanders’ position on ‘Medicare for All’ which would controversially also entail abolishing private insurance (a move Biden has opposed). However, rising support for wider, government-run, European-style social protection programmes against the backdrop of COVD-19 pandemic, is sure to energise the next generation of American progressives — like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY-14), well beyond the 2020 elections. This is evident in the findings of exit/entrance polls of all recent primary contests, wherein most Democrats — in some states even as many as two-thirds and more — favoured “a government plan” for healthcare.
Thus, even as the COVID-19 pandemic frays transatlantic cooperation and strains European solidarity, Europe’s long-championed idea on social protection is gaining popularity amongst American progressives.
COVID19 pandemic offers India and the US an opportunity to build a positive-sum consensus
Earlier this year, US-India ties were in the spotlight as US President Donald Trump made his maiden visit to India. Two months on, the US and India are now in the eye of the COVID19 storm. With over 750,000 active cases, the US has now surpassed Spain, Italy and even China as the most affected country. Whereas, India remains under a nation-wide lockdown as the initial 21-day lockdown was recently extended until May 03. Even amidst the COVID19 pandemic however, the US-India bilateral dynamic is thriving and possibly pivoting towards a relatively more positive-sum consensus — away from recent years’ bout of stalemates and transactionalism.
India’s global engagement in these times has encompassed what is being termed as “medical diplomacy“. Apart from dispatching teams of Indian military doctors to foreign countries and organising online training for healthcare professionals on COVID19 management, the same includes India’s support in terms of dispatching the anti-malarial drug Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ).
Given the centrality of combating malaria in its national health programs, India is one of the largest producers of HCQ. Although there has been no large-scale clinical trial over HCQ’s efficacy against COVID19, there has been some “anecdotal” evidence about the drug’s effectiveness against the novel coronavirus. Moreover, global demand for HCQ spiked after US President Trump continually touted the drug to be a “game changer” when used in combination with the common antibiotic azithromycin against COVID19.
Although India is often dubbed as the “pharmacy of the world” and its pharmaceutical industry is the world’s third-largest, the Narendra Modi government briefly banned the export of HCQ owing to an expected dip in Chinese export of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) and a rise in global demand for HCQ. For instance, in March alone, after having received “five times as many orders as usual”, New Jersey-based Rising Pharmaceuticals announced that it is “ramping up production in India to meet demand, purchasing “extraordinary amounts” of more active ingredients, bottles and labels.” India’s Ipca Laboratories and Zydus Cadila also received large orders for HCQ for the US market.
Although the announced ban didn’t apply to orders received before 25 March, India eventually lifted the ban to partially allow exports, clear all placed orders and put HCQ under “a licensed category” in order to continuously monitor its demand. Since then, India has exported HCQ to about 24 countries and donated the drug to another 31 countries. And for the US, India cleared the export of 35.82 lakh tablets of HCQ along with 9 metric tons of APIs. After a brief hullabaloo over Trump seeming to threaten India with “retaliation” for its HCQ export ban, the US and India have now joined hands to engage in this “medical diplomacy”. In possibly being a sign of things to come, this month, India sent a portion of its essential medicine consignments bound for donee nations aboard an American charter flight scheduled by the US diplomatic mission in New Delhi.
US-India cooperation is not merely limited to India’s support for US demand for HCQ. Respective business communities are also stepping up efforts to help either nations’ fight against the COVID19 pandemic. Uber has partnered with Flipkart and Big Basket to ensure delivery of essential items amidst the nation-wide lockdown in India. Pfizer in India has donated over 40,000 N95 masks. PepsiCo India has committed to provide 25,000 COVID-19 testing kits and over 5 million meals to families impacted by COVID19. GSK Pharma has announced that it would provide 40,000 augementin duo, 3000 Augmentin IV 300mg, 3500 PPE kits, and 2 proton plus critical care ventilators. Gilead Sciences has announced the donation of 1.5 million doses of Remdesiir — a COVID19 investigational drug.
Further, at a time when the Trump administration has been rerouting US industry-produced personal protective equipment (PPE) kits to the US, the American multinational conglomerate 3M has increased production of “respirators, surgical masks and hand sanitisers in the range of 35 percent to 40 percent and almost exclusively directing supplies” to Indian nodal agencies.
This effort is reciprocated from Indian companies as well. Most notably, it was reported that the North American division of the Maharashtra-based multinational pharmaceutical company, Lupin has donated 10,000 N95 masks to hospitals and nursing homes. TATA Consultancy Services (TCS) which constitutes 15 percent of India’s software exports of about US$ 147 billion — largely owing to a substantial presence in North America, is offering “STEM education programs online and free access for all students and teachers”. In addition, Gurugram-based multinational hospitality company, OYO announced free accommodations at any OYO hotel in the US for medical professionals.
In Michigan — the home of the US automotive industry, the trajectory of coronavirus cases has at times been steeper than that of New York. Amidst pressures to restart the local automotive industry to avoid an economic catastrophe, Mahindra has repurposed its Auburn Hills manufacturing facility. It is now producing “an aspiration box with innovative ease-of-use design; face shields and masks for local healthcare workers and first-responders.” The Indian automotive giant has also committed to potentially produce parts that go into ventilators. In the meantime, they also are “providing meals to healthcare workers and first responders via Mahindra food trucks”.
Amidst the pandemic, there have been calls for India and the US to address the erosion of democracies’ allure. In contrast to China’s state-driven market economics model, democracies in recent times have witnessed polarisation and slow decision-making. Jagdish Bhagwati’s idea of the “cruel dilemma” on democracy and development having an incompatible relationship, comes to mind. But fight against COVID19 presents mixed evidence.
Upsides of the ‘China model’ was clear in its swift construction of medical facilities, but its lack of transparency led the disease to become a global pandemic. Similarly, democracies’ partisan divides have impeded action, like with the ongoing tussle in the US over federal v/s state responsibilities. But democracies like South Korea have successfully proven otherwise.
Thus, focused efforts by India and the US — the world’s largest and oldest democracies, will hold relevance in the fight for the democratic model. Moreover, their actions can hold some gains for the bilateral dynamic as well. For instance, US-India pharma cooperation has been robust and collaborative research under it has been a testament to US-India “intellectual supply-chain” — as the former US Consul General in Hyderabad, Katherine Hadda called it in a recent interview with ORF. But now, the urgency associated with the joint-development of a COVID19 vaccine could pave way for the resolution of “thorny intellectual property and regulatory issues that have vexed” US-India scientific cooperation.
This would offer a timely gain of alternate convergences, at a point when the bilateral dynamic has been marred with continued stalemates and transactionalism. Although defence trade has been thriving, one cannot escape the fact that the Trump administration’s impetus to the same stems from its ‘Buy American’ policy to increase US arms exports abroad. Whereas, India often hails purchase orders to soothe American trade negotiators’ apprehensions over the US-India bilateral trade imbalance. Moreover, even as other big-ticket items like a trade deal stand impeded by long-standing issues over market-access and nascent divergences like that on data localisation, the bilateral dynamic depends on alternate convergences now more than ever.
Hence, the COVID19 pandemic with its push to US-India pharma links and respective business communities investing in either nation’s local well-being, could present the US and India an opportunity to explore a positive-sum consensus.
Conventional wisdom suggests foreign policy rarely wins elections. More so in the US, as major foreign policy agendas through the Cold War and in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, enjoyed bipartisan rigour. In a two-party system, this mostly impeded presidential candidates from staking positions that were in significant contrast to one another. More importantly, research has shown that the American electorate tends to have “little concrete foreign policy information” and often defers to coastal elites on matters that are distant.
To that point, historians often point to the re-election bid of President George H W Bush. Going into the 1992 elections, the forty-first president had an overwhelming approval rating of nearly 90 percent following the 1991 Gulf War. The political effect of the first war televised live around the world, was apparent. In August 1990, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, two-thirds of Americans approved of Bush’s handling of the situation. Once the US-led coalition forces overran Saddam Hussein’s forces, more than eight in ten backed Bush. A year later, Bush however lost his reelection bid to the then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s focus on the looming recession and bout of unemployment. Encapsulated in the Clinton campaign’s “It’s the economy, stupid!” mantra, the unseating of Bush signified pocket-book issues to be paramount in US elections.
Thus, foreign policy successes may not attract votes. However, failures or mishandled challenges abroad do have an untoward electoral impact for an incumbent.
One major foreign policy election in contemporary US history was in 1980, between then-incumbent President Jimmy Carter and former California Governor Ronald Reagan. As a testament to foreign policy successes hardy mattering in elections, Carter’s successful brokering of the Camp David Accords — encompassing a peace treaty to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt, accrued little commendation.
But in face of an energy crisis as a result of the continued effects of the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and a slump in Iranian energy production due to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Carter mistakenly construed it as a “crisis of confidence” to call for mandatory conservation and gasoline rationing. This became “campaign fodder” for the Reagan campaign, and an opportunity to underscore Carter’s foreign policy missteps/inaction against the domestic backdrop of an already teetering US economy, rising unemployment and high inflation. Hence, in promising an era of renewed American assertiveness, the Reagan campaign made political hay out of Carter’s failure to prevent the fall of the US-allied Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi regime in Iran, the resultant siege on the US Embassy in Tehran which oversaw 52 Americans being taken hostage for 444 days, and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
To make matters worse, the Carter administration’s covert rescue operation for US hostages in Tehran met a disastrous fate. Operation Eagle Claw bungled to result in deaths of eight US servicemen. One of Carter’s senior political aides was later known to have reacted to the failed mission with an ominous epiphany: “We just lost the election.” Eventually, Carter did lose to be reduced to a one-term president, and also became the first incumbent since Herbert Hoover in 1932 to lose a reelection bid.
To avoid meeting Carter’s fate, in the run up to the 2020 elections, Trump has sought to eclipse the challenge presented by the COVID19 pandemic with validations for the America First worldview.
Even as it becomes increasingly clear that a global pandemic cannot be tackled without an equally global response, the Trump administration has proposed cuts to US foreign aid programs for “fiscal year 2021 by 21 percent”. Drawing on the America First impulse against transnational cooperation and multilateral fora of global governance, the proposed cut includes “35 percent of funding for global health programs, amounting to around $3 billion and encompassing a reduction of 50 percent in U.S. support for the World Health Organization.”
Furthermore, far from cobbling a coalition of large economies or like-minded partners to combat the pandemic, the Trump administration has been accused of engaging in “modern piracy”. Allied nations like France and Germany have alleged the US to have engaged in “Wild West” tactics to exorbitantly overbid for equipment like medical-grade masks — at times to even overturn previously placed orders. There have also been reports of the Trump administration coaxing US manufacturers like 3M to divert N95 respirator masks originally meant for export purposes. As a result, export to Canada, Mexico, Asian and Latin American countries is expected to take a hit. In one case, an order of 200,000 masks bound for Germany from a 3M factory in China was even “confiscated” by US officials in Bangkok.
This bears electoral significance, as Trump in 2016 derived much legitimacy by rallying against “Washington elites” and their pursuit of an internationalist foreign policy at the “unacceptable outcomes to average citizens”. Pinning them as instances of globalisation undercutting US interests, Trump galvanised those that were disgruntled either over inadequate market access in partner nations or job losses in the industrial mid-West owing to cheap immigrant labor or outsourced production. Thus, with the case of Trump gutting aid programs and engaging in outbidding and confiscation of supplies bound for other nations, Trump seems to be putting into action America First’s commitment to protect the US homeland “even if—or especially if—it irritates global elites.”
The relevance of foreign policy issues in the upcoming election will go beyond the pandemic’s rationalisation of nativist tendencies in support for Trump’s America First worldview. Across the aisle as well, an active deliberation over the US’ role in the world is underway. Although Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) recently suspended his presidential campaign and paved way for former Vice President Joe Biden to become the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party, the tussle between their respective progressive and moderate factions is far from settled.
In 2016, with an increasingly inward-looking electorate, Democrats had a rude awakening with respect to their worldview in face of a Republican candidate who rallied against the erstwhile consensus on liberal internationalism and US stewardship abroad. Although that was also in large-parts due to the then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s own primacist foreign policy track record as US secretary of state (2009-13), Joe Biden could run into similar challenges.
During his time in the Senate, Biden is known to have voted for several measures that have come under great scrutiny since. For instance, Biden voted to authorise the George Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq following the 9/11 attacks, and voted for both — the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China. In contrast, Sen. Sanders during his time in the US House of Representatives voted against all of the above.
Over the years, as the Republican and Democratic parties’ fulcrum has shifted into their respective populist corners, opposition to those measures have emerged as odd points of convergence. Both parties’ marginal factions fault the erstwhile bipartisan consensus on the US maintaining regional balances of power through the use of military force and being a benevolent promoter of economic interdependency. On US military adventurism abroad, the two sides’ emergent factions converge against “endless wars” that sap the US of valuable blood and treasure.
On the US’ commitment to free trade, apart from faulting it for causing a loss of manufacturing jobs, there is a convergence — albeit for slightly varying reasons. The populist right’s heightened socio-cultural focus also faults those agreements for encouraging an open-borders immigration agenda. Whereas, the progressive left’s rising socio-economic priorities deride those agreements on account of their impediment to progressive initiatives like raising the minimum wage at home.
Hence, going forward, the reimagination of the liberal worldview — to bring together moderate and progressive positions on the US’ role abroad, will be imperative in the Democrats’ bid to peel off voters from Trump’s electoral arithmetic. And compounded with the COVID19 pandemic’s validation of America First impulses, the upcoming US election is certain to be one dominated by deliberations over US foreign policy.
Challenges mount for Joe Biden as the Democratic National Convention gets postponed due to the COVID19 pandemic and Trump sowed discord amongst Democrats over Bernie Sanders’ belated exit
With over 400,000 active cases, the United States has surpassed China and Italy as the most affected by the novel coronavirus. Recently, the US Surgeon General Jerome Adams even deemed expected casualties at the hands of the pandemic to rival the death toll during the terror attacks on September 11, 2001 and the attack on Pearl Harbour naval base in 1941.
The evolving crisis has also impacted the calendar of the 2020 presidential elections. For instance, to avoid mass gatherings of people, states like Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania have postponed their primaries to either late May or early/mid-June. Some states like Alaska, Hawaii, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wyoming have opted for vote-by-mail processes with extended deadlines for voters to submit their mail-in ballots.
These developments have put the Democratic Party’s nomination process in a state of limbo. The same stands in stark contrast to the situation from barely a fortnight ago — when former Vice President Joe Biden gathered enough momentum that pundits hailed his stride as ‘Joementum’.
After poor shows in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, the Biden campaign sputtered into the South Carolina primary hoping the state’s African-American community would present a turn-around for the former vice-president. Riding high on a timely endorsement by Rep. Jim Clyburn — the highest-ranking African-American in Congress and an influential figure in South Carolina, the southern state did deliver for Biden.
Two days before Super Tuesday, which encompassed primaries in 14 states with 1,357 delegates up for grabs, Biden’s win in South Carolina gave him the fighting chance against Sen. Bernie Sanders’ lead. While Sanders bagged Super Tuesday’s biggest prize (California), Biden racked up wins in 10 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
Biden’s 100,000 vote margin win in the Texas primary underscored his capability to bag traditional Red states in the general election. Since Jimmy Carter’s run in 1976, Democrats have never bagged the Lone Star state in a presidential election. Minnesota was another significant win, and was largely attributed to Biden securing a timely endorsement from fellow moderate and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Further, by winning Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s home-state of Massachusetts, Biden effectively narrowed the race down to a two-way contest between Sen. Sanders and himself.
Finally, with a clean sweep across the South propelling Biden to victories in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, the former vice-president’s call for a centrist vision over Sanders’ progressive agenda stood vindicated. Although Bernie Sanders has now dropped out of the race, his belated exit permitted fissures in the Democratic Party to fester — all to Donald Trump’s advantage.
At first, it made sense that Bernie Sanders decided to stay in the race, as Biden’s wins on Super Tuesday lent him an indecisive lead of about 90 delegates. Hence, at the following week’s mini-Super Tuesday, Sanders and Biden faced off for another 6 states. But once again, Biden dominated with wins in 5 states — Michigan, Washington, Missouri, Mississippi and Idaho, to leave Sanders with just North Dakota — one of the US’s least populous states. Thereafter, even as Biden pitched for unity between the moderate and progressive factions of the Democratic Party (“We’ve got to bring everybody along”), Sanders cried foul.
Much like his 2016 tirade against the Democratic Party tipping the scales in favor of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sanders alleged “the establishment” to have forced former presidential candidates Sen. Klobuchar and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to ensure that voters “coalesced” around Joe Biden in order to defeat him. In a speech, he even implied that younger voters were with him, and that the “Democratic establishment” needs “to win the voters who represent the future of our country” and thus “cannot simply be satisfied by winning the votes of people who are older.”
However, until then, the Sanders campaign’s central narrative had not been the capture of young voters, but his guarantee to peel away states of the industrial Mid-West from the Trump 2016 electoral coalition. And at mini-Super Tuesday, that centre-piece of the Sanders campaign crumbled with Biden’s decisive win in Michigan by a margin of 53-36. Subsequently, Biden dashed another Sanders campaign centrepiece on delivering the young Latino voter. In the primaries in Florida and Arizona — two states with a sizeable Latino electorate, Biden established a commanding lead.
The independent senator from Vermont however, continued to stay in the race probably in view of a pattern unique to the Democratic Party. In the past 50 years, whenever the party has bet on an “outsider” as its presidential candidate, Democrats have won the White House. For instance, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were successful in their presidential runs. Whereas, when the nominee is a “safe, established, been-here-for-a-long-time kind of figure”, Democrats have lost. For instance, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton all lost in their respective bids.
Regardless of whether that pattern turns into a prophecy for 2020, in the short term, Sanders’ belated exit has accorded Trump the perfect tool to now sow discord amongst Democrats. In 2016, Trump sought to capitalise on disgruntled Sanders supporters by alleging that the Democratic Party had rigged the system in favor of Hillary Clinton. Similarly, after Sanders ended his campaign this week, Trump was quick to tweet: “This ended just like the Democrats & the DNC wanted, same as the crooked Hillary fiasco. The Bernie people should come to the Republican Party”.
All this stands compounded by the spread of the novel coronavirus presenting an advantage to President Donald Trump’s reelection bid.
After initially designating Vice President Mike Pence as the lead of the Coronavirus Task Force, President Trump himself assumed centre-stage at its daily briefings. At first it seemed like this was Trump’s Harry Truman moment — the 33rd US president was known to keep a sign on his desk that read: “The buck stops here.” That supposition however, stood undercut when Trump passed the buck to his predecessor on the reported slow-rate of coronavirus testing in the US.
Trump notably said, “No, I don’t take responsibility at all. Because we were given a set of circumstances, and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time. It wasn’t meant for this kind of an event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about.”
Thus, as the pandemic has denied Trump his usual appearances at MAGA rallies and “chopper talk” (his momentary squabble with reporters before boarding Marine One on the White House lawn), the daily Coronavirus Task Force briefings have turned into his rallying time. As one report put it, “With hundreds of millions of people justifiably freaked out and cooped up, cable news networks’ ratings are rising. Some polls say Trump’s approval ratings are doing the same. And these new daily doses of Trump keep getting longer. Slowly but surely, they’re tending toward later in the day, too, edging into prime time, reportedly no accident.”
On the other hand, Joe Biden has been reduced to a live-stream, holding “virtual town-halls” replete with technical glitches. Moreover, the pandemic also accords Trump the advantage of upsetting his challenger’s campaign timeline. For instance, in wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Democratic National Committee recently announced the postponement of the Democratic National Convention i.e. the culmination of its presidential nomination process, to the third week of August 2020.
This hands Biden a mere eight weeks to fully pivot to a nation-wide campaign while Trump gets to hone a national message all through this time; and go toe-to-toe with Trump in three televised debates before the election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had accepted the nomination at the convention on 28 July, engaged in three debates by 19 October — well before election day on 8 November . Biden’s 2020 timeline by comparison is tighter with the convention ending on 20 August and the final debate on 22 October — a mere 10 days before Americans vote on 03 November.
Hence, there’s still many a slip between the cup and the lip for Joe Biden — as the Democratic National Convention gets postponed due to the COVID19 pandemic and Trump seeks to sow discord amongst Democrats over Bernie Sanders’ belated exit.
Even as experts urge caution on the drug’s efficacy against COVID-19, production of chloroquine in India is being ramped up to cater to US demand
As the world continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus, diagnosed cases of the COVID-19 respiratory disease has surpassed 700,000. With little breakthrough on a prospective vaccine, preventive social containment strategies continue to remain as the primary prescription of medical professionals.
Amidst the resultant anxiety of cities under lockdown, US President Donald Trump has been touting a combination of medicines to be efficacious. Earlier this month via a tweet, the US president said, the combination of hydroxychloroquine and the common antibiotic azithromycin can be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine”. Since then, Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine — a less potent version, has continually been touted by Trump in his daily Coronavirus Task Force briefings. The drug is commonly used to treat malaria and at times, prescribed against lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Absent of clinical trials however, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reported to have reached out to drug manufacturers on “ramping up production of the drugs to handle a spike in demand and to ensure that people with life-threatening conditions such as lupus can still obtain it.”
Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) includes chloroquine on its list of “essential medicines” — meaning “it should be kept affordable and accessible at all times”, drug manufacturers are ramping up production as the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists recently listed the drug on its shortage list.
This has triggered US manufacturers to rely on subsidiaries or partner producers in India, as Indian imports “accounted for 24 percent of medicines and 31 percent of medicine ingredients” in the US (as per 2018 FDA data). Hence, after having received “five times as many orders as usual” for chloroquine this month, New Jersey-based Rising Pharmaceuticals for instance, announced that it “is ramping up production in India to meet demand, purchasing “extraordinary amounts” of more active ingredients, bottles and labels.”
On anti-malarial drugs especially, India is known to be “self-sufficient” owing to the prominence anti-malaria efforts hold in the country’s national health initiatives. As a result, Ipca Laboratories and Zydus Cadila have reportedly received orders to produce chloroquine for the American market.
Furthermore, in line with the Trump administration’s announced plan to “eliminate outdated rules and bureaucracy” on procurement and testing, the FDA lifted the “three-year-old ‘import alert’” on Ipca to seek the import of hydroxychloroquine sulphate and chloroquine phosphate. Three Ipca facilities had been under an FDA ‘import alert’ since 2015, after inspectors “discovered multiple violations of its manufacturing guidelines, including “systemic data manipulation” in tests meant to ensure the drugs’ efficacy and safety.”
Moreover, India’s ban on exporting the drug may not apply to these instances as the ban does not apply to cases where the “outbound shipment is made to fulfil export obligation under any advance authorisation license issued on or before the date of” March 25, 2020.
These measures by the US seem to have been triggered at the hands of President Trump’s relentless advocacy of those drugs in the fight against coronavirus.
In a recent tweet, the US president shared a New York Post report of a Florida man diagnosed with coronavirus, claiming to have been “saved” by chloroquine. Moreover, Trump recently also said, “The nice part is,” that chloroquine has been “around for a long time, so we know that if things don’t go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody.”
With continued questions over its efficacy, Trump’s relentless advocacy eventually even triggered the FDA to announce fast-track testing of the drug. Moreover, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn also announced that the drug would be available for “compassionate use” i.e. using “a drug off-label when other treatment options aren’t available.”
Trump even went on to announce: “At my direction, the federal government is working to help obtain large quantities of chloroquine”. Concurrently, it was reported that multinational pharmaceutical giant Bayer has “donated 3 million doses of Resochin, its brand name for chloroquine” to the US federal government.
State-level dispensations have also begun to procure the drug, and that has spurred Trump to even commend his otherwise political critics. Recently, the US president hailed two clinical trails announced by Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
As New York has emerged as the American epicentre of the outbreak, the two leaders have clashed over states assuming a heightened role in face of an inadequate federal response. However, one of the announced trails, which would combine the antibiotic zithromax (azithromycin) and hydroxychloroquine, prompted Trump to acknowledge Cuomo as having “been working very hard“. Following through, the Cuomo dispensation is reported to have acquired 750,000 doses of chloroquine and 70,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine.
Absent of large-scale definitive clinical trials to support Trump’s claims, experts have cautioned against overpromising on chloroquine.
The consequence of overstating the drug’s efficacy — without commensurate trials, has led to people scrambling to get their hands on the drug, and even self-medicate.
Dr. Anthony Fauci — Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a central member of the Trump administration’s Coronavirus Task Force, has tempered Trump’s positive outlook on the drug by underscoring that there is no “magic drug” to treat coronavirus. He has also referred to evidence that the drug could be helpful as being merely “anecdotal.”
Further, Dr. Deborah Birx, US Vice President Mike Pence’s coronavirus response coordinator clarified that the drug has to-date only shown “promise in the test tubes.” Lastly, testing of chloroquine warrants long-term follow-ups as it is known to trigger side-effects like seizures, nausea, vomiting, deafness, vision changes and low blood pressure.
However, across the world, panic-buying has ensued. For instance, Nigeria’s government recently reported three people to have been hospitalised after overdosing on chloroquine, and its city of Lagos reported running out of stock. Similar events were also reported in Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco and Pakistan.
Even in the US, attempts to dampen panic-buying and self-medication have borne little effect. According to a recent report, American hospitals’ orders for chloroquine were “up 3,000%”.
Furthermore, a man in Arizona died and his wife was put under intensive care after the couple sought to self-medicate with chloroquine. The woman reportedly told NBC News that the couple got the idea to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus via Trump’s televised Coronavirus Task Force briefings. She added, “Don’t believe anything the president says… And his people. Because they don’t know what they’re talking about”.
In India, a death possibly linked to the use of chloroquine was recently reported. The deceased, who was a doctor in Assam was known to have self-medicated with hydroxychloroquine. That report closely followed the Indian Council of Medical Research issuing an advisory on permitting the use of Hydroxychloroquine only for “restricted use in emergency situations” only. Possibly, it is now time to also consider a campaign advising the common populace to refrain from panic-buying and self-medicating.
The US president is exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to further the ‘America First’ agenda vis-à-vis China, Mexico and Iran
The WHO Director-General recently deemed the novel coronavirus to be an “enemy against humanity”, as the number of infected crossed 470,000 globally. Since being confirmed as a pandemic earlier this month, little breakthrough on a prospective vaccine has rendered social containment strategies to be key for stalling the spread of the COVID-19.
But as the pandemic concurrently also feeds an “infodemic” — an “overabundance” of information that makes it “difficult for people to identify truthful and trustworthy sources from false or misleading ones,” calls for preventive actions like “social distancing” have failed to accrue compliance in many places around the world. Amidst the resultant cacophony of unbridled fake news and hysteria-inducing home remedies, crisis communication stands further impeded by the politicisation of such global health emergencies.
Case in point: US President Donald Trump, who is up for reelection later this year, has impeded prospects of any multilateral cooperation by exploiting the pandemic as an opportunity to actualise the ‘America First’ agenda vis-à-vis China, Mexico and Iran.
In the past few days, Trump has come under fire due to his description of the coronavirus — which is considered to have originated in a food market in Wuhan, as the “Chinese virus”. His Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invited criticism for referring to it as “Wuhan virus”. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has often used that term on the floor of the US Senate. The top Republican leader in the House of Representatives Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA-23) also referred to the disease as “the Chinese coronavirus” in a tweet. Lastly, CBS White House reporter Weijia Jiang revealed that White House aides are referring to the virus as “Kung-Flu” in interactions with journalists.
Certainly, China bears responsibility for the “lack of transparency” over its initial response — which probably contributed to the exacerbation of a local virus into a global pandemic. However, use of the aforementioned terms contribute to stigmatisation of the Chinese — which is also feeding assaults on Asian Americans, and hold relevance to Trump’s 2020 reelection bid.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s populist takeover of the Republican Party occurred largely due to his capitalisation on Americans’ anxieties with the US’ traditional commitment to globalisation. Trump’s strategy encompassed rallying against the Washington establishment’s long-standing advocacy of free trade — chiefly with China, yielding “unacceptable outcomes” for blue-collar workers in America’s industrial mid-west.
After engaging in a trade war of tariffs and retaliatory tariffs with China for 18 months, the Trump administration recently only exacted a limited Phase One trade deal. Catering only to the latter half of Trump’s banner call for “fair and reciprocal” trade, the deal merely includes commitments from Beijing to increase imports from Washington by at least USD 200 billion over two years. With little progress on seeking Chinese structural reform on intellectual property theft and forced transfer of technology, Trump’s domestic political agenda on China remains unfulfilled.
Ahead of the 2020 elections, the “Chinese virus” presents Trump with an opportunity to once again make China a centrepiece in his run for president.
Already, the US president has begun to shift blame on China as the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 9,000 points in the last month — i.e. “below its closing level from President Trump’s inauguration day, effectively wiping out all gains made during his presidency”. In announcing his support for industry bailout packages, Trump recently posted a tweet suggesting China was “responsible for the global economic damage”.
Thus, the interlinking of the already slowing American economy to the “Chinese virus” spooking markets can be expected to figure prominently in Trump’s courtship of Rust Belt states. In 2016, those states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, were instrumental in catapulting Trump to the White House. In 2020, the fight for those states will be tougher on account of Democratic front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden having the advantage of being the “native son” of Pennsylvania — which Trump picked up in 2016 by less than 45,000 votes.
In addition to seeking the extension of his mandate on China — and by that extension also his stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Trump is exploiting COVID-19 to also further his policy on the US border with Mexico.
Another facet of Trump’s 2016 run was his capitalisation on Americans’ socio-cultural anxieties. He offered a reductionist solution to stalled immigration reform — i.e. to build a wall on the US-Mexico border to curtail illegal immigration.
Over the course of Trump’s term, however, he has gone toe-to-toe with the US Congress — which is constitutionally mandated to exercise power over the purse, to secure funding for the border wall. But Congressional Democrats, and some Republicans like Will Hurd (R-TX-23) as well, have argued against funding “a 4th Century solution to a 21st Century problem”. Although Trump has secured piecemeal funding on a couple of occasions, his political opponents on the Hill stress on the adoption of technology — and not a concrete structure that stretches from “sea to shining sea”, like advanced sensors and surveillance platforms to track incursions.
The Trump administration’s attempts to circumvent the stalemate have also been challenged in American courts. For instance, the White House’s 2018 declaration of refusing asylum applications of those who have crossed the border illegally from Mexico, has been blocked. Just last month, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco also issued an injunction on that policy, in addition to another Trump policy on requiring immigrants who apply for asylum to stay in Mexico during the processing of their cases. The latter was, however, ruled to remain in effect by the US Supreme Court last week.
Now under the pretext of exercising executive authority over the supposed emergency posed by the coronavirus pandemic — even though there are only about 400 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Mexico compared to over 68,000 in the US, the Trump administration is reportedly mulling a plan to “turn back to Mexico all people who cross the border illegally, not just those seeking asylum.”
Similarly, the Trump administration has sought to further its policy on Iran, even as the country struggles to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
The ‘America First’ worldview has borne considerable synonymity to neoconservative thinking on Iran — i.e. to spur a change in Tehran’s actions in the region via weakening the hold of its incumbent regime. As a result, Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — or simply the Iran nuclear deal, has been followed by an intensive surge in economic sanctions aimed at senior officials and affiliated elites, and even military sabre-rattling which reached a crescendo with US airstrikes that killed General Qassem Suleimani earlier this year.
Thus, even as the death toll in Iran from COVID-19 crossed 1,200 last week (over 2,000 this week), the US State Department announced additional sanctions aimed at nine entities and three individuals “who have engaged in activity that could enable the Iranian regime’s violent behavior.”
With over 27,000 coronavirus cases, Iran stands as one of the worst affected countries in the world. And existing sanctions under the Trump administration’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ campaign, have played a culpable role. Last year, Human Rights Watch had issued a warning that sanctions have “drastically constrained” Iran’s ability “to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines, causing serious hardships for ordinary Iranians and threatening their right to health.”
Washington is reportedly also expected to now block Tehran’s request for a USD 5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to help deal with the pandemic. Furthermore, with reports of the virus having also affected Iran’s political elite — with about a dozen officials infected and an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader among the dead, the Trump administration seems to be looking for coincidental gains for its regime change agenda on Iran.
These instances of the coronavirus pandemic being exploited to oversee the actualisation of policy agendas in an election year, undermines the threat posed by the pandemic. Moreover, bereft of a concerted response to the pandemic on the global level, the American president’s politicisation of COVID-19 towards furthering the ‘America First’ agenda vis-à-vis China, Mexico and Iran only accentuates the perils of an increasingly inward-looking comity of nations.
As big-ticket items stall, the US and India are identifying areas of convergence on local governance
Overshadowed by the euphoria over public appearances like the ‘Namaste, Trump’ event in Ahmedabad, US President Donald Trump’s maiden visit to India witnessed minimal gains on the policy level. The biggest takeaway was the US and India announcing the finalisation of a defence package worth over $3 billion for 24 multi-role MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters and six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. Whereas, progress on the expected limited US-India trade deal stalled amidst either party alleging the other of “changing goalposts.”
Reportedly, the same was due to the US preemptively closing the door on India seeing the restoration of its benefits under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme — a preferential arrangement for developing countries to export goods duty-free to the US.
Ahead of the visit, the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) dashed New Delhi’s hopes for its reinstatement of GSP benefits by removing India from its list of developing countries, to essentially now classify it as a developed country. The move also bears ramifications for India’s position on other contentions with the US. For instance, in large parts, India’s argument for instituting price caps on pharmaceutical imports from the US stems from the imperatives posed by the middle-income consumer base that constitute its developing economy.
In addition, trade negotiations also stalled due to last-minute US insistence on India increasing the import of certain specific products like pecan nuts. Wherein, the Trump administration’s political motivation to seek the deal was apparent, as the pecan nut industry “contributes more than $3.5 billion to the 15 pecan-producing states, including Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi” — most of which were central to Trump’s 2016 victory coalition of “flyover states” and certain to hold central relevance in his 2020 reelection bid as well.
Similarly, there was no progress on India’s procurement of the Integrated Air Defence Weapon System (IADWS) — which was cleared for sale by the US State Department with a price tag of $1.867 billion. India plans to integrate it as part of an “overall multi-layered air defence shield” around Delhi, which would include the indigenous Ballistic Missile Defence shield, the S-400 Triumf air defence missile system from Russia, and the Indo-Israel joint venture product Barak-8.
Towards the same, in 2018, India’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had approved the “acceptance of necessity (AoN)” for National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II (NASAMS-II) at around $1 billion. The cleared IADWS at nearly double the cost, however, encompasses the NASAMS-II with added ancillary products like 134 Stinger FIM-92L missiles and 32 M4A1 rifles as a comprehensive package.
The purchase was being seen as India dampening the threat of sanctions under a 2017 US law — i.e. the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), for opting to also purchase Russia’s S-400 system. Though the US Congress followed the legislation with an amendment on waiver provisions for India, Vietnam and Indonesia, the amendment rests authority with the office of the US president to waive sanctions for those countries. Now, it seems Trump has doubled the price for India acquiring a formal — or at the very least, an in-principle, waiver.
This high politicisation of trade negotiations and transactionalism continuing to raid certain sections of defence ties, has coaxed the bilateral trajectory to once again warrant interventions at the heads-of-state level. Overtime, this risks undoing the progress made on the gradual institutionalisation of US-India ties — which had considerably shifted the dynamic away from overt dependence on chemistry between the top political leadership. In the short-term, however, as these big-ticket items have stalled, the US-India bilateral trajectory seem to be pivoting to alternate convergences.
During the visit, the US and India signed three agreements: an MoU on Mental Health between India’s Department of Health and Family Welfare and the US’ Department of Health and Human Services; an MoU on Safety of Medical Products between India’s Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation and the US’ Food and Drug Administration; and a Letter of Cooperation on supplying Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) between Indian Oil Corporation Limited, ExxonMobil India LNG Limited and Chart Industries Inc.
Apart from the defence package, the last agreement was unarguably the most significant outcome of Trump’s visit to India. The same holds central relevance to the Indian government’s aim “to increase the share of natural gas in India’s energy basket from current 6.2% to 15% by 2030.” As per ExxonMobil’s press release on the agreement, the project will “implement a gas infrastructure initiative that leverages LNG ISO intermodal containers to move gas as a reliable, cleaner and cost-effective fuel. The initiative seeks to develop a pilot project and create a roadmap for mobile gas infrastructure expansion at scale, improving access to an abundant and cleaner fuel source.” Further, towards delivering “liquefied natural gas by road, rail and waterways to areas not connected by physical pipelines”, the envisioned Indian Virtual Pipeline Initiative will “accelerate India’s ability to offer cleaner energy within its growing cities.”
In addition, the US Treasury Department is reportedly working towards inking Memorandums of Understanding with six Indian cities. Following its assistance to the city of Pune on municipal bonds, the new agreement would offer necessary groundwork for “floating municipal bonds to raise money for big ticket urban renewal projects” to Mysuru and five smart cities of Rajkot, Vadodara, Lucknow, Pimpri Chinchwad, Mangaluru.
Earlier this month, in fostering cooperation on exploring alternate power sources for cities, the US Department of Energy signed a Memorandum of Understanding to “provide collaboration and support to India in the establishment of Solar Decathlon India in 2021.” The same would build on the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, to now organise an Indian edition of a “collegiate competition that challenges students to design and build high-performance, energy-efficient homes powered by renewable energy.” The announcement followed the intent to explore another avenue of cooperation on local governance. Following Trump’s visit, the US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster penned an oped offering support for the Indian government’s National Clean Air Programme.
The exploration of these nascent avenues of cooperation signify a sense of “compartmentalisation to have been instituted – unarguably a rare feat under Trump’s conduct of US foreign policy, in the US-India bilateral dynamic.” However, the discussed stalemates that have come to impair US-India trade ties — the fundamental underpinning of any bilateral relationship, seem to have now emerged due to natural inertia running out.
Despite lacking a formal trade agreement and even a security treaty alliance, the trajectory of US-India ties has been impressive. Since the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations began the US’ strategic outreach to India at the turn of the century, bilateral trade between India and the US reached $142.6 billion in 2018. The same has now come to resemble US trade with its long-standing allies like South Korea ($167 billion) or France ($129 billion). This progress has been possible chiefly due to natural convergences informed by an American bipartisan consensus undergirding US-India bilateral ties.
However, in the past year alone, the US and India have exacerbated the strain on US bipartisan support for India — which had increasingly already come under pressure owing to heightened polarisation in the US. For instance, the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event’s apparent partisan fervour in favour of Trump, only accentuated the Democrats’ apprehensions on India backsliding on its liberal democratic ethos. In addition, Trump’s remarks at the ‘Namaste, Trump’ event for instance, conveyed that his administration too has a partisan approach to US-India ties. As a result, Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s (D-WA-07) House Resolution (H.Res.745) on urging India to end the communications lockdown and mass detentions in Kashmir, for instance, now has 66 cosponsors — most of them Democrats.
Hence, the need for greater institutionalisation of US-India ties no longer only pertains to guarding against the occasional transactional nature of the Trump administration. The same is warranted also from the standpoint of formalising political capital which has long animated the US’ will to seek robust ties with India. Thus, even as the return to personalisation of US-India ties paves way for cooperation on nascent areas of convergence on local governance, the bilateral dynamic nevertheless warrants greater institutionalisation.
Despite some gains on the policy level, Trump’s visit to India symbolised heightened partisanship and a return to chemistry between leaders defining bilateral ties
US President Donald Trump recently concluded his maiden visit to India. The 36-hour trip encompassed a brief visit to the Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram, joint appearance with Prime Minster Narendra Modi at the ‘Namaste Trump’ event at the Motera stadium at Ahmedabad, visit with the First Lady to the Taj Mahal at Agra –– in addition to bilateral engagements at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Hyderabad House in the national capital.
The visit was originally set to witness a limited US-India trade deal, amidst the crescendoing of tensions on the trade front. Ahead of the visit however, negotiations reportedly hit a stalemate due to both sides alleging either party of “changing goalposts”, such as the last-minute American insistence of India increasing import of products like pecan nuts. Hence, the Modi government began to tout the ‘Namaste Trump’ event as the “key deliverable” of the visit.
Although the relevance of the event stood accentuated by the wall-to-wall coverage it received by the media — albeit mainly from the standpoint of optics, it signified an untoward trend.
Over the past year, there have been rising concerns over US bipartisan support on India fraying. Certainly, in large parts, that has been so due to the rabid polarisation now seeping into the once iron-clad US bipartisan consensus on most aspects of American international relations. However, on India specifically, that schism has emerged also due to the apparent partisan fervour of the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ rally and Democrats’ rising apprehensions on the communications lockdown in Kashmir. With this visit, it was apparent that the Trump administration also has a partisan approach to India.
At the ‘Namastey Trump’ event, for instance, President Trump built on his September 2019 praise of Prime Minster Modi as the “Father of India”. In Ahmedabad, Trump began his address by describing his host as “an exceptional leader, a great champion of India, a man who works night and day for his country, and a man I am proud to call my true friend”.
Trump didn’t stop there, and went on to echo many points that may generally be heard at a BJP election rally. He added, “Under Prime Minister Modi, for the first time in history, every village in India now has access to electricity. Three hundred and twenty million people – more Indians – are right now connected to the Internet. The pace of highway construction has more than doubled.” He then went on to also cite figures on households having access to cooking fuel and basic sanitation. At a follow-up press conference, Trump also refused to comment on the controversial citizenship law: “I don’t want to discuss that, I want to leave that to India.”
The partisan power-play in favour of the incumbent government was also apparent beyond the ‘Namaste Trump’ event. Congress leaders alleged President Trump to have “ignored” their party chief Sonia Gandhi – by breaking from a long-standing tradition of visiting US presidents/high-level officials also seeking audience with opposition leaders. As a result, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turned down the invite to the state banquet hosted at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Further, whilst in Agra, President Trump interacted with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. However, in Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was kept out, even during First Lady Melania Trump’s visit to a Delhi government school to observe a “happiness class” – an initiative added to school curriculums under Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party rule. All was not lost to partisanship, however, as the second day of the visit saw some policy gains.
In exchange for the limited trade deal, India’s expectation had been to oversee its GSP beneficiary status reinstated.
To recap: In the recent past, trade tensions escalated owing to the US adopting punitive measures. Beginning with levying steel and aluminum tariffs on India, in mid-2019, the Trump administration revoked India’s beneficiary status under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme – under which exports worth $5.7 billion to the US enjoyed duty-free status in 2017.
However, ahead of the visit, the US preemptively closed the door to restoration of India’s GSP benefits. Few days after Trump’s visit was announced, the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) released a federal notice on removing countries like India from their list of developing countries that “are exempt from investigations into whether they harm American industry with unfairly subsidised exports.” This effectively rendered India to be classified as a developed country, and thus no longer eligible for benefits under the GSP – which is a preferential arrangement for developing countries alone.
With a limited trade deal off the table, the visit’s policy gains seemed restricted to impending defence deals. The two sides announced the finalisation of a defence package worth over $3 billion for 24 multi-role MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters and six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. However, there was no word on India finalising the recently cleared $1.867 billion Integrated Air Defence Weapon System (IADWS) – which would possibly help in tempering US apprehensions on India also purchasing the Russian S-400 missile system.
In addition, the two sides inked an MoU on Mental Health between India’s Department of Health and Family Welfare and the US’ Department of Health and Human Services; an MoU on Safety of Medical Products between India’s Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation and the US’ Food and Drug Administration; and a Letter of Cooperation on supplying Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) between Indian Oil Corporation Limited, ExxonMobil India LNG Limited and Chart Industries Inc. The fact that the two sides managed to formalise cooperation on latent avenues – like clean energy for instance, signified a certain sense of compartmentalisation to have been instituted – unarguably a rare feat under Trump’s conduct of US foreign policy, in the US-India bilateral dynamic.
However, despite the emergence of this mature understanding, the visit bore another untoward development – potentially reversing the trend on the gradual institutionalisation of US-India ties.
Ahead of Trump’s visit, an unnamed high-level source in the Indian government characterised the visit as: “Forget about mathematics or trade or defence. Talk chemistry! Chemistry ab badhega!” — (Essentially translating to, an increase in chemistry between the leaders will be a key outcome.)
Aside from any increase in that unquantifiable facet of bilateral ties, “chemistry” between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi was, however, deemed to be a key catalyst of an expected resolution to the current impasse on trade. At their joint appearance in Ahmedabad, Trump expressed his optimism over them (“the Prime Minister and I”) working together towards reaching “a fantastic deal that’s good and even great for both of our countries.” He jokingly even added a caveat: “Except that he’s (Modi) a very tough negotiator.”
Whereas, over the past couple of years, the effort has been to move away from the traditional top-heavy approach of relying on chemistry between the heads of state to inform the US-India bilateral trajectory. In the past, that approach was particularly efficacious in wading through “conflictual points such as the US’ opposition to India’s nuclear programme.” However, as US-India ties have assumed a multidimensional character – bereft of a comprehensive trade arrangement or a formal security treaty underpinning the partnership, the trajectory has warranted champions of greater ties on multiple levels of either nation’s political, bureaucratic and military leadership.
Nascent examples of such institutionalised channels include, the US-India 2+2 annual consultative platform between foreign and defence portfolio chiefs, the India-US Strategic Energy Partnership working group between India’s Petroleum Minister and US Energy Secretary, and the hotline instituted between Indian and American National Security Advisors.
With the recent visit once again according chemistry between the two leaders’ central relevance – this time in context of the stalled trade negotiations, it seems the bilateral trajectory is returning to the era of seeking high-level interventions.
Thus, despite some gains on the policy level, Trump’s visit to India symbolised heightened partisanship and a return to chemistry between leaders defining bilateral ties.
In exploring a limited deal to dampen trade tensions, India must refrain from handing Trump a political endorsement ahead of the 2020 presidential elections.
Next week, US President Donald Trump will make his maiden visit to India. The visit comes amidst trade frictions nearing a crescendo and negotiations concurrently stalling on multiple occasions under the Trump era. Over the past three years, trade tensions between India and the US have escalated. Interestingly, even as the US’ trade deficit with India has begun to narrow and stands at less than a tenth of the US’ trade deficit with China, tensions have escalated — signifying American apprehensions to have stemmed from factors beyond trade imbalances.
As a result, the Trump administration levied steel and aluminium tariffs on India, revoked India’s status under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme, momentarily contemplated limiting Indians’ H1B visas quota to 15 percent due to differences over e-commerce regulations, and raised the prospect of a Section 301 investigation into India’s tariff/non-tariff trade barriers. On a limited trade deal that is expected to be signed during the visit, reports have been mixed — with some suggesting that officials are “considering taking even a modest trade deal off the table.”
The impending trade package reportedly could include gains for the US worth nearly $10 billion, with greater market access for agricultural and dairy products. This would be in addition to India also finalising a defence package worth $3.5 billion for 24 multi-role MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters and 6 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. However, talks have reportedly reached a stalemate as both sides have alleged the either party of “changing goalposts.”
For instance, with the limited trade deal, India’s expectation has been to have its GSP benefits reinstated — under which Indian exports worth $5.7 billion to the US enjoyed duty-free status in 2017. However, regardless of the deal materialising, it seems the US has already foreclosed the possibility of India having its GSP benefits reinstated. Within days of the Trump administration announcing the dates of US President Trump’s visit to India, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) released a federal notice on announcing the removal of a group of countries from its methodology for countervailing duty (CVD) investigations. As a result, India was removed from the list of developing countries that “are exempt from investigations into whether they harm American industry with unfairly subsidised exports.” With this move, the US essentially has now classified India as a developed country. This effectively renders India to no longer be eligible for benefits under the GSP, which is an American preferential arrangement solely for developing countries. Without GSP, the Indian economy is expected bear a direct and indirect cost of nearly $260 million.
With this development — possibly reflective of Trump’s ‘Art of the Deal’ of gaining competitive leverage by pursuing zero-sum negotiations, the American president’s visit may be reduced to mere pomp and galore.
Beyond the possibility of the two sides inking a limited trade deal, Trump has expressed his exhilaration over “millions and millions of people” that are expected to attend the ‘Namaste, Trump’ event in Ahmedabad. Prime Minster Narendra Modi is scheduled to join Trump for inaugurating the Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium — touted as the largest cricket arena in the world.
The same is set to follow a 22-kilometre long roadshow from Ahmedabad airport to the Sabarmati Ashram and then onto the Stadium. Moreover, in pulling all stops for the roadshow, reports emerged of the local dispensation in Ahmedabad to have built “a 4-feet wall stretching half a kilometre” in order to “hide the slums that dot this route.” Besides the apparent irony on walls being built for Trump, critics allege the Indian side to be compensating for the “lack of substance” — as the trade deal remains elusive, with the planned high-level appearance of the two popular heads of state.
However, with public appearances like the ‘Namaste, Trump’ event in Ahmedabad, much-like the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ rally in Houston last year, Trump’s political arithmetic on the Indian American voter is writ large. In case of the latter, there was a singular attempt to court the 270,000-strong Indian American community in the emerging battleground state of Texas. With the event in Gujarat, reports underscore Trump’s attempt to consolidate the votes of the Gujarati diaspora in the United States, which already tends to lean towards Trump’s “pro-business” policies like eliminating regulations. Moreover, by visiting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf, Trump would also attempt to court the three million-strong Indian American community at-large via underscoring his proximity to Modi’s India.
With the possible limited trade deal as well, Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign stands to gain. The US Senate recently acquitted Trump over the impeachment proceedings into his alleged quid pro quo over offering Ukraine military aid in exchange for political dirt against former US Vice President and now Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Given the partisan nature of the impeachment proceedings, Democrats are expected to continue to underscore the Ukraine affair during the 2020 US presidential elections. By that extension, Trump’s values-bereft, transactional conduct at-large on the world stage will also accrue considerable attention.
In response, the Trump campaign would possibly double-down by highlighting the supposed efficacy of the ‘America First’ worldview. Thus, the US-India limited trade deal would be listed amongst other renewed partial/complete trade deals — such as the USMCA deal with Canada and Mexico; renegotiated trade terms with South Korea, and Japan; and finally the Phase One deal with China, as instances of vindication. For instance, days before the Democrats’ Iowa caucus, Trump addressed a rally in Des Moines, Iowa. Referencing his renegotiated trade deals and the Democrats’ opposition to his administration exacting renewed deals, Trump sought to galvanise American farmers that make up for a considerable share of his vote base — even though some are adversely affected by Trump’s trade wars.
Similarly, with the US-India deal, reports suggest American negotiators have been pushing for India to lower tariffs on pecan nuts. The same also holds relevance from the 2020 elections standpoint. The pecan industry “contributes more than $3.5 billion to the 15 pecan-producing states, including Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi” — many of them being the “flyover states” which were instrumental in Trump’s victory in 2016 and would surely be so once again in 2020.
Given these apparent political considerations behind Trump’s visit to India — and the intent to explore a limited trade deal, it would be prudent for India to steer clear of according Trump a political endorsement ahead of the 2020 elections. The ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event’s partisan fervour in favour of Trump, may have only accentuated the recent rise in Democrats’ apprehensions on India’s prolonged communications lockdown in Kashmir. Thus, amidst rising partisanship in American politics, the ‘Namaste, Trump’ event too must refrain from being a celebration of the incumbent US president. A welcomed step in this regard was the recent decision to rename the event in Ahmedabad from ‘Kem Chho Trump’ to ‘Namaste, Trump’ in order “to give it a pan-India appeal,” rather than reflecting Trump’s need to court Gujaratis. Similarly, on the trade deal, India must pursue a politically neutral trade package — bereft of latent asks — on pecan nuts, for instance.
Recent reports suggest, the US to be testing India’s “anxiety level — how desperately does New Delhi want the deal?” Essentially, in raising the spectre of not finalising the deal ahead of Trump’s visit, the US seems to be engaging in “a game of brinkmanship, where the visit of President Trump has been used as “leverage” to pressure the other side into agreeing to a deal in time.” Therefore, in insisting the purview of the suggested limited deal to remain as it were, India must be prepared to call the “deal-maker” American president’s bluff.
India must recognise that the induction of various US acoustic naval platforms cannot alone meet the challenge presented by the underwater expanse of the Indian Ocean
At the Raisina Dialogue early this year, the US Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger announced the expansion of the Indo-Pacific construct to now also include the eastern coast of the African continent. Given India’s westward interests –– the centrality of the Gulf in India’s energy security, the region as a major source of migrant worker remittances, and planned connectivity projects with like-minded partners such as Japan, this recalibration of the American conception (“stretching from California to Kilimanjaro”) stood as a belated recognition of the strategic importance of the North-Western Indian Ocean region.
Moreover, the US’ decision to now align its conception with India’s, underscores the centrality of the latter in the former’s calculus over the Indo-Pacific region. Although American courtship of India as a strategic partner has been underway for the better-half of the post-Cold War era, the same in context of the Indo-Pacific construct has been nascent.
As a geopolitical matrix which seeks to marry the destinies of the Indian Ocean to that of the East China Seas – and the Western Pacific at-large, the cultivation of India as a “natural balancer” to China has assumed a maritime dimension. The same aims to oversee India’s rise as a regional goods provider in the Indian Ocean – towards rendering the US to “share the burden” with India by reducing “the strain on U.S. forces” deployed in the Western Pacific.
The US’ central approach to overseeing India’s “socialisation” into an activist role in the Indian Ocean has been to pursue India’s maritime capacity building. For instance, the US has been deft on clearing export of maritime surveillance platforms like the Boeing P-8I aircraft. With eight already in service and another four due in 2020-21, India’s P-8I fleet is “equipped with a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) for detection of subsurface vessels”. Moreover, even before the Indian Ministry of Defence’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) recently cleared the procurement for six more Boeing P-8I aircraft, India was the largest (second only to the US itself) operator of the long-range maritime surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft.
With this enhanced maritime surveillance capability, India has indeed sought greater Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). Significantly, the same has also translated into India assuming the role of a regional goods provider. A case in-point being, India inaugurating the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), aimed to “engage with partner nations and multinational maritime constructs to develop comprehensive maritime domain awareness and share information on vessels of interest.” Hence, one may argue, the impetus to US-India defence trade in the naval platforms realm, has also meant Washington’s export of Mahanian thinking towards New Delhi pursuing MDA in the Indian Ocean region.
In addition, more avenues of enhancing India’s MDA stand in order out of the commercial congruence posed by India’s status as the world’s second largest arms importer and the US being the largest arms exporter in the world. For instance, India is set to procure 24 Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky MH-60R naval helicopters, aimed at strengthening the Indian Navy’s “anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare and surveillance capabilities.” Similarly, speculations continue if India will follow through, on the Donald Trump administration’s adoption of executive overrule to make India “the first non-treaty partner to be offered a MTCR Category-1 Unmanned Aerial System”. In late 2019, the Indian Navy was reported to have been interested in procuring 10 Sea Guardian Drones – the “maritime variant of the Predator B” fitted with a Raytheon SeaVue multimode maritime radar under its belly that would provide “wide-area intelligence and surveillance.”
However, this overt integration of US-imported naval platforms ignores the variable posed by the tropical littoral waters of the Indian Ocean. By that extension, this development of MDA, which largely pertains to the use of acoustic technology in myriad platforms, ignores the incorporation of Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) into India’s holistic understanding of MDA.
Globally, the MDA is largely surface-driven and more of a security formulation. The MDA, in its present form, is grossly inadequate to handle the underwater threats emerging in the new world order. Further, the security tag brings multiple limitations in terms of involvement of other stakeholders like the blue economy entities, environmental regulators and disaster management authorities, and the science and technology providers into the larger effort of bringing state-of-the-art strategy and tools for managing the emerging challenges and opportunities.
The tropical littoral waters in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) presents sub-optimal performance of the sonars being deployed for any underwater surveillance efforts, both for military as well as non-military efforts. The degradation of performance is of the order of 60 to 70 percent, and requires substantial indigenous efforts in terms of soft acoustic capabilities to facilitate effective deployment of the imported hardware in our waters.
The acoustic capacity building includes underwater channel modelling and ambient noise modelling and simulations to be able to mitigate the local medium fluctuations. Such modelling and simulation efforts supported by field experimental validation is extremely resource intensive. Developing nations with competing socio-economic requirements are not able to politically prioritise heavy spending on such long term Research & Development (R&D) programmes. Hardware spending – in the absence of such soft acoustic capability building, limits their effectiveness on ground and remains mere political theatrics for electoral gains. Moreover, the IOR, with its geopolitical fragmentation and instability, poses substantial security threats both from the state and non-state actors.
Thus, for India to play a critical role in the emerging Indo-Pacific formulation, it needs to balance hardware acquisition and indigenous acoustic capacity building to achieve effective UDA in the tropical littoral IOR.
The effective UDA framework needs to focus on pooling of resources and synergising of efforts across stakeholders so that a long-term R&D initiative with field experimental validation is taken up. For instance, with the import of US naval platforms, soft acoustic capacity and capability building support should be part of the sale contracts. Certainly, the same would be coupled with safeguards mechanisms for security of data and transferred technology, as in the case of the recently signed US-India Industrial Security Annex (ISA) towards fostering industry collaboration on co-development and co-production of arms.
This keenness for undersea awareness from the security perspective translates into defending our underwater and above water assets against the proliferation of threats through the underwater route intended to limit the access to the seas and its resources. The earth’s underwater geophysical activities have a lot of relevance to the wellbeing of the human kind and monitoring of such activities could provide vital clues to minimise the impact of devastating natural calamities.
The commercial activities in the underwater realm also need precise inputs on the availability of resources to be able to effectively and efficiently explore and exploit them for economic gains. The regulators, on the other hand, need to know the pattern of exploitation to manage a sustainable plan. With so many activities, commercial and military, there is a significant impact on the environment. Any conservation initiative, thus, would also need to precisely estimate the habitat degradation and species vulnerability caused by these activities and assess the ecosystem status. Concurrently, the scientific and the research community would need to engage and continuously update our knowledge and access to the multiple aspects of the underwater domain.
A comprehensive perspective of the UDA (see Figure 1) underlines the requirement for all the stakeholders to know the developments in the underwater domain, make sense out of these developments, and then respond effectively and efficiently before they take shape of an event.
The UDA on a comprehensive scale needs to be understood in its horizontal and vertical construct. The horizontal part would be the resource availability in terms of technology, infrastructure, capability and capacity specific to the stakeholders or otherwise. The vertical part is the hierarchy of establishing a comprehensive UDA. The first level or the ground level would be the sensing of the underwater domain for threats, resources and activities. The second level would be making sense of the data generated to plan security strategies, conservation and resource utilisation. The next level would be to formulate and monitor a regulatory framework at the national, regional and global level.
An effective UDA framework can encourage Safe, Secure and Sustainable Growth model to manage the challenges and opportunities in the tropical littoral waters of the IOR, whilst also ensuring that it is well aligned to the ‘Security And Growth for All in the Region’ (SAGAR) vision proposed by the Indian Prime Minister. It will require efforts on all the three fronts, viz. Policy, Technology & Innovation and Human Resource Development.
Despite the impending bilateral trade package, differences over the role of e-commerce platforms continue.
Even as his impeachment saga enters the trial stage in the US Senate, President Donald Trump’s re-election agenda is taking shape. Since foreign policy is at the core of the Democrats’ impeachment call, Trump has doubled down on projecting the efficacy of his America First worldview. A significant development on that front came earlier this month, when Trump signed the US-China Phase One partial trade deal.
In the strategic realm, the Donald Trump administration has followed through on the elevated significance of India in the US’ Indo-Pacific calculus. The same is reflected in the administration’s policy continuity on matters pertaining to defence trade and force interoperability with India. On trade, however, the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ outlook has raised questions over partner nations undercutting Washington financially, whilst free-riding on the US’ security guarantees. In viewing trade balances “as an indicator of the health of a trading relationship”, the Trump administration has thus, also turned its attention to US-India bilateral trade — even though India’s trade surplus with the US is less than a tenth of the Chinese.
As reports emerge about a potential Trump visit to India in February, expectations are trading high on a similar partial trade consensus. However, this trade package is expected to only cater to some low-hanging fruits like that over access of agricultural products and Indian tariff barriers to finished premium goods. Thus, some serious divergences are expected to persist. One such divergence was writ large by the recent Jeff Bezos’ India visit.
Even as he announced another investment of $1 billion into Amazon’s India operations and an ambitious plan to digitise the country’s small and medium enterprises, it drew no praise from commerce minister Piyush Goyal. At ORF’s Raisina Dialogue, Goyal commented that Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart are not doing “a great favour” by investing billions into India.
Further, his visit was marked by nation-wide protests by brick-and-mortar retailers who were opposing the steep discounting practices that platforms like Amazon and Flipkart operate with. The protests were primarily led by an association representing around 70 million brick-and-mortar retailers known as the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT). Ahead of the visit, CAIT announced its plan to mobilise around 100,000 for protests across 300 cities in the country. Bezos countered Goyal’s comment and grievances of the protestors by posting on Amazon India’s homepage a signed letter reiterating his commitment to India. He wrote, “I fall in love with India every time I return here,” and added that Amazon would sign a Climate Pledge and a promise to meet the Paris Accord ten years early. As part of this his company would eliminate single-use plastic in its logistics network and use electric vehicles. However, this ties into a broader issue plaguing the US-India bilateral dynamic.
In exacting “fair and reciprocal” trade deals with partner nations, the Trump administration’s trade negotiators at the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), have also brought to the fore some long-standing market access issues with India. Unlike past administrations that underplayed inconsistencies on this front in favour of long-term strategic potentialities with India, the Trump administration has not shied from even adopting punitive measures to exact more favourable terms or coax structural economic reforms by India. Never mind Indian businesses concerns over operating in the American market. Moreover, under the pretext of Trump’s intent to renegotiate trade deals, the USTR, in its negotiations with India, has now added a contention over non-tariffs barriers. For instance, the 2019 National Trade Estimate (NTE) released by the USTR derided partner nations’ barriers to digital trade.
Unlike past administrations that underplayed inconsistencies on this front in favour of long-term strategic potentialities with India, the Trump administration has not shied from even adopting punitive measures to exact more favourable terms or coax structural economic reforms by India.
On India, it sought to graft two new contentions over existing ones. First, on “unnecessary barriers to cross-border data flows” or limitations to “foreign digital services”, the NTE construed India’s requirements for data-localisation to be “onerous”. Second, it criticised the “broader restrictions included in India’s draft Personal Data Protection law and draft e-Commerce Policy” as undermining the digital economy. To recap, the referenced e-commerce changes fundamentally limit US e-retailers like Amazon and Flipkart to simply being a marketplace for sellers and buyers — so as to protect local Indian retailers from “predatory pricing”.
However, for fair consideration, it is imperative to also understand Indian concerns over e-commerce giants stonewalling the progress of local small business owners.
India’s anti-trust watchdog, the Competition Commission of India (CCI), has said that it would open an investigation on their business practices of e-commerce platforms Amazon and Flipkart. Earlier this month, the CCI released a report on a study that it conducted on the e-commerce ecosystem in India to understand the emerging impediments to competition in the online retail space.
CCI’s study largely focused on online platforms’ terms of engagement with sellers and how their contracts force them to discount their services and products. The report noted that there is no standard contract that is made available to all business users by a platform and that they were customised to each individual seller. However, sellers said these non-standard contracts were not mutually negotiated and that the commissions charged by online platforms changed arbitrarily.
Despite the insistence of online platforms that participation in their discount schemes was voluntary, sellers complained that they are forced to participate, else lose their visibility in search rankings. The report also noted that online platforms’ goals diverged from that of the sellers. Platforms and their policies, sellers said, are geared towards increasing transaction on the online portals and don’t necessarily align with local sellers’ business goals. This leads to the sellers’ margins getting thinner, leading to a loss of brand equity.
E-commerce services like Amazon and Flipkart work under the marketplace model, i.e. multiple brands and sellers can list on the platform and connect with customers to sell a service or a product. However, nothing stops e-commerce companies from setting up their own private labels and brands, a contention that the CCI’s report raises. It noted that private labels from e-commerce platforms “created an inherent conflict of interest between the platform’s role as intermediary on one hand and as a market participant on the platform on the other.”
It further noted that: “Thus, in essence, the issue that has come to the fore is that the online platforms, when they serve as both a marketplace and a competitor in that marketplace, have the incentive to leverage their control over the platform in favour of their own/preferred vendors or private label products to the disadvantage of other sellers/service providers on the platform.” That’s where online platforms — armed with all crucial data about price, sold quantities, demand to each product, seller and even geography — gain an unfair advantage as a digital intermediary. The report, thus, raised questions on an online platform’s neutrality.
Nothing stops e-commerce companies from setting up their own private labels and brands, a contention that the CCI’s report raises.
As part of some self-governing guidelines, one of the measures that the CCI recommended was a greater transparency from online platforms on how they use data and information available on the search ranking criteria, collection, sharing of data, and review and rating mechanisms. Contrary to American claims of India being a “sovereignty hawk” on this issue, the American experience with e-commerce led to a similar erosion of the local brick-and-mortar retailers.
Bezos’ announcement of increased Amazon investment in India — monetary and otherwise — as enunciated in his open letter, was not a result of a sudden surge of interest in the Indian market. In face of the broader US-India divergence on e-commerce rules and the subsequent CCI findings, the announcement was meant to mark the crescendo of an extensive campaign that Amazon has been flooding India with, during the past few months.
With a campaign titled ‘We Thank You, India’, Amazon has been attempting to dampen the zero-sum scenario that is brewing between its interests and of those who sign on to sell their products on the Amazon marketplace. In a TVC for the said campaign, a group of small business owners take turns to thank India for their support. Set against a stereotypical Indian background score, a warm hue-montage runs featuring, amongst others, an Assamese Mekhela Chador producer, a Kutchi clay artisan, a Maharashtrian tailor doubling up his store as an Amazon pickup point, and a stand-up comedienne taking stage on an Amazon Prime video clip. Although all direct their gratitude towards the Indian consumer, the subtle messaging in the ad campaign is clear: Amazon has been the wind beneath the wings of those small business and/or service providers.
With the recent announcement of greater Amazon investment in India, it may seem that the zero-sum model which Amazon puts in place for its sellers, may have been taken care of. However, the contention on this issue is only nearing another, more serious, fork in the road. If implemented, CCI’s transparency guidelines for e-commerce firms would definitely assuage some concerns of the sellers on online platforms. However, the government might take a more direct approach and may force disclosure of e-commerce companies’ data as part of the Clause 95 of the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill which has provisions for the government to appropriate any anonymised and non-personal data. To this effect, a separate expert committee led by former Infosys vice chairman Senapathy Gopalakrishnan has been formed to focus on data governance of community and non-personal data. The committee has been interacting with various technology companies. But, on this provision the PDP Bill might infringe on data collected by the companies which could be construed as their intellectual property.
Hence, it remains to be seen if Amazon’s ‘Great Indian Sale’ and Flipkart’s ‘Big Billion Sale’ also includes the sale of India’s “big billion sovereignty.”
As Republicans dampen Democrats’ criticism on Kashmir by citing India’s counterterrorism imperatives, an opportunity to actualise US-India counterterrorism cooperation emerges
Following a visit to the region in early January, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells hailed recent developments in Kashmir. Wells said she was “pleased to see some incremental steps, including the partial return of internet service” and the “visit by our [US] ambassador and other foreign diplomats to Jammu and Kashmir”.
Since the Narendra Modi government’s abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, the ensuing situation in the valley brought US bipartisan support for India under considerable strain. Evident at past October’s Congressional hearing on Kashmir, Republican and Democrats’ staked out divergent conceptions of the role of values in US foreign policy. Democrats criticised the Donald Trump administration’s ambivalence towards the situation in Kashmir as a prime case in point of US foreign policy moving “away from a focus on human rights”. The polarisation on the issue is apparent with Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s (D-WA-7) House Resolution on urging India to “end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions”, garnering limited bipartisan support. Only 4 of 48 cosponsors are Republicans, in the otherwise largely Democrat-led resolution.
In addition to rallying against American “high standards” on human rights – in lock step with the Trump State Department’s idea of “divorcing” foreign policy from values, Republicans have also cited India’s counterterrorism imperatives. For instance, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL-19) made a statement: “India faces many regional and geopolitical threats. Islamic insurgents are a constant threat, spreading terror throughout Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in India. We should support the government in Delhi in the continued fight against terror.”
Even as this polarisation exacerbates, Republicans’ “support” for India’s counterterrorism imperatives can present an opportunity for the belated actualisation of US-India counterterrorism cooperation.
Despite elevated frictions on the trade front, Trump and Modi have ensured, in large parts, the insulation of the bilateral defence dynamic. The same manifests itself in the form of annual consultative dialogues like the US-India 2+2 foreign and defence ministerial dialogue, periodic military exercises such as the recently concluded first-ever tri-service Tiger Triumph exercise, and force interoperability agreements, i.e. the US-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA).
US-India counterterrorism cooperation – and homeland security cooperation at-large, have seen some key developments over the years. For example, the India-US Counterterrorism Joint Working Group and Designations Dialogue, the Homeland Security Dialogue between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Department of Homeland Security, and the recent 2016 agreement to “exchange terrorism screening information”.
However, considering the potentialities of bilateral cooperation in this realm, developments have been modest. It is crucial to note, at the beginning of this century, the US’ shift in approach towards India did not occur solely due to the latter’s potentialities in America’s evolving strategic competition with China. In fact, the Bill Clinton administration recognised natural convergences with India owing to its vibrant democracy and mutual experience with the menace of terrorism. Subsequently, the attacks of 9/11 in the US and the attacks on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, only validated that convergence for the George W Bush administration’s eventual pursuit of the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement – ending India’s pariah status owing to its nuclear programme. Overtime, however, there often has been a lag in political will to similarly insulate this realm of cooperation from irritants on other fronts.
A major factor has been the lack of policy congruence on Pakistan with the US’ continued operational considerations in Afghanistan impeding its efforts to coax Pakistan to cease harbouring terrorists. Progress on US-India counterterrorism cooperation has been staggered also because of transactionalism due to other irritants. In 2018, for instance, the implementation of the Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-6) – an agreement on exchange of terrorist screening information in real-time between the US’ Terrorist Screening Centre (TSC) and India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) – was momentarily “taken off from the agenda”. Reportedly, progress on HSPD-6 had been stalled due to the broader US-India divergence on data-localisation.
With the Republicans’ increased invocation of India’s counterterrorism imperatives running in tandem with the US’ changing approach to global counterterrorism initiatives, however, the year 2020 may be an opportune moment to actualise US-India counterterrorism cooperation.
In the US, the 9/11 attacks proved pivotal in the restructuring of its national security priorities across the world, spurring an increase in spending towards counterterrorism measures. As per a study by the Stimson Center referenced in Defense News, from 2002-2017, the US has spent an average of 16% of its discretionary budget towards combatting terrorism. The counter terrorism effort has required this extent of public investment into asymmetric operations, systematic approaches with allies and partner nations, weaving trans-national intelligence collection networks, inducting sophisticated technologies – all whilst ensuring sustainable strategies and policy consistency.
The US’ comparative advantages in sustained counterterrorism efforts have been clear in the case of halting the spread of the Islamic State caliphate, which, by 2014, had established contiguous territorial grips over parts in Iraq and Syria and spread concentric circles of insurgent influence – from black markets to foreign-fighter flows to web propaganda – spread throughout MENA states like Egypt and Libya. Then, in 2017, the Islamic State caliphate collapsed in Iraq and Syria, following an intensive campaign mostly led by local forces backed by extensive US-led coalition air support. The same was also followed by the US Special Operation forces’ elimination of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Since then, President Trump has pulled forces out of Syria, relegating the remainder of the fight to regional powers – albeit with much controversy. Moving away from a preemptive approach to halting terror threats before they actualise, the US seems to be shirking the preventive side of the conflict – which includes deradicalisation and reconciliation efforts. The same is apparent in President Trump’s turn to regional powers to now spear the remainder share of the conflict on issues such as the return of foreign fighters.
One may argue, the same to also stem from the Trump administration’s effort to recalibrate its natural security focus. The administration’s National Defence Strategy 2018, for instance, announced “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism,” as “the primary concern in US national security.” At the same time, however, the proliferation of non-state actors remains a continuing concern. Chiefly over the prospect of such actors making successful forays into spreading disinformation via social media, harnessing open-source internet-based computing for asymmetric attacks, and laying their hands on biotech weaponry. Hence, going forward, regional powers will have to assume a greater role in devising holistic counterterrorism efforts.
Given the US’ comparative hard-power advantage in the domain owing to its long experience in rapid-reaction deployment and intelligence gathering, maintaining ties with the US’ 17 intelligence agencies also stands in order – to keep that institutional, apolitical side of its national security establishment engaged.
The discussed institutionalisation of the US-India defence dynamic, can play a pivotal role in counterterrorism cooperation. The same can help the US and India forge institutional links on counterterrorism cooperation in the broader mandate of the Indo-Pacific and away from being raided by policy incongruence on Pakistan.
For instance, last year, the annual exercise between Indian and American armies assumed a counterterrorism focus. The Yudh Abhyas 2019 focused “on specialised drills and procedures involved in counter insurgency & counter terrorist operations in an urban environment.” Similarly, the same year, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) also convened the first Counter Terrorism Table Top Exercise (CT-TTX) for Quad member countries.
Although that grouping between the democratic powers of India, Japan, Australia and the US is primarily animated towards ensuring a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, the CT-TTX helped “assess and validate CT response mechanisms in the light of emerging terrorist threats…to provide opportunities to share best practices and to explore areas for enhanced cooperation amongst participating countries.”
Going forward, India and the US must work towards instituting a dialogue between India’s Home Ministry and the US Department of Homeland Security as an integrated joint-dialogue with the US State Department and India’s Ministry of External Affairs. Analogous to the US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue with foreign and defence cabinet chiefs, this would help elevate counterterrorism cooperation – and homeland security cooperation at-large, as a priority avenue under the ambit of US-India bilateral ties.
Lastly, on divergences on intelligence sharing – like in the case of inking HSPD-6, both countries must consider department-level confidence building measures like, conducting case-by-case review of new profiles that hold Indian citizenship and establishing a hotline between commensurate rank members of the IB and TSC to reduce turn-around time on the reviews.
Thus, pursuing greater departmental links – either in bilateral or minilateral formats, can help in actualising India-US counterterrorism cooperation.
As the case for Trump’s impeachment heads to the US Senate for trial, the most probable outcome may only exacerbate challenges for US-India ties
This week, as the US and Iran further devolved onto a collision course, another point of friction re-emerged with American legislators returning to Washington for resumption of the US Congress. Before the winter recess, US President Donald Trump earned the dubious distinction of being one of only three American presidents to have ever been impeached.
The Democrat-led House of Representatives probed into Trump’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. The three month-long committee investigations lent credence to the allegation that the Trump administration withheld military aid worth nearly USD 400 million to Ukraine in exchange for a corruption investigation into Joe Biden – former US vice president and frontrunner for the Democratic ticket for the 2020 presidential elections. After nearly eight hours of debate on the House floor, legislators voted to impeach Trump on two counts – for ‘abuse of power’ 230-197 against, and for ‘obstruction of Congress’ 229-198 against.
Sometime this month, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is expected to transfer those articles of impeachment to the upper chamber – the US Senate – which the US Constitution accords the “sole Power to try” (i.e. conviction and removal of) a sitting president.
Unlike the last couple instances of impeachment in US history, however, Trump’s case encompasses the variable of the chambers of Congress being in control of different parties – the Democrats have a majority in the House (232-197) and Republicans hold the Senate (53-45 [plus 2 independents that caucus with the Democrats]). Thus, partisanship has gripped this process – which otherwise is meant to be an arduous, deliberative undertaking by the legislature to check executive malpractice and/or overreach.
As a result, on the impeachment vote in the House being largely on partisan lines, Republicans have alleged the Democrats to have based the same “on a vendetta against the president” which started “since the day he was elected.” Similarly, on the high chance that none of the Senate Republicans are set to cross party lines to vote in favour of conviction and removal – which requires a two-thirds majority (67 votes), Democrats have blamed Republicans of being “part of a cover up”. Moreover, as the US enters an election season, the remainder process in the Senate is also expected to encompass high political drama and reek of rabid partisanship.
For instance, currently Speaker Pelosi is holding the transfer of articles of impeachment to the Senate and has not appointed impeachment managers – the House representatives that shall head to the upper chamber to assume the role of prosecutors. The reason being, a deadlock with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats argue, norms dictate Senate leaders to consult and devise the trial structure – like subpoenaing witnesses and including prior testimonies and documents, ahead of the trial.
Refraining from an extensive political circus that could drag well into the election cycle, McConnell has played hard ball by insisting on “midtrial questions” like that over witnesses to figure only after the opening arguments and questions by senators – much like in the case of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Whereas, Pelosi has sought the pre-determination of witnesses, against the likelihood of Senate Republicans in their questioning, expanding the purview of the trial to also include the alleged corruption charge on Joe Biden and his son over their dealings with Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Holdings.
Even as this contention over the rules of the road unfolds, the most probable outcome bears ominous prospects for the US-India bilateral dynamic.
With the objective to “bring about a speedy acquittal of the president, belittling the House’s case in the process”, McConnell recently also declared to have enough votes to determine the trial structure without any support from the Democrats. To set the rules of the road, 51 votes are required – well within the majority margin the Republicans enjoy in the Senate. Until McConnell’s declaration, Democrats had hinged their hopes on moderate Republicans to support their call for witness testimonies in the Senate hearing, by breaking from their ranks to vote against McConnell’s agenda.
McConnell’s hurry can be understood in the context of the fast approaching election cycle possibly being raided by a prolonged political circus at the Senate impeachment trial. Once acquitted, Republicans hope to clear the way for Trump’s re-election bid.
Oddly however, Trump has not only made enough political hay out of the impeachment sunlight, but also dollars. In the last quarter of 2019, the Trump re-election campaign again surpassed Democratic fundraising to reportedly raise USD 46 million – to bring up his cumulative to USD 102 million for the entire year. Riding this wave, if Trump is acquitted in the Senate and re-elected in the 2020 elections, his administration will return for a second and final term – with freedom from the pressures of re-election. Most importantly, since Trump’s foreign policy conduct has been the central focus of the impeachment saga, the re-election of Trump will be seen as according vindication to the ‘America First’ worldview.
On India, Trump has not shied from raising the spectre of sanctions to seek India’s policy congruence on countries like Iran and Russia. Moreover, Trump has largely pursued continuity on raising the tempo of US-India defence ties – albeit with some degree of transactionalism (Washington lets Delhi know: Buy our F-16s, can give Russia deal waiver).
In addition, Trump has often not adhered to the erstwhile Carter mantra – under which, past US administrations’ approach to India was dictated by an unstated commitment to not let inconsistencies on trade matters assume the fore. The Trump administration, however, has levied steel and aluminium tariffs on India, revoked India’s status under the GSP programme, briefly toyed with the idea of limiting Indians’ H1-B visas quota to 15 percent due to differences on e-commerce, and even contemplated a Section 301 investigation into India’s tariff and non-tariff trade barriers.
Hence, with Trump’s expected acquittal in the Senate and his possible re-election, India is sure to face the brunt of the ‘America First’ worldview at a heightened rate.
With McConnell mustering enough votes to determine the trial structure, the Democrats’ demand for witnesses may not actualise. However, given the new information which emerged over the holidays – like the emergence of Defence Department emails that underscore Trump’s involvement in freezing aid to Ukraine and former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s willingness to testify, the Democrats can adopt an unconventional method to get their way. This would involve making a direct appeal to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts – who is constitutionally mandated to preside over the Senate trial, to allow issuing subpoenas to witnesses. But this is currently being deemed to be a highly unlikely scenario, given the serious precedent it would set.
As for the 2020 presidential elections, the jury is still out whether the Democratic primaries can avoid derailment at the hands of a widening schism between centrists and the progressive Democrats.
At the very least, however, one can expect another Blue wave in 2020 – much like the 2018 midterms which swept Democrats to power in the House of Representatives, to possibly unseat some Republican senators. For instance, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner is up for re-election in Colorado – which is emerging as a swing state given its inhabitants’ rising support for impeaching Trump. In another battleground state, Arizona, Republican Sen. Martha McSally is facing a steep fight from retired astronaut Mark Kelly running on a Democratic ticket.
This could dent the already slim majority that the Republicans hold in the Senate. A greater hold of the Democrats in the Senate – in addition to their comfortable control over the House, would accentuate the tussle between the legislature and the executive. Under Trump, that tension has already led to some shift in the locus of foreign policy decision-making away from the Oval Office, and towards the Hill. A recent case in point being, the resolutions being furthered by Democrats to curb Trump’s powers to initiate military operations against Iran.
On India, House Democrats have become increasingly vocal about their apprehensions on Trump’s ambivalence towards controversial moves like the Narendra Modi government’s abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. Democratic lawmakers have also introduced two House Resolutions on Kashmir that specifically deride India’s communications lockdown in the Valley. Actions like these reflect India now increasingly becoming a partisan affair in the American bipartisan consensus.
With greater control in the Senate, the next time around, Democrats may not stop their condemnations at mere House Resolutions that do not carry the weight of law. In addition, the same would accord them greater sway in nominations of political appointees (like the US Ambassador to India) and into arms transfers via special provisions of the Arms Export Control Act – which exclusively accords senators the right to “bring up for debate the merits of problematic arms sales.”
Hence, even as the impeachment saga inches towards its conclusion in the Senate, the most probable outcome does not augur well for US-India ties.
The two House Resolutions on Kashmir reflect moderate to extreme conceptions on the role of values in US foreign policy, but both emphasise the centrality of shared values as the core of US-India ties.
Earlier this month, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-07) tabled a House Resolution (H. Res. 745) “urging the Republic of India to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible and preserve religious freedom for all residents.”
This followed another House Resolution (H. Res. 724), tabled in late November by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI-13). Moreover, that resolution even goes on to diverge from long-standing US policy – which the Donald Trump administration has come around to adhere to after the initial kerfuffle over an offer to mediate. Straying from the American tacit adherence to the Indian position against internationalising Kashmir, the resolution calls for “condemning the human rights violations taking place in Jammu and Kashmir.” Additionally – and what may be construed as a challenge to India’s sovereignty, this house resolution also calls for supporting “Kashmiri self-determination.”
In further understanding the two resolutions – and probing their impact on US-India bilateral ties, it is first important to underscore the domestic political context informing the Democrats’ increased emphases on a values-centric US foreign policy.
As the centres of gravity of the Republican and Democratic parties shift into their respective populist extremes, polarisation in the American political spectrum now seems like the standard pre-set. Political polarisation has gradually crept in over the past decade owing to continued legislative deadlock on urgent domestic issues like gun control and immigration reform. With Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, however, those gridlocked issues – mainly over immigration, became the crux of his populist message.
With Trump’s victory, the Democratic Party faced questions over its raison d’être, as they were caught off-guard by Trump’s ability to gin up a populist movement surrounding the working class in middle America. Thus, in the run up to the 2018 midterm elections and thereafter, the Democratic Party has also seen its own turn for populism. Their call for addressing income inequality and institutionalised racism, serves as their defence for keeping pace with globalism rather than deriding the American ‘melting pot’ culture altogether. This socio-economic populism is defined in opposition to the Trump Republicans’ turn for socio-cultural populism on multiculturalism’s threat to the American identity.
Similarly, US foreign policy – long known to be the only facet of American polity that could boast of unfettered bipartisanship, has also become a ground for American partisan pulling-and-hauling. The bipartisan consensus on US foreign policy has been under considerable strain since the end of the Cold War, especially due to mounting fatigue with American hegemonic excesses like regime change wars in the post 9/11 timeline. With the ascent of Trump, however, that schism has become more pronounced as the ‘America First’ worldview has forced a conversation on recalibrating the US’ role in world. At the core of which, is the Trump administration’s transactional take on some core tenets of US foreign policy, like American stewardship of liberal Wilsonian values and maintaining regional balances of power via alliance commitments.
Here, the Democrats’ further shift to the left encompasses the progressive ‘new left’ – identified by the likes of Ilhan Omar (D-MN-05) and Rashida Tlaib, claiming absolute moral distinction in direct opposition to the Trump administration’s values-bereft ‘America First’ pursuit of US interests. Thus, on the foreign policy front, the socio-cultural populism of the right translates into a narrative of realpolitik pursuit of American interests. In contrast, the new left’s definition of itself in opposition to that actualisation of interests irrespective of the means, leaves them susceptible of being construed as soft on American interests abroad. Moreover, in claiming moral absolutism, it also often lends it a binary worldview. This was most apparent in Rep. Omar’s recent critique of American support for Israel coming across “as playing into well-worn anti-Semitic tropes.”
On American support for India, this schism between Republicans and Democrats was most apparent in the recent Congressional hearings on human rights in South Asia. Wherein, US support for India fell prey to partisanship as Democrats berated Trump’s ambivalence on India’s communications blackout in Kashmir, while Republicans dampened criticism by rallying against a values-centric US foreign policy.
In the two House Resolutions on Kashmir tabled in the Democrat-led US House of Representatives, the in-party tussle between the ‘new left’ and the erstwhile establishment’s foreign policy of balancing values and interests is writ large.
The two resolutions differ on their scope. The one tabled by Rep. Jayapal largely centres on the “6,000,000 mobile subscribers in Jammu and Kashmir” that “remain inoperable for communication, and text messaging and mobile internet services remain suspended”. Whereas, the resolution tabled by Rep. Tlaib mainly centres on “gross human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir” and even “supporting Kashmiri self-determination”.
Concurrently, the latter also deems India to have “unilaterally changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir without a direct consultation or the consent of the Kashmiri people”. Whereas, Rep. Jayapal’s resolution does not reference the Narendra Modi government’s decision to abrogate Jammu and Kashmir’s special status enshrined in Article 370 – possibly to be in line with the Donald Trump administration’s take on the move being India’s “internal matter”.
Although both resolutions in varying degrees criticise India for detentions, forbidding travel of journalists, and the resultant derailment of health services to the civilian population, the resolution by Rep. Jayapal stands out in recognising “external state support for the insurgency” in Kashmir. Referencing the Pulwama attacks which killed about 40 security personnel, the resolution deems the perpetrator to have been a “member of a Pakistan-based, United States-designated foreign terrorist organisation”. Moreover, in urging the Indian government to lift the “remaining restrictions on communication and to restore internet access across all of Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible”, it prefaces the same with the recognition of “the dire security challenges faced by the Government and India in Jammu and Kashmir and continuing threat of state-supported cross-border terrorism”.
Possibly due to this recognition of nuance, Rep. Jayapal’s resolution has bipartisan support with Rep. Steve Watkins (R-KS-02) as the original cosponsor. Apart from that, over a dozen Democratic House Representatives have come aboard as cosponsors. This includes heavyweights like Rep. James McGovern (D-MA-02) who is the co-chair of The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (formerly, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA-28) who is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Whereas, Rep. Tlaib’s resolution has had no takers as cosponsors.
Later this week at the second US-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue, Indian and American foreign and defence cabinet chiefs will oversee the clearance of crucial US arms transfers to India. The two sides are also expected to ink the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) towards the actualisation of the US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). With these impending developments on the strategic front, Alice G Wells – the acting US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, said human rights will not be a part of the upcoming US-India 2+2 dialogue.
Moreover, as Simple Resolutions, these House Resolutions seem to neither have the force of law, nor are sent to the US Senate once voted on in the House. It is also unclear if these resolutions shall even come up for vote in the House. At times, House Resolutions are merely introduced to convey the manner of debate on an issue – led by a set of American legislators lending their name as sponsors/cosponsors. For instance, the House Resolution tabled in May 2019 by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA-30) – the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, condemning the terror attack in Pulwama has not come up for a vote to date.
However, it is crucial to recognise, even the mere introduction by House Democrats of two House Resolutions on Kashmir, bears ominous signs of India increasingly becoming a partisan issue in the American foreign policy consensus.
Judging by the mounting cosponsors on Rep. Jayapal’s resolution, whether the same will dent the promising trajectory of US-India ties depends largely on the Modi government’s decision to keep in-place the communications lockdown in Kashmir. Although it must be acknowledged that New Delhi has indeed lifted the communications lockdown — albeit in a phased manner. For instance, in October, it was reported that mobile services — barring text messaging and internet, were restored for nearly 40 lakh postpaid connections. This followed September’s restoration of 46,000 landline connections. On the suspension of internet services however, according to a recent report, earlier this week the same “entered its 134th day” to now make it “the longest ever imposed in a democracy, according to Access Now, an international advocacy group that tracks Internet suspensions.”
Lastly, irrespective of the apparent divide between the two resolutions on the varying degrees to which values must inform US foreign policy, both crucially underscore the centrality of shared democratic values animating contemporary US-India bilateral ties. That is something New Delhi must recognise regardless of the Democrats’ emphases on a values-led US foreign policy outlasting the Trump presidency’s transactional, interests-driven realpolitik worldview.
Beyond the personal chemistry between political leaders forecasting bilateral ties, consultative platforms on the ministerial level like the US-India 2+2 dialogue represent the future.
Later this month, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar will convene with their American counterparts – Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for the second edition of the US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. Slated for 18 December in Washington DC, the meet will build on the inaugural round held in September 2018 between then-Ministers of External Affairs and Defence Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-Secretary of Defence James Mattis.
This round of the consultative dialogue, will be the first since the resignation of staunch India supporter Secretary Mattis and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in 2019 – which led to a change of guard at the ministries of defence and external affairs. Additionally, as the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump’s alleged strong-arming of Ukraine for political favours in exchange for military aid continues, Secretary Pompeo is increasingly coming under fire. As America’s chief diplomat, questions over what, when, and how much, did Pompeo know of Trump’s actions have been feeding calls for him to testify at the Capitol Hill. As a result of the clamour, Pompeo seems to have “one foot out the door”, with plans for a Senate run from Kansas.
Regardless of these changes and uncertainties, the consultative dialogue is expected substantially build on the defence dynamic between New Delhi and Washington.
Under Trump, the nature of US arms exports to India seems to have assumed a singular focus on exporting Mahanian thinking – towards the aim of “socialising” India into an active naval role in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific at-large. Hence, at the upcoming ministerial dialogue, transfer of crucial naval platforms is expected to be furthered.
Recently, the US State Department cleared the sale to India of up to thirteen MK 45 5 inch/62 caliber (MOD 4) naval guns and three thousand five hundred D349 Projectile, 5”/54 MK 92 MOD 1 Ammunition at an estimated cost of USD 1.0210 billion. The clearance’s press notification notes the proposed sale to “support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the security of a strategic regional partner.” Thus, while the long-drawn process of procuring the naval guns has only begun, the timing of the clearance – in the run up to the consultative dialogue – reflects the prioritisation of the transfer.
Another proposed sale is that of 24 multi-role MH-60 Romeo Seahawk maritime helicopters to India at a cost of USD 2.6 billion. Cleared by the State Department in April, the much-touted submarine hunter helicopters were sought after for nearly a decade by the Indian Navy. As per the press notification, these helicopters would give India the “capability to perform anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare missions along with the ability to perform secondary missions including vertical replenishment, search and rescue, and communications relay.” An agreement over these helicopters is reportedly the “closest to conclusion”, and an announcement can be expected at the 2+2 dialogue.
In addition, the Indian Defence Ministry’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) recently approved the procurement of six additional Boeing P-8I maritime surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft. With eight of those already in service, and another four due in 2020-21, India is already the second largest operator of the P-8 after the US itself. The additional procurement is in line with developing “maintenance facilities for the fleet in the Andaman Islands and Goa to give the Indian Navy flexibility in deploying these aircraft where they are needed the most.” Once again, the clearance of the procurement – in this case from the Indian end – in the run-up to the consultative dialogue, affirms the increasing congruence between New Delhi and Washington over the former’s evolving role in the Indian Ocean.
The upcoming dialogue is also expected to witness finalisation of the Industrial Security Annex (ISA). At last year’s inaugural 2+2 dialogue, the ministers had expressed “their readiness to begin negotiations” on inking ISA that “would support closer defence industry cooperation and collaboration.” Once signed, ISA would enable US arms manufacturers to transfer sensitive technologies to entities beyond the Indian public sector, to even corresponding partners in the private sector.
Particularly, the ISA will go a long way in actualising the DTTI – set up in 2015 under the Barack Obama administration to move New Delhi and Washington from a traditional “buyer-seller” dynamic to one of co-production and co-development. In October this year, during Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition and Sustainment, Ellen Lord’s visit to New Delhi, the two sides signed a ‘Statement of Intent’ outlining DTTI “deliverables in the near, medium and long terms.” They also outlined the shared commitment to “continually engage” and “facilitate cooperation between the defence industries of both nations.”
Even without the ISA, some ancillary projects have taken off with Indian partners – to some benefit for the Modi dispensation’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. For instance, Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) and Lockheed Martin employ 500 people to locally produce two dozen aircraft empennages per year. Similarly, at a facility in Hyderabad, TASL and Boeing employ up to 350 skilled workers to produce helicopter fuselages. Boeing has strengthened its supply chain with over 160 domestic partners to support subassembly production of aft pylon and cargo ramp components of heavy-lift helicopters.
Although these projects come under the broader essence of the DTTI, they are largely “offset obligations” projects towards India’s acquisition of advanced American platforms like the Apache AH-64E multi-role combat helicopters, the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, and the Chinook CH- 47F (I) heavy lift, tandem rotor helicopter.
The ISA is an important precursor for the complete actualisation of the DTTI, which includes “build to print” joint projects on air-launched unmanned airborne systems (UAS), lightweight small arms technology, and innovations in the field of intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance (ISTAR). Apart from connecting partners across Indian and American private and public sectors, the ISA institutes safeguards “to ensure that the [shared] information is protected under Indian law.”
Actualising US-India DTTI would give a fillip to the ‘Make in India’ projects in the defence sector “collectively worth over Rs 3.5 lakh crore” being “either stuck or still meandering through different stages, without the final contracts to launch production being inked.”
Under Trump, US-India ties have been marred with tensions on the trade front. In negotiating a trade deal, some contentions – like over access of US dairy products in face of Indian sensitivities on blood-meal and Indian price caps on pharmaceutical imports, have proven to be the proverbial spanner in the works. In addition to prolonging the negotiations – now in its second year, some of these have now been excluded from the purview of the talks. For instance, the contention over dairy products has reportedly been excluded from a partial trade package – which is seen as a “steppingstone” towards resolving the broader trade disputes.
American partisanship on India is another issue challenging the fundamental core of the US-India partnership.
Reflected in the US Congress and successive post-Cold War administrations, the bipartisan support for stronger US-India ties stands underpinned by the highly affluent Indian diaspora in the US and the shared commitment on liberal democratic values between the largest and the oldest democracies. Following the Modi government’s abrogation of Article 370 and the ensuing communications blackout in Kashmir, however, the US Congress has questioned India’s commitment to the convergence on shared values. This was evident at October’s Congressional hearing on human rights in South Asia, where bipartisan support for India became a sticking point as Democrats rallied against Trump’s ambivalence on the communications lockdown in Kashmir, and Republicans sought to dampen criticism by making a case against a values-centric US foreign policy. Subsequently, the Democrats have ]also introduced two House Resolutions (one by Rep. Rashida Tlaib and another by Rep. Pramila Jayapal) on urging India to end the communications blackout and preserve religious freedom.
To the credit of the Trump administration, however, strategic ties have progressed largely unhindered. The same has been apparent in the delivery of arms platforms as agreed in prior negotiations and force interoperability being graduated to the next level with the recent India-US tri-service military exercise. This has coalesced due to the growing convergence between India and the US on their respective Indo-Pacific strategic calculi.
Importantly, from the standpoint of bilateral ties, unhindered progress has also been due to the US-India dynamic moving away from the erstwhile approach of depending on the personal chemistry between political leaders. Through the early 2000s and shortly thereafter, overt reliance on the dynamics between the respective heads of government was crucial “to wade through conflictual issues such as the US’ opposition to India’s nuclear programme.”
As the bilateral relationships assumes greater dynamism, the US-India trajectory is now animated on governmental, bureaucratic, and military levels. Hence, in the run up to the second US-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue, it is important to recognise such platforms as the future drivers of the US-India partnership. As for the emergent challenges – emanating from Trump on trade and the US Congress on Kashmir – the delineation of strategic ties is set to be the biggest takeaway from this upcoming high-level engagement.
Seeking to share the burden in the Indian Ocean, Washington is eager for New Delhi to assume the role of a regional goods provider
At the second US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue slated for 18 December in Washington DC, US-India defence ties will be a central focal point. At the meeting, both countries are expected to ink the INR 17,500-crore deal for 24 Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky MH-60R naval helicopters, aimed at strengthening the Indian Navy’s “anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare and surveillance capabilities.”
Another procurement expected to be furthered, would be the recent US State Department clearance of the sale to India of up to thirteen MK 45 5 inch/62 caliber (MOD 4) naval guns and three thousand five hundred D349 Projectile, 5”/54 MK 92 MOD 1 Ammunition at an estimated cost of USD 1.0210 billion. As per the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency, the transfer is also aimed at enhancing the Indian Navy’s “capability to conduct antisurface warfare and anti-air defense missions while enhancing interoperability with U.S. and other allied forces.” The apparent US intent for India’s naval build-up is also often reciprocated, as the Indian Ministry of Defence’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) recently cleared the decks for six additional Boeing P-8I long-range maritime surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft. With eight already in service and another four due for delivery in 2020-21, India has adopted its P-8I fleet “equipped with a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) for detection of subsurface vessels.”
This impetus of US-India defence trade to India’s naval capacity-building has been towards Washington’s export of Mahanian thinking to New Delhi.
Alfred Thayer Mahan, perhaps the most celebrated naval historian of the 19th century has the less-known distinction of being a “reckless and almost comical” seaman who struggled to keep US ships straight on the high seas. As a naval strategist and historian, however, his seminal work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, continues to inform the centrality of naval power in American power projection. Mahan’s postulations were at the core of the US’ rise as a naval power in the 19th century, out to expand American commerce. In contemporary times of the US-led liberal order, Mahan’s influence over the US Navy – and its civilian principals – has translated into the American policing of sea lanes of communication as the normative prerequisite for free flow of commerce.
In the United States’ evolving geopolitical competition with China as well, Mahanian thinking is apparent. Moving away from the post-9/11 land-air wars in the Middle East, the Barack Obama administration put in force the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. The same chiefly encompassed stepping up engagement with the US ‘hub and spokes’ alliance partners in Asia, rebalancing the US Navy’s assets in the Pacific 60:40 away from the Persian Gulf, and developing the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept in response to Chinese Anti-Access, Area Denial (A2AD) strategies.
Under the Donald Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, there is considerable continuity in that thinking. In face of China’s naval build-up, Trump has built on the US Navy’s Nimitz Class fleet of 10 aircraft carriers by initiating the induction of the next-generation USS Gerald R Ford. Additionally, even amidst Congressional gridlock, the Trump administration has prioritised the US Navy’s USD 22.2 billion bid for nine ‘Block V’ Virginia Class fast attack submarines, and has been a vocal supporter of the US Navy’s plan to reach “a 355-ship fleet by the early FY2050s, potentially quicker with an aggressive investment of resources.”
In then cultivating India as a “balancer” to China, the Indo-Pacific calculus seeks to marry the destinies of the Indian Ocean region to that of the East China Seas – which is expected to be the fulcrum of a possible US-China great power conflict. In that vein, the American intent to oversee India’s naval build-up constitutes its export of Mahanian thinking towards New Delhi gradually assuming the role of a regional goods provider in the Indian Ocean. Concurrently, this would help the US “share the burden” with India, and reduce “the strain on U.S. forces” in favour of more focused deployments in the Western Pacific.
The discussed US-led capacity building has arguably also translated into India gradually assuming a more active role. For instance, over the years, India has now become the largest – second only to the US itself, operator of P-8I maritime surveillance aircrafts. Underpinned with this capability, in December 2018, India launched the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) in Gurgaon. Set to host nearly two dozen liaison officers of partner nations, the IFC-IOR aims to “engage with partner nations and multi-national maritime constructs to develop comprehensive maritime domain awareness and share information on vessels of interest.”
Apart from such actions – arguably reflective of American “socialisation” of India – in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi has sought to diversify its alignments.
Two years into the Trump presidency, it is apparent that blatant transactionalism in American foreign policy is less of an aberration, and increasingly the norm. With traditional partners in Western Europe and Northeast Asia, the Trump administration has linked inconsistencies on the trade front to its alliance commitments. With nascent partners like India, the Trump administration has had no qualms about adopting the economic and/or sanctions lever to exact congruence in policy towards Iran or Russia – nations deemed as being adversarial to the US.
Hence, there is recognition for the need to diversify alignments, to reduce the prospect of India’s evolving role in the Indian Ocean region being susceptible to American transactionalism. Alarmism aside, that concern does hold some credence given the fact that, the US is now India’s second-largest arms supplier and Indian armed forces today conduct “more joint military drills, tabletop exercises, and defense dialogues” with American forces than with any other country.
Moreover, irrespective of American prodding, it is also in India’s interest to assume a heightened naval role, given an increase in Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean region. At the core of India’s response is indigenous capacity-building to narrow its inventory deficit with China. On destroyers and submarines, China leads India by factors of about 2:1 and 4:1 respectively. This differential in capability has also translated into heightened Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean region – for which it is a crucial maritime highway overseeing a considerable share (nearly 80 percent) of its energy imports from the Middle East. Since 2013, there have been about eight reported sightings of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. Recently, citing a case from September 2019, when the Indian Navy successfully repelled a Chinese vessel near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India’s Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh deemed his force’s intent to “closely” monitor China’s footprint as a priority.
Rising Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean and emerging questions over American dependability, however, also necessitate for India to diversify its alignments by seeking other like-minded partners.
The Modi dispensation’s reconfiguration of “strategic autonomy” into strategic alignments – attainable “through strengthened partnerships instead of avoiding partnerships”, permits multiple issue-based alignments. The same is apparent in India’s evolving role in the Indian Ocean, where like-minded partners are being identified.
At a recent event hosted by the Observer Research Foundation, French Navy Chief Admiral Christophe Prazuck revealed that India and France are in discussions for holding Joint Patrols in the Indian Ocean. If the same materialises, this would signify a departure from India’s position of conducting only Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT) – far from Joint Patrols, with maritime neighbours. Moreover, in the past, India has also turned down offers from “several senior U.S. military officers” on US-India Joint Patrols. Opting to hold joint patrols with France makes sense, as one may argue it has real skin in the game since the Southern Indian Ocean – home to overseas French territories, is also a “question of sovereignty” for Paris.
Similarly, India is in talks to ink logistics services agreements with Japan and Australia to further maritime security cooperation. Lastly, in identifying more like-minded partners, India is set to host its largest multilateral exercise next year. With 41 nations invited, the MILAN exercise will aim “to hone interoperability – a key shift from the past where the MILAN series has been seen as more of a cultural and academic exchange.” While the scale is not expected to match the US-organised RIMPAC exercise, with MILAN, India is expected to bring together contentious pairs like Iran and Israel, and Russia and the US.
In summation, although India’s adoption of American Mahanian thinking on naval power is apparent, New Delhi is keen on diversifying its alignments towards a sustained role in the Indian Ocean.
New Delhi and Washington must seek the compartmentalisation of homeland security cooperation by delinking progress on HSPD-6 agreement from divergence on data localisation
Earlier this month, the US State Department released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2018 – an annual report submitted to the US Congress on international counterterrorism efforts. On India, the report deemed “continued weaknesses in intelligence and information sharing” to have “negatively impacted state and central law enforcement agencies”.
Last year, US-India cooperation on homeland security reportedly hit a roadblock, when an “ambitious plan for exchange of information on terrorists on a real time basis between India and the US” was “dropped”. At the subsequent India-US Counterterrorism Joint Working Group and Designations Dialogue held in March 2019, that report stood validated. Absent of any announcement, the joint statement only outlined the parties to have held a “discussion of strengthening cooperation on information sharing and other steps to disrupt the ability of terrorists to travel”.
According to a senior officer, implementation of the Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-6) – an agreement on exchange of terrorist screening information between the US’ Terrorist Screening Centre (TSC) and India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) – was “taken off from the agenda”. Discussions on the agreement failed to materialise as Indian agencies reportedly suggested that, “in return of signing of the agreement, India must secure from the US side progress to the internet related data held by US-based services.”
Over the past year, India and the US have increasingly found themselves at odds over trade. Under the Trump administration’s impetus on seeking “fair and reciprocal” trade deals with partner nations, India’s trade surplus with the US has come into question. Although there has been a recent decline in the deficit owing to increased Indian import of US energy supplies and defence platforms, long-standing market-access issues over American pharmaceutical imports and dairy products continue to hinder prospects of a trade deal.
In the past, continued wrangling on such market-access issues led to the US deeming India as a “sovereignty hawk”. In further compounding those long-standing issues, new bones of contention have also emerged. As a result, American characterisation of India being a forceful vanguard of her sovereign interests stands accentuated.
One new contention is over the storage of data collected by American e-commerce giants in India. New Delhi’s thinking on the same is that data “generated by Indians should be viewed as a natural resource that must be protected by the state through localisation.” Whereas, in guarding the interests of American companies, the Trump administration has characterised this divergence within the broader context of US-India trade tensions. For instance, the 2019 National Trade Estimate by the US Trade Representative addressed the US’ intent to oversee reduction in “barriers to digital trade”. Specifically, it even slammed India for its “onerous data localization requirements.”
Moreover, earlier this year, the Trump administration reportedly even mulled capping the issuance of H1B visas to 15 percent for any country that “does data localisation”. This linkage of American stance on digital trade to US immigration policy, spread jitters across India’s USD 150 billion IT sector which rakes-in about 70 percent of the 85,000 H1B visas issued every year.
Similarly, one may argue, India linking its interests on data localisation to its will on HSPD-6, signifies the realpolitik employment of leverage between bargaining parties. However, cooperation on homeland security must be prioritised given the potentialities of the HSPD-6.
On the international stage, India is a prominent voice on counterterrorism efforts. For over two decades, India has led the charge at the United Nations on the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism – which seeks a comprehensive definition of terrorism accepted by the General Assembly. India is also a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Eurasian Group on Combatting Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism, and the Asia-Pacific Group on Money Laundering. Here, India’s cooperation with the United States is also apparent. For instance, last year, there was little daylight between India and the US on the FATF grey-listing Pakistan for “outstanding counterterrorism deficiencies”.
On the domestic front however, that promising cooperation stands hindered by the holdout on HSPD-6.
In 2016, India and the US signed an agreement to “exchange terrorism screening information”. As agreed, India’s Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) established under its Intelligence Bureau disseminates the acquired intelligence to relevant central and state security agencies. With MAC as the sole entity, however, to coordinate with over two dozen representatives from over a dozen Indian intelligence agencies, the IB’s direct institutional connect with the American TSC remained weak.
With HSPD-6, India would also be part of a network of over three dozen partner nations – with which the US has already put into force that agreement.
With the speed and veracity that threats – from lone wolf attacks to full blown state-sponsored terrorist actions – come into the purview of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, it is critical for information to be shared in real time. More so, the same must be done in a secure manner in order to protect the general public. The key advantage the Indian and American governments will have over those wishing to do ill to their citizens, is the ability to share threat assessments – from particular individuals, before an untoward incident occurs. Thus, stalling on HSPD-6 renders both nations’ citizens to stand at greater risk.
Moreover, today, the sheer volume of electronic data that is collected, as compared to almost 20 years ago, necessitates such a partnership over real-time information sharing. Sixteen years since it was first issued, it is helpful to remember exactly what was encompassed in the original HSPD-6 draft, and just how relevant it still is. The ‘Directive on Integration and Use of Screening Information To Protect Against Terrorism’ sought to preemptively “develop, integrate, and maintain thorough, accurate, and current information about individuals known or appropriately suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism (Terrorist Information)”.
Thus, to not fully implement HSPD-6, as it was first issued by President Bush in 2003, is to dramatically weaken the ability of both countries to mutually “protect against terrorism”.
Institutionalised cooperation on homeland security is a fairly recent avenue in the US-India partnership timeline. Back in November 2010, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the initiation of the Homeland Security Dialogue between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Department of Homeland Security to “further deepen operational cooperation, counter-terrorism technology transfers and capacity building.”
The same was instrumental in collating efforts of supplementary mechanisms like the Joint Working Group on Counter-terrorism – which was established way back in 2000; the Defense Policy Group; the Joint Working Group on Information and Communications Technology and the Aviation Security Working Group; and the Counter-terrorism Cooperation Initiative.
However, as evidenced by the HSPD-6 instance, cooperation on this front has been susceptible to hiccups on other avenues of US-India bilateral ties. Here’s where the US and India must take a page from their defense ties.
As discussed, under Trump, trade tensions with India have come to the fore. US-India defense ties, however, are progressing unhindered. Beyond the continued centrality of India in the American security calculus in the Indo-Pacific region, this compartmentalisation has been possible due to either nation’s efforts at institutionalising defense ties. Notably, the Modi dispensation, in its relations with the Obama and Trump administrations put heavy emphasis on force interoperability agreements and defense trade.
For the institutionalisation of homeland security cooperation, here are some recommendations:
Speaking at the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum last month, Union Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal deemed a partial US-India trade deal to be imminent, as the “broad contours of what we are going to announce” have been resolved.
This development came a fortnight after President Donald Trump announced from the Oval Office, that the US and China are set to ink a “substantial phase one” of a trade deal. This followed other renegotiations like, the announced US-Japan Trade Agreement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).
Going into 2020, Trump is sure to tout these developments as vindication of his conservative nationalist approach to US foreign policy – which dictates America to settle scores on its largesse of underwriting globalisation across the globe. In the case of India, the partial deal would take some pressure off contentious bilateral trade issues that divide the US and India. On some long-standing issues on India’s tariff/non-tariff barriers, however, New Delhi is expected to be on the receiving end of Trump’s approach with continued trade negotiations.
Thus understanding the Trump administration’s hard-nosed ‘America First’ quest to recalibrate US trade relationships, the relevance of China in Trump’s run for the White House hones crucial insights.
Analysis, which deem the 2016 US presidential election to have been dominated by a political movement around white identity politics on the issue of immigration are accurate. The means to that end, however, was the Trump campaign’s successful populist takeover of the Republican Party – by linking the stalemate on immigration reform to the American political bipartisanship on free trade.
In galvanising the working class voters on these issues, the Trump campaign turned the ire against the ruling Washington political establishment or the “swamp” – as Trump would often call it. In a recent interview, Steve Bannon – Trump’s Campaign Manager and later his Chief Strategist in the White House, explained the US lawmakers’ interest in not pursuing comprehensive immigration reform.
Driven by American corporate interests to compete against foreign markets via the mechanism of free trade, lax immigration has been seen to “flood the zone” against local workforce to “keep wages down for higher margins” for US manufacturers.
To substantiate this claim, Trump would thus often purport the United States to have lost 4.2 million manufacturing jobs and amounted $15 trillion in trade deficits over the last quarter century. A considerable share of that American loss would be attributed to China’s rise. Explicitly, Trump would even colourfully allege China to have “raped” the US economy.
In thus construing American fallacies on immigration and trade as being mutually reinforcing, the Trump campaign alleged the Washington elites’ preference for a “managed decline” in the face of a rising China.
Pointing to Chinese unfair trade practises, at his rallies, Trump expressed horror at the American trade deficit with China of over $350 billion. Trump would however clarify that the blame did not lay on China. In turn, Trump would give China “great credit” for “being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens.” Trump instead lay the blame on past Democratic and Republican administrations “for allowing this out-of-control trade deficit to take place and to grow.”
Thus, the Trump campaign in its intent to stir up a populist movement implied a causation. The US’ “managed decline” against China – at the “unacceptable outcomes to average citizens” in terms of job losses in the American mid-west – was to be “inextricably linked to the shipping of its [US] industry base to China”.
Trumpian hyperbole aside, there is some credence to the American political class being culpable. For instance, although the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations imposed some anti-dumping duties on imports from China, they failed to address China keeping the exchange rate of its currency at artificially low levels, exercising overt control of state-owned enterprises, necessitating transfer of sensitive technologies from foreign investors, and allocating subsidies to incentivise exports. Despite the “increasing signs of mercantilism” on the part of the Chinese, the US response was largely meek as American multinational companies feared losing their lucrative access to China’s massive market.
In this context, the Trump administration raising the spectre of a trade war with China signifies conservative nationalism’s attempt to troubleshoot the skewed US-China trade differential.
Whereas, with nascent partners like India, the ‘America First’ worldview dictates pre-empting the repetition of the American ruling class’ misstep of China’s assimilation into the global trading system – without necessitating commensurate economic reforms.
In the ongoing trade talks with the US, India has sought to temper divergences by addressing the US-India trade deficit ($25.2 billion in 2018) – even though it is less than a mere tenth of the US-China trade deficit ($378.6 billion in 2018). On some long-standing divergences like India’s price caps on US pharmaceutical imports, however, New Delhi has underscored its position as preventing exorbitant pricing from hitting the Indian consumer – which mostly constitutes of a middle-income base as per standards of a developing economy. As these caps lower the price of imported US coronary stents and knee implants “by 85% and 65% respectively”, Washington has insisted on a trade margin at the first point of sale, not at landed cost.
The current US aversion to accepting India’s line of argument stemming from limitations posed by its developing economy status stems from its trade experience with China. Led by American corporate desire to tap into China’s vast market potential ripe with a rising consumer base, the Bush administration spurred China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In exchange, China had agreed to gradually open its markets, cease state-led management of its economy as it developed. That promise stood in-line with American interests of penetrating China’s market, and assuming that “economic liberalization would put Beijing on a gradual path toward true free enterprise” – and possibly even toward increased democratic reform. Instead, a Chinese sleight of hand encompassed doubling down on its control over state-owned enterprises, currency manipulation, and forced technological transfers from foreign investors. Overtime, this essentially gave China’s indigenous producers and innovators “a leg up in global markets that went beyond the normal rough and tumble of global capitalism”, and led to the eastward shift of the world’s manufacturing base.
Moreover, the US misstep of largely focusing on the market potential of China has, overtime also fed its challenge to American primacy. For instance, in addition to the micro-level effect of gutting America’s manufacturing base, Chinese GDP today is the second-largest economy of the world, nearly 60 percent of US GDP. China’s economic rise has also translated into a massive security maximisation programme to now have its defence spending second only to the US itself. Finally, China has emerged as one of the largest holders of American debt worth over $1 trillion.
Hence, in the case of trade negotiations with India, the US has under-prioritised its need to penetrate the 1.3 billion people-strong Indian market. Instead, the Trump administration has sought to weaken India’s justification for barriers owing to its developing economy status and by extension coax significant economic reforms.
For instance, on India’s export subsidies to indigenous producers of steel, pharmaceuticals, information technology equipment, textiles, etc., the Trump administration last year sought WTO intervention. Whereas, India has long claimed that it stands “exempted from prohibition on export subsidies under the special and differential treatment provisions” accorded to developing economies under the WTO’s Agreement on Subsidies & Countervailing Measures (SCM).
Earlier this month, the WTO dispute settlement panel ruled against India, by noting its per capita gross national product to have crossed $1,000 per annum. In line with the American argument, the panel cited Article 3.1 of the WTO’s SCM agreement, which essentially states, “all developing countries with gross per capita of $1,000 per annum for three consecutive years are required to stop all export incentives.”
Similarly, earlier this year, the US revoked India’s designation as a ‘beneficiary developing country’ under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme. As per 2017 data, India was the largest beneficiary of the programme, with exports to the US worth $5.7 billion enjoying duty free access. The rationale behind the move was based on the Trump administration’s view of India “no longer” falling under “the statutory eligibility criteria” of being a developing economy.
Thus, American conservative nationalism – which defines itself as a response to the US having been deceived by China’s trade and economic practices, does not spare India of full compliance on free trade despite India being a developing country.
As bipartisanship on US foreign policy fractures, New Delhi risks becoming a partisan sticking point.
This week, the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and NonProliferation of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee held the second of three hearings on human rights in the region. This instalment focused on South Asia. The hearing in large-parts, however, focused on India’s preventive actions of “barring access to foreign journalists, senators and diplomats, political detentions and the communications blockade,” following the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. Beyond questioning the communications blackout that lasted for nearly 72 days in the Kashmir Valley, but which has been withdrawn on 14 October, a partisan character of the hearing was writ large.
The Democratic Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Elliot Engel (D-NY-16) construed India’s actions in Kashmir as it responding “in kind” to the Republican Trump administration taking “US foreign policy away from a focus on human rights, away from a focus on democratic principles, away from a focus on American values.” Whereas, the Ranking Member — highest-level Republican Congressman on the subcommittee, Ted Yoho (R-FL-3) sought to dampen criticism by making a case against the United States’ “high standards” on human rights — in lock-step with the Trump administration’s idea of “divorcing” US foreign policy from values.
This was symptomatic of a recent shift in American foreign policy, as it is no longer being animated by the once-insurmountable bipartisan consensus between Republicans and Democrats.
Since the heydays of the Cold War, the US Congress’ approach to American foreign relations, as the co-equal branch to the executive, has traditionally been bipartisan. In asserting that the US must stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge,” then-Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg assisted the Harry Truman administration to forge bipartisan consensus on the Capitol Hill around the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
In times of greater political polarisation, however, the once-iron clad bipartisan consensus on US foreign policy has come under strain.
In the post-Cold War era, that bipartisan fervour continued to animate the core tenets of US foreign and security policy. This ensured the promotion of liberal Wilsonian values, encouraging the sustenance of an ‘Open Door’ global economic system, underwriting the security of US allies around the world, and sustaining US military spending.
In times of greater political polarisation, however, the once-iron clad bipartisan consensus on US foreign policy has come under strain. With the possible sole exception of the final tenet — as the US Congress assigned a record USD 716 billion for defence in FY-2019, a scepticism towards the United States’ “indispensable” role in the world, has emerged on either sides of the American political spectrum.
In essence, the core of the Democratic Party has shifted further to the left. It now espouses a worldview that must function on overt moral distinction as a much needed antidote to the Trump administration’s conservative conduct of US foreign policy. Whereas, under Trump, the Republican Party has come to adhere to the interest-driven ‘America First’ worldview.
In context of this partisan divergence, India got caught in the crosshairs of the recent Congressional hearing.
On reorienting the American socio-economic fabric, the once marginal voice of independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has overpowered the moderate, centre left. This is clear that the Democratic primaries for the upcoming 2020 elections stand dominated by Sanders’ ideas of taking on American billionaires and breaking up big US tech companies — the very ideas which were deemed to be “too radical” in his 2016 primary run against Hillary Clinton. Add to the mix, fresher Congresswoman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY-14) Green New Deal which seeks a major overhaul of the American energy and socio-economic systems — estimated to cost anything between USD 52 trillion (over the next 10 years) and at the high end USD 93 trillion.
On foreign policy, this progressive ‘new left’ construes itself in direct opposition to the Trump administration’s values-bereft ‘America First’ pursuit of US interests. In then claiming absolute moral distinction against Trump’s policies, this progressive left construes overtly binary frameworks. Moreover, at times, even bigotry has crept into these simplistic “oppressed versus the oppressor” frameworks.
In then claiming absolute moral distinction against Trump’s policies, this progressive left construes overtly binary frameworks.
This was apparent when fresher Congresswoman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN-5) criticised the Trump administration’s pro-Israel policies as being influenced by the financial clout of the pro-Israel lobby. In deriding Trump’s foreign policy, the criticism missed the Democrat Party’s own support for American policies favourable to Israel in the past. For instance, the last Democratic administration of President Barack Obama approved USD 38 billion in military assistance to Israel over the next decade — the “largest such aid package in U.S. history”. Moreover, to many, Omar’s criticism came across “as playing into well-worn anti-Semitic tropes.” Thus, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives was quick to follow Omar’s comments with a resolution on “condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry”.
Similarly, at the Subcommittee hearing, Rep. Omar underplayed realities in criticising Ms. Aarti Tikoo Singh’s (Senior Assistant Editor, The Times of India) witness testimony. Ms. Singh’s testimony was one of the few instances during the hearing, wherein the untoward role of cross-border militants in Kashmir was discussed. Omar mocked, “In your version of the story, the only problems in Kashmir are caused by what you call “militants”. The only people protesting to break away from India are all nefariously backed by Pakistan”.
In contrast, the witness testimony earlier that morning by Alice G. Wells (Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs) recognised the nuance of the considerable involvement of cross-border militants. Wells noted, “Pakistan’s harbouring of terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed, which seek to foment violence across the Line of Control, is destabilising, and Pakistani authorities remain accountable for their actions. We believe the foundation of any successful dialogue between India and Pakistan is based on Pakistan taking sustained and irreversible steps against militants and terrorists in its territory.”
President Donald Trump — once deemed as a political outsider, has now taken full control over America’s Grand Old Party (GOP). Since the Democrats have drummed up an impeachment inquiry, Trump has sought to underscore his control over Republican voters. There’s a clear political rationale behind Trump tweeting his approval ratings amongst Republicans every now and then. The message is directed at Republicans — and especially those in the Republican-controlled US Senate where the impeachment process would culminate in a vote to convict Trump and remove him from office. The message is clear: “stay in line and toe the line.”
Since the Democrats are bringing into attention Trump’s foreign policy conduct as a major component of their impeachment hearings, the Republicans’ adherence to the ‘America First’ outlook is increasingly concretising.
For those like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) who have out-rightly criticised Trump’s appeal to foreign countries to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, the president has questioned Romney’s performance and even called for impeaching him instead. The same has served as “a signal to other GOP lawmakers that Trump is willing to direct his ire at them if they step out of line and offer a hint of support to Democrats’ impeachment efforts against him.”
This message seems to have been received loud and clear. Since the Democrats are bringing into attention Trump’s foreign policy conduct as a major component of their impeachment hearings, the Republicans’ adherence to the ‘America First’ outlook is increasingly concretising. In some cases, they have also been engaging in post hoc resolution of Trump’s controversial actions. A case in-point being Trump’s recent decision to cede US involvement in Syria at considerable cost to the Kurds — the United States’ operational allies in the Western coalition’s fight against the Islamic State. After initial signs of breaking with Trump, Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have now come around to “coordinating with Trump’s top officials to try to rein in Turkey with sanctions and protect the Kurds, and while they’re still dissatisfied with the situation, they’ve shifted gears away from confrontation with the president.”
Similarly, at the recent Congressional hearing, Ted Yoho (R-FL-3) made a case for not taking the focus away from China’s rising influence in the region, and the centrality of the continued progress of South Asia and India specifically, in the Indo-Pacific calculus. But on reining in Pakistan for its support for cross-border militancy, in a rather Trumpian fashion, he made a case against the US leading the way. He said, “… we (the US) cannot do it alone anymore. We have to have multinational consortiums where we all say this is where we stand. And if you want to trade with us, you need to come this way. And if not, then go to China. Go to them. Let them control your people and you will regret it and your people will regret it.”
Thus, in summation, amidst the divergent partisan insistence of Republicans and Democrats on interests and values respectively, support for India became the sticking point at the recent Congressional hearing on Kashmir.
Trump’s announcement of the first-ever tri-service US-India military exercise demonstrates his will to insulate US-India defence ties from bilateral turbulences
At the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ rally in Houston, the promising trajectory of US-India witnessed yet another historic episode. Amidst a thumping crowd of over 50,000 members of the Indian American community, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump put on a political spectacle like no other — animated by their political imperatives. An election-focused Trump hitched his political arithmetic on the Indian diaspora to the political heft of the popular Indian prime minister. Meanwhile, Modi amidst an economic slow-down back home, harnessed this moment to herald his global statesman credentials. Beyond the event’s relevance for political optics however, the centrality of US-India defence ties was writ large.
In-line with his administration’s “Buy American” plan — of lifting the “self-imposed policy restrictions that limit potential opportunities for business” of arms exports, Trump hailed US arms sales to India to have peaked at USD 18 billion over the past decade. Further, the real-estate mogul turned Commander-in-Chief even slipped in a gloat: “We [the US] make the greatest defence mechanisms and equipment anywhere in the world, and India knows that well.” Trump also announced that come November, the United States and India will “demonstrate a dramatic progress of our defence relationship” by holding the “first-ever tri-service military exercise” called “Tiger Triumph”.
At a time when US-India trade tensions have riddled the bilateral dynamic, this announcement — by an American president known to link defence matters to inconsistencies on the trade front with partner nations, signifies the insulation of US-India defence ties from bilateral turbulences.
According to reports, during this ongoing visit, Modi and Trump may ink an “early harvest” trade deal — which could also see the reinstatement of Generalized System of Preference (GSP) benefits to India. Earlier this year, amidst mounting American impatience with the continually stalled trade talks between India and the US, the Trump administration had revoked India’s status under the GSP regime. Since then, trade tensions have gripped the bilateral dynamic with India even imposing duty on some US goods as a retaliatory response to the US’ Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminium.
Some commentators expected a mega announcement on this reported “partial” trade deal at the ‘Howdy, Modi!’. However, neither Trump nor Modi addressed trade differences specifically in Houston. It is thus expected that any developments on this front must be set to occur on the side-lines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Although any such deal would be a welcome thaw, it is largely set to be one of incremental gains. This would possibly be with regards to some low-hanging fruits such as, reducing Indian duty on imported high-end mobile phones (such as Apple iPhones) and American motorcycles (such as Harley Davidson motorcycles), and raising Indian energy imports from the US to further address the bilateral trade deficit. Whereas, major bones of contention – like the Indian insistence on price caps on “coronary stents and knee implants resulting in the lowering of prices by 85% and 65% respectively”, are likely to remain.
In this context of the expected continuation of US-India divergences on trade, the announcement of the much-anticipated tri-service exercise conveys the Trump administration’s security policy towards India to be informed by independent considerations — beyond mere commercial potentialities for the US on India being one of the world’s largest arms importers. A testament of the same has been the Trump administration’s continuation of US policy on pursuing force interoperability between US and India.
With the absence of a treaty alliance between India and the US, “part of the problem is that Washington has no template for a close defence relationship outside of the obligations inherent in a formal alliance.” Thus, the broader US-India dynamic and specifically the on-ground component of force interoperability, requires an equally unique approach – often feasible only when considerable political will is expended by either partners.
With the US’ emphasis on a “free and open” Indo-Pacific – wherein the US and India are envisaged as “the two bookends of stability”, the American political will on enhancing US-India defence ties cannot be understated. On the Indian side, the Modi government has recalibrated the erstwhile Indian notion of ‘strategic autonomy’ to ‘strategic alignment’ – “as an objective that is attainable through strengthened partnerships instead of avoiding partnerships”.
An example of that convergence of political will between India and the US, was apparent in the final days of the Obama administration and the early years of the Modi government. In 2016, the US and India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The same put in place “basic terms, conditions, and procedures for reciprocal provision of logistic support, supplies, and services between the armed forces of India and the United States.” Thereafter, the Trump administration has built on its predecessor administration’s focus on enhancing force interoperability with New Delhi. Meanwhile, the Modi government has reciprocated as before. For instance, one year into the Trump presidency, the US and India signed the second US-India defence interoperability pact — the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). The same facilitates “access to advanced defence systems and enable India to optimally utilize its existing US-origin platforms.”
Under a year since then, American and Indian officials are now reportedly working towards ironing out differences on the final US-India defence interoperability agreement — the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), for joint access to geospatial maps.
The notable tempo of these developments is spurring the gradual institutionalisation of US-India defence ties. That is, platform synchronisation via these formal agreements –– that mostly pertain to technicalities like geospatial mapping and communications, supplementing the operational synchronisation at play during US-India military exercises.
Just last week, the US and India conducted the 15th edition of the two-week long ‘Yudh Abhyas’ — one of the longest running joint army endeavours between the US and India. The same encompassed the American and Indian armies to rehearse multiple scenarios “with a view to understand each other’s organisational structure and battle procedures which would result in a higher degree of ‘jointmanship’ that would further facilitate interoperability between the armed forces of the two nations to meet any unforeseen contingency across the globe.” Interestingly, it stands as one of many events on operational synchronisation between India and the US. Notably, New Delhi already conducts “more joint military drills, tabletop exercises, and defence dialogues with the US than with any other country, which include more than 50 ‘cooperative events across all Services’ annually“.
US-India defence ties thrive under two broad domains –– defence trade and force interoperability. Beyond the Trump administration’s commercial motivations behind the former, impetus to US arms exports to India is aimed at increased capacity-building –– towards India eventually assuming the role of a goods provider in the region. Whereas the latter, is posed as a confidence-building measure — aimed at India’s gradual acclimatization to the Indo-Pacific construct which purports the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific regions to have interconnected destinies.
This aim of ‘socialising’ India into the Indo-Pacific calculus is apparent even in the nomenclature adopted in US-India military exercises. Consider the exercise between Indian and American Air Forces held in late December 2018. Last conducted in 2009, the 12-day joint exercise was revived and hosted at two Indian air bases — Air Force Station Kalaikunda in Midnapore and Air Force Station Arjan Singh at Panagarh, both “located in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, not too far from the Sino-Indian border where Indian and Chinese forces were locked in a confrontation in 2017.” Interestingly, this exercise was termed ‘Cope India 2019’.
Similarly, the raison d’être –– as to which country is being set for triumph, with the announced tri-service ‘Tiger Triumph’ exercise is clear. Hint: There are no tigers in Yellowstone National Park.
Thus, as US-India trade talks are expected to remain hijacked by long-standing divergences, the continued emphasis on US-India defence ties can be attributed to reasons beyond Trump’s commercial motivations on tapping India’s burgeoning arms market. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s impetus on formalising force interoperability pacts, with it now reaching the crescendo of the announced tri-service ‘Tiger Triumph’ exercise, signifies the insulation of US-India defence ties from bilateral turbulences.
As Trump gears up for re-election, his instruction to the Office of the US Trade Representative to draft text for a partial trade deal with India reflects the political motivation to court Indian American voters.
Early this month, the Trump administration reportedly instructed the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) to draft text for a partial trade deal with India. In the hope to announce the same at the United Nations General Assembly later this month, Trump’s direction to the USTR on a partial trade deal follow his comments at the G20 summit earlier this June. Ahead of the opening of the G20 summit in Osaka, Trump announced, “I think we’re going to have some very big things to announce. Very big trade deal. We’re doing some very big things with India in terms of trade, in terms of manufacturing.” Thereafter, at the G7 summit in Biarritz last month, Modi and Trump discussed trade frictions between the US and India. Sitting alongside the American president, Modi even remarked, India has ‘welcomed US suggestions’ on ‘many’ trade issues that persist between the US and India.
This chain of events — reflecting continued American proclivity, possibly culminating into a partial trade deal — could bear the much needed easing of recent trade tensions between Washington and New Delhi.
In recent months, the narrative on the US-India dynamic has been raided by tensions on the trade front. Under Trump, the US has sought “fair and reciprocal” trade relations with other nations. With India registering a trade surplus vis-à-vis the US, the Trump administration also turned its crosshairs on New Delhi. As the trade talks progressed, a fundamental divergence between the Indian and American trade negotiators began to emerge.
The Indian side approached the negotiations largely from the standpoint of addressing the Trumpian aberration of the US seeking a reduction in trade deficit with its partner nations. Thus, India sought to increase its import of defence platforms and energy from the US. As a result, US exports to India registered a 28 percent increase last year, effectively bringing down the goods trade deficit from $22.9 billion in 2017 to $21.2 billion in 2018. The same, however, proved to be of little efficacy in dampening the Trump administration’s ire. Instead, Trump continued his oft-repeated tirades about India having “had a field day putting tariffs on American products.” Over time, the same has been understood to be symptomatic of the American negotiators’ approach to the ongoing US-India trade talks.
The Indian side approached the negotiations largely from the standpoint of addressing the Trumpian aberration of the US seeking a reduction in trade deficit with its partner nations.
Over the past two decades, India’s strategic potentialities animated Washington’s policy towards New Delhi. Longstanding trade issues however — with regards to Indian insistence on price caps for US pharmaceutical products and US dairy products facing roadblocks to the Indian market on grounds of religious considerations of not accepting the use of blood meal — took a back seat. With Trump’s heightened attention to US trade relations, however, USTR negotiators have sought the resolution to those longstanding issues; resolutions that go beyond merely seeking the reduction of US trade deficits.
This divergence in approach prolonged the trade talks, much to the frustration of the Trump administration looking to recalibrate American trade relations under its ‘America First’ outlook. The mounting impatience even triggered the Trump administration to revoke India’s status under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) regime. India responded by levying duty on some US goods as a response to the US’ Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminium.
The motivations for President Trump to push the USTR to dampen its negotiating approach at this time, are largely political.
Against this backdrop, an “early harvest” trade deal, which reportedly may also see the reinstatement of GSP benefits to India, would certainly be a welcome thaw. However, the motivations for President Trump to push the USTR to dampen its negotiating approach at this time, are largely political. A testament to the same is Trump’s decision to join Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ‘Howdy, Modi’ Rally in Texas on 22 September.
Last year’s midterm election which flipped control of the US House of Representatives to the Democrats, presented an arithmetic challenge for the Trump re-election campaign for 2020. The 2018 midterms proved to be historic in terms of seeing a record number of women being elected to the House. In doing so, analyses suggested the white women vote played a seminal role. Traditionally, white women are known to “vote their party, not their gender.” Hence, in 2016, Trump rode on nearly 53 percent of the vote cast by white women. However, in the midterms, white college-educated women specifically “swung heavily left in 2018, with 59 percent voting for Democratic House candidates, compared with just 49 percent in 2016.” On the road to 2020, Democrats are bullish on capitalising on this shift, to weaken Trump’s re-election arithmetic. Further compounding this challenge, is Trump’s hold on the swing states.
In 2016, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate — since President George H.W. Bush in 1988 — to win the swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania. The 2018 midterm results suggest, those two crucial Rust Belt states may switch back to the Democrats in 2020, as the Trump 2016 victory margin was slim. However, given the fact that in 2016, Trump won with 306 electoral votes, he may need to win just one of the three Rust Belt swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but hold on to the rest of the red electoral map. So considering Trump loses both — Pennsylvania and Michigan — as per predictions, he then has a “ZERO margin for error” to win Wisconsin and emerging battleground states which the Democrats are attempting to flip from red to blue.
One such ‘new’ battleground state is Texas. The Lone Star State played a significant role in handing Trump the White House by “accounting for 38 electoral votes and 7% of the electoral college in 2016.” Although Texas has been a red state, Democrats are depending on the “significant demographic and cultural shifts – a growing Hispanic population and an influx of newcomers to the cities” to loosen Republicans’ grip and spur a “Texodus”, i.e., the political shift of Texas from red to blue.
The 2018 midterm results suggest, those two crucial Rust Belt states may switch back to the Democrats in 2020, as the Trump 2016 victory margin was slim. However, given the fact that in 2016, Trump won with 306 electoral votes, he may need to win just one of the three Rust Belt swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but hold on to the rest of the red electoral map.
Building on Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Texas senate race loss to incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (by a thin margin of 200,000 votes), Democrats are looking to mobilise the largely liberal-oriented young, college-educated migrants in the Texan cities of Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. Hence, this past month, the Democratic National Committee also chose to organise the third Democratic Primary Debate in Houston, Texas.
Thus, in anticipating an across-the-board decline in white women votes, and risk of new battleground states like Texas flipping blue, Trump seems to be on the lookout for supplementary voter bases to offset those losses. In this context, considering that the Texan towns of Dallas and Houston are home to over 270,000 Indian Americans, Trump’s recent decision to join the ‘Howdy Modi!’ rally on 22 September in Houston stands as an election arithmetic no-brainer.
Traditionally, Indian Americans — about 65 percent according to a 2014 Pew study, have been Democrats or leaned toward the Democrats. However, with the rise of nationalist fervour in India and America, the Indian American base in the US is faced with a realignment of sorts. It is to marry their political affiliations in America to their emotional alignment with the nationalist Modi dispensation in India. For a while now, the community has been “in a paradoxical situation, as they were largely jubilant about Hindutva in India while being at the receiving end of nationalism in their adopted land.”
Trump seems to have gauged this sense of a flummoxed Indian American community being up for grabs. In order to pull that community away from the Democrats, Trump seems to be employing a playbook similar to his courting of Jewish Americans.
Trump seems to have gauged this sense of a flummoxed Indian American community being up for grabs.
In recent months, Israel has emerged as a faultline in the hyper-polarised American political spectrum. Traditionally, both Republicans and Democrats have been equally vocal about their support for Israel and by extension, the Jewish diaspora in the US. Recently, however, the ‘extreme’ left of the Democratic Party represented by Congresswomen such as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN-05) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI-13) has come under fire due to their criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinians and purporting the supposed overt influence of the Jewish lobby over American politics. Trump has attempted to playup their comments as being anti-Semitic and accused the Democratic Party of being anti-Israel. He has thus attempted to consolidate the Jewish American voter base by purporting the Republican Party as the only pro-Israel party. Similarly, Trump is attempting to mobilise the three million-strong Indian American community by underscoring his and his party’s, close proximity to Modi’s India.
In summation, Trump entering the election cycle in the US has in many ways hitched the US’ policy towards India to Modi’s political heft amongst Indian Americans abroad. In the bargain, if the USTR slightly dampens its negotiation approach to pave way for a partial trade deal, that would be a welcome de-escalation of US-India trade tensions.
Washington is seeking an active New Delhi by raising the tempo of US-India defence trade and interoperability agreements.
This September, eight Boeing AH-64E(I) Apache Guardian Helicopters are expected to be formally inducted into the Indian Air Force. Currently undergoing flight-testing at the Hindon Air Force Station on the outskirts of New Delhi, the attack helicopters — often deemed to be “tanks in the air” — were delivered ahead of schedule in two batches on 27 and 30 July. Part of the USD 1.4 billion deal inked in 2015 for 22 Apache helicopters, the delivery came at a time when certain US apprehensions over its ties with India have come to the fore.
Trade talks are proving inconclusive and there have been rounds of retaliatory tariffs. India’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems continues to invite American ultimatums ahead of its scheduled delivery in 2020. Finally, US-India ties recently took a hit when President Trump’s transactionalism on seeking Pakistani cooperation on the ongoing US-Taliban talks over post-conflict Afghanistan ended up appearing to internationalise the Kashmir issue.
Nonetheless, as the delivery of the Apaches illustrates, US-India defence ties appear to be developing unhindered. This is in large part because Pentagon is pursuing strategies that owe little or nothing to the Trump administration’s political instincts.
The Trump administration’s ‘America First’ view rests upon a commitment to the use of untrammeled economic and military hard power. There is a visible disdain for multilateralism and the White House seems to have abandoned the commitment to democratic nation-building championed by earlier administrations.
The Trump administration’s focus on China’s emergence as the principal strategic competitor to US primacy, has however, triggered a Polanyian “double movement” leading the administration and government agencies away from populist nationalism and towards some policy ideas that resemble erstwhile Republican neoconservatism.
India has acquired even greater importance in DoD thinking and it has, together with some other parts of the US federal government, pulled the White House along.
The Department of Defense (DoD) has played a noteworthy part in this. Notwithstanding the administration’s many twists and turns, the Pentagon has embraced the demand for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). It has steadfastly insisted that the region is its “priority theater”, and in its June 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report reiterated the importance of regional multilateralism by calling for “a more robust constellation of allies and partners.” Much of this goes against Trumpian instincts.
Within this context, India has acquired even greater importance in DoD thinking and it has, together with some other parts of the US federal government, pulled the White House along.
In the DoD’s calculus, India is represented together with Japan as cornerstones within FOIP. In many ways, the aim is to ‘socialise’ India into the role of a regional guardian. If India took on such a role, it would also, according to some American commentators, allow the focused deployment of crucial US naval assets to the South and East China Seas.
Thus, although Trump’s politics represent a sharp break with the past, there is policy continuity if DoD strategies are considered. On top of this, there is an awareness of the economic potentialities offered by India’s large arms market. On this, there is a “fit” between the DoD calculus on India and the Trump administration’s push for greater arms exports and spread of American technological ingenuity.
The Carter mantra, an unofficial dictum informing the US’ approach to India named after former US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, calls for the US to focus on strategic ties, and prevent differences on avenues like trade from crowding out minimal-yet-positive developments.
Under Trump, the Carter mantra has often come under strain, either over long-standing trade issues such as India’s insistence on price caps for pharmaceutical imports, or strategic incompatibilities like India’s historically-strong energy ties with Iran. However, given the Pentagon’s apparent lead of the India portfolio, the tempo of US-India defence interoperability has been unhindered.
In the final months of the Obama administration, the US and India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 – an India-specific modified version of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). The same facilitated “basic terms, conditions, and procedures for reciprocal provision of logistic support, supplies, and services between the armed forces of India and the United States.”
Given the Pentagon’s apparent lead of the India portfolio, the tempo of US-India defence interoperability has been unhindered.
Thereafter, one year into the Trump administration, in 2018, the US and India signed the second defence interoperability pact — the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). An exclusive India-specific tailored version of the Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), the same was aimed at facilitating “access to advanced defense systems and enable India to optimally utilize its existing US-origin platforms.”
Less than a year since then, reports suggest American and Indian defence officials are now working towards finalising differences over inking the final US-India defence interoperability agreement — the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), for mutual access of geospatial maps.
This impetus to defence interoperability often figures in the fact that India now conducts “more joint military drills, tabletop exercises, and defense dialogues with the US than with any other country, which include more than 50 ‘cooperative events across all Services’ annually.” These efforts seem to be aimed at India’s slow acclimatisation to the interconnected destinies of the Indian Ocean region and the Western Pacific.
A testament to the effort came early this year in May, when the Indian Navy joined the navies of the US, the Philippines, and Japan for a Group Sail in the South China Sea.
This year alone, the US has cleared or raised the prospect of exporting to India numerous platforms. Some of notable mention include, 777 Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures Self Protection Suites, SIG 716 Assault Rifles, MH-60 Romeo Seahawk Anti-Submarine Helicopters, National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II, and Sea Guardian Drones — the naval version of the Predator B armed done.
It encompassed Indian destroyer INS Kolkata and tanker INS Shakti; Japan’s Helicopter Carrier JMSDF Izumo & Guided Missile Destroyer JMSDF Murasame; the Philippines’ Frigate BRP Andres Bonifacio; and the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer USS Williams P. Lawrence. Reportedly, the ships also conducted “formation exercises, communication drills, passenger transfers and held a leadership exchange aboard JS Izumo.”
Another facet of the US’ aim to ‘socialise’ India into the Indo-Pacific calculus is through increased capacity building — towards India assuming the role of a goods provider in the region. The rising tempo of US-India defence trade is at the core of this.
This year alone, the US has cleared or raised the prospect of exporting to India numerous platforms. Some of notable mention include, 777 Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures Self Protection Suites, SIG 716 Assault Rifles, MH-60 Romeo Seahawk Anti-Submarine Helicopters, National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II, and Sea Guardian Drones — the naval version of the Predator B armed done. Gradually, as US-India defence trade has peaked at $18 billion, India has emerged to now operate the second-largest C-17 Globemaster and P-8 Poseidon fleets in the world.
This rising capability, especially in the reconnaissance realm, has already set in motion a goods provider role for India. For instance, in late December 2018, India opened the Information Fusion Centre — Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR). According to its inaugural press-release, the IFC-IOR “aims to engage with partner nations and multinational maritime constructs to develop comprehensive maritime domain awareness and share information on vessels of interest.” Noting the critical importance of the Indian Ocean Region — with over 75 percent of the world’s maritime trade and 50 percent of global oil consumption traversing through it, then-Raksha Mantri Nirmala Sitharaman deemed the IFC-IOR to be “more for partners, equals to work towards keeping the global commons safe and democratically available for all of us.” Reportedly, nearly two dozen countries are slated to post International Liaison Officers (ILO) at the IFC-IOR.
Thus, although the US-India dynamic faces many uncertainties and strains, the ‘socialisation’ of India within the Indo-Pacific calculus is advancing apace through rising defence trade and interoperability agreements.
Trump’s comments on Kashmir during Imran Khan’s visit may reflect the US undoing its India-Pakistan dehyphenation policy.
Recently, during his meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office, US President Donald Trump claimed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the Kashmir dispute with him on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Moreover, Trump said that Modi even asked him if he’d like to be a “mediator or arbitrator” on the matter.
This news raised a storm as it stood in contradiction to India’s longstanding position that “all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally.” Furthermore, Trump’s comments also raised questions over the long-term trajectory of US-India ties, by signalling the possible return of an erstwhile American approach of interlinking destinies in South Asia.
In 2009, President Barack Obama’s administration sought to conduct a comprehensive review of the US policy towards Afghanistan. Motivated by Obama’s campaign promise of ending America’s wars, the administration tapped Richard Holbrooke to lead a new approach.
Holbrooke’s diplomatic prowess was well established, with his successful role as the peace broker between warring factions in Bosnia, culminating with the Dayton Peace Accords. Tapped as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Holbrooke sought to break away from the US’ overt focus on a military solution. On that point, there wasn’t a sliver of daylight between Holbrooke and Obama.
Nearly a decade later, with Pakistan finding itself in the US’ crosshairs over lax counterterrorism support, Imran Khan seems to be strategically employing the Holbrooke thought.
However, on the fundamental conception of the US’ approach to the region, divergences emerged. Holbrooke posited an integrative approach to the involvement of US in South Asia. More importantly, Holbrooke viewed Pakistan as the “center stage,” whilst Afghanistan was a “sideshow.” Reportedly, Holbrooke believed that Afghan stability was linked to stability in Pakistan. And that’s where “he believed that a crucial step to reducing radicalism in Pakistan was to ease the Kashmir dispute with India, and he favored more pressure on India to achieve that.”
In practice however, Obama enforced the above only in part. Boxed-in by the US military leadership to approve a troop surge, the administration sought the hyphenation of Afghanistan and Pakistan — in recognition of the Holbrooke thought and operational considerations. However, with respect to India, the Obama administration refused to further interlink the US approach to Afghanistan in view of the long term strategic potentialities with India. In many ways then, Obama sought to continue his predecessor’s policy of a compartmentalised US approach with the dehyphenation of India and Pakistan. Thus, as author George Packer recently summarised, the Holbrooke-Obama relationship “began with differences in temperament, widened with generation, and ended in outlook.”
Today nearly a decade later, with Pakistan finding itself in the US’ crosshairs over lax counterterrorism support, Imran Khan seems to be strategically employing the Holbrooke thought.
Khan’s visit to the United States came against the backdrop of Trump spurring a nosedive in US-Pakistan relations. Over the past two years, Pakistan has faced the ire of Trump’s transactional worldview. Trump has claimed Pakistan to have been “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” and concurrently enforced economic costs by suspending aid. Moreover, the US under Trump even supported Pakistan’s demotion to the greylist of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for “outstanding counterterrorism deficiencies.”
Seeing Pakistan’s stock with America plummet and an impending financial crisis loom large, Imran Khan has sought to rake up Afghanistan — which many believe to be Pakistan’s “only real trump card.” Moreover, as US talks with the Taliban approach a critical juncture and Trump becomes increasingly weary of the continued US presence in Afghanistan against his campaign promises, Trump has expressed faith in Pakistan to “help us out to extricate ourselves.”
The US is now approaching talks with Pakistan from the standpoint of at least securing Pakistani support towards “restraining Taliban attacks on US forces.”
Thus, the US is now approaching talks with Pakistan from the standpoint of at least securing Pakistani support towards “restraining Taliban attacks on US forces.” Whereas, Pakistan — and its security apparatus specifically, has long construed “greater influence in Afghanistan, earned by decades of support for armed militants, as a way to gain strategic depth in their rivalry with the much larger India.”
Therefore, at this juncture, Imran Khan seems to have seen the alignment between Pakistan’s interest of dampening the American policy of dehyphenating Pakistan and India, and the reemergence of a sense of American dependency on Pakistan towards the goal of a post-conflict Afghanistan. With one eye on addressing the latter to gain Pakistani cooperation, Trump seems to have blundered into the Kashmir dispute with his comments, and effectively handed Khan the former.
However, in the past, India has set a strong precedent on stopping the Holbrooke thought in its tracks, and rule out any third party involvement in Kashmir.
Back in 2009, even as the incoming Obama administration merely mulled tapping Richard Holbrooke at the helm of a special office on reviewing US’ policy towards Afghanistan, the Manmohan Singh government preemptively sought the exclusion of Kashmir — and India by that extension, from Holbrooke’s purview.
Reportedly, in a meeting with US Ambassador David Mulford, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the supposed move to include India under Holbrooke’s portfolio “smacks of interference and would be unacceptable.” Further, according to an American diplomatic cable, India’s Foreign Secretary at the time, Shivshankar Menon reportedly conveyed that move to potentially be “deeply unpopular and could negatively affect the gains in our (US-India) bilateral relationship made over the past eight years.”
Thereafter, in dehyphenating India-Pakistan towards long-term strategic potentialities with India, successive US administrations gradually moved to the position of encouraging dialogue between India and Pakistan. However, they particularly stopped short of taking sides by underscoring that the “pace, scope, and character” of any negotiation should be determined solely by the two parties.
Trump’s recent comments risk not only undoing US’ painstaking efforts to temper Indian suspicions of America doing Pakistan’s bidding on Kashmir, but also the progress made on the budding US-India dynamic.
Overtime, this cultivated trust between India and the United States led to the two countries presently sharing a thriving trade relationship — with the US becoming India’s largest trade partner, and an evolving strategic partnership — with the US now assuming the spot of India’s second largest arms supplier. Thus, Trump’s recent comments risk not only undoing US’ painstaking efforts to temper Indian suspicions of America doing Pakistan’s bidding on Kashmir, but also the progress made on the budding US-India dynamic.
It is however crucial to note, the relevance of above mentioned trust at the core of the future of US-India ties is not lost on the entire US foreign and security policy community. For instance, the co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans followed Trump’s remarks with an immediate rebuke of their Commander-In-Chief. In a joint-statement conveying bipartisan consensus on the matter, Rep. George Holding (R-NC-02) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA-30) wrote: “Consistent with decades of US policy, we believe the dispute over Kashmir must be resolved bilaterally by India and Pakistan. The Republic of India is one of America’s closest and most important allies, and we look forward to working with Prime Minister Modi and Indian officials to combat terrorism and extremism throughout the region.”
In addition to commending this support from Capitol Hill, Modi must take a page from his predecessor’s approach from a decade ago, to lodge a vociferous rebuke. Today, as the US-India dynamic is attaining greater institutionalisation with consultative platforms like the US-India 2+2 dialogue and higher frequency of interaction between the respective nation’s National Security Advisors, the Modi government must reestablish at multiple levels, the redline against internationalising the Kashmir issue.
Addition of data localisation to the basket of persisting trade issues warrants greater compartmentalisation and consultative approaches to US-India ties.
The Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) finally clarified its position eight months after it issued the controversial April 2018 circular mandating the storage of all payment data of Indians in the country and allowing the central bank “unfettered access”. The circular particularly aimed at US-based companies such as Mastercard, Visa, American Express, PayPal, Facebook and Google, as they scrambled to comply. The clarification was a welcome relief for companies seeking guidance on how to comply, what kind of data needs to be stored in India, and if the payment companies needed to move their processing infrastructure. Note, the RBI has yet to issue a formal directive with these clarifications.
Meanwhile, media reports have indicated that Facebook-owned WhatsApp would obey the RBI norm as it looks to kick off its payments business. This runs counter to what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had told investors in April:
“You should expect that we won’t store sensitive data in countries where it might be improperly accessed because of weak rule of law or governments that can forcibly get access to your data.”
India is still debating passing a Personal Data Protection legislation, and as such, India doesn’t have any legal safeguards protecting users’ data.
This has revealed yet another faultline in the persisting trade issues between the US and India.
India is still debating passing a Personal Data Protection legislation, and as such, India doesn’t have any legal safeguards protecting users’ data.
New Delhi has started to assert its right over its citizens’ data as India’s footprint on the Internet increases. Moreover, without clear guidance from Personal Data Protection legislation, there has been a glut of policy prescriptions from sector regulators. The Centre for Internet and Society published a paper in which it chronicles 10 policy measures for both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ data localisation across health, telecommunications, e-commerce, insurance and others. These measures range from storing copies of specific data, local content production requirements, or imposing conditions on cross-border data transfers that act as a localisation mandate.
This oversupply of policy prescriptions is leading to blurring of jurisdictions. Often, the policy measures given have many a slip between the cup and the lip. For example, one of the reasons for insisting on localisation is security, but even if companies localise data, there is no framework to access this data by the local security apparatus.
India’s policy thinking on the matter often begins with the idea: ‘data is the new oil.’ The thinking is that data generated by Indians should be viewed as a natural resource that must be protected by the state through localisation. This notion is problematic. Data, unlike oil, which is found in limited quantities, has different properties. Newer ideas of regulation must be thought of and that’s where Indian policy makers have not been accommodative.
Oversupply of policy prescriptions is leading to blurring of jurisdictions. Often, the policy measures given have many a slip between the cup and the lip.
A gripe that US-based companies mention is that there is a distinctive domestic tilt and that company representatives have turned away from consultations as they do not serve the “national interests.” This was best exemplified in October 2018 when a closed-door discussion between the RBI and the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF representing the interests of US companies) broke down and the latter accused the RBI of having a bias. During the discussions, the RBI placed a lot of emphasis on the inputs from iSPIRT (Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable), an Indian think tank which has been advocating for data protectionism.
The aforementioned sentiment has been carried over to international summits. At the recently concluded G20 summit, India boycotted the Osaka Track on the digital economy as it felt that it would undermine multilateral consensus-based decisions on trade and deny policy space for digital industrialisation. The Osaka Track pushed hard for the creation of laws which would allow data flows between countries and the removal of data localisation.
India’s foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, mentioned that data is a new form of wealth and wanted latitude on domestic rule-making on data. And in the age of digital commerce, this may signify a broader trend of a developed-developing nations’ impasse. The tussle has now moved beyond the security angle with the United States enacting the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data (CLOUD) Act for security agencies to procure data stored in servers regardless of whether in the US or foreign soil. With monetisation now at the core of the dispute, the discussed divergences on data localisation tie into the US’ broader, long-standing issues pertaining to US-India bilateral trade.
The 2019 National Trade Estimate (NTE) by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) focuses on reducing “barriers to digital trade.” Taking a tone of American stewardship on open liberal market economics, it notes:
“When governments impose unnecessary barriers to cross-border data flows or discriminate against foreign digital services, local firms are often hurt the most, as they cannot take advantage of cross-border digital services that facilitate global competitiveness.”
At a time when the Trump administration has sought to re-calibrate America’s trade relationships via the adoption of punitive sanctions that run counter to the fundamentals of the liberal world order, the aforementioned American concern for the competitiveness of foreign nation’s local firms may seem like sardonic preaching.
President Trump’s ‘America First’ worldview in many ways upended conventional tenets of US foreign policy. But on some fronts, it has presented opportunities for marginal establishment agendas. For instance, Trump’s heightened focus on ties with Israel and the US’ Sunni allies in the Middle East, complements the realisation of neoconservatives’ penchant for regime change in Iran.
At a time when the Trump administration has sought to re-calibrate America’s trade relationships via the adoption of punitive sanctions that run counter to the fundamentals of the liberal world order, the aforementioned American concern for the competitiveness of foreign nation’s local firms may seem like sardonic preaching.
On Trump’s fixation with recalibrating US trade relationships on “fair and reciprocal” footing, the American trade establishment successfully addressed US’ belated concerns over absence of digital trade rules in case of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico. Similarly, the emerging divergences over data localisation with India are subsumed under the ongoing — albeit repeatedly stalled, US-India trade negotiations.
Hence, the NTE underscores India’s decision with regards to payment service suppliers to be part of trade barriers hampering digital commerce and US-India trade at-large.
India has approached trade talks from the standpoint of addressing the Trumpian aberration of the US pushing for reduction of its trade deficits with other countries. Whereas, USTR negotiators have approached negotiations with India with regards to, what they view as longstanding issues in bilateral trade, such as market access for dairy products and price caps on medical equipment.
In the past, those outstanding issues were downplayed in view of the promising long-term trajectory of US-India strategic ties. The same has come to be known as the understated dictum of the Carter mantra — named after former US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and architect of the US-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative. The approach encompassed the US to focus on harnessing strategic ties and not let differences on other fronts like trade to crowd out minimal-yet-positive developments.
In recent times, that dictum has come under strain as trade tensions have resurfaced. Cases in-point being, the Trump administration’s recent revocation of India’s designation as a “beneficiary developing country” under its Generalised System of Preferences programme, and India’s imposition of retaliatory tariffs on 28 US products.
The US-India dynamic is graduating from the erstwhile top-heavy approach based on the personal relations developed between head of states, to an institutionalised format of consultative platforms on varied bureaucratic, legislative, military, and even public-private partnership levels.
Furthermore, ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to New Delhi last month, the Trump administration reportedly mulled capping the issuance of H1B visas to about 15 percent for any country that “does data localisation.” It bore ominous prospects for India’s $150 billion IT sector as 70 percent of the 85,000 H1B visas issued every year go to Indians. With regards to the broader trajectory of US-India ties, the report came to be seen as another blow to the Carter mantra’s prescription for compartmentalisation of issues from promising aspects of the bilateral relationship.
Both sides however, have attempted to temper tensions, and keep the Carter mantra in place with the continued focus on evolving strategic ties — with continued impetus on US-India defence trade and force interoperability agreements.
More importantly, there seems to be an overt attempt to reinstitute a sense of compartmentalisation. For instance, Secretary Pompeo, during his visit to New Delhi eased fears by denouncing reports about the US considering H1B visa caps. Whereas, India, too, has sought to institute a sense of compartmentalisation with Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal announcing that the contentious data protection issue will be kept out of the e-commerce policy draft, and will be dealt with by the IT ministry instead.
Lastly, the US-India dynamic is graduating from the erstwhile top-heavy approach based on the personal relations developed between head of states, to an institutionalised format of consultative platforms on varied bureaucratic, legislative, military, and even public-private partnership levels. Examples of which include, the US-India 2+2 consultative platform between foreign and defense portfolio chiefs, and the India-US Strategic Energy Partnership working groups between India’s Petroleum Minister and US Energy Secretary. The upcoming editions of these forums are set to be critical in addressing outstanding issues in the strategic realm, like India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 systems inviting the prospect of American CAATSA sanctions, and India’s push for a gas-based economy in light of reduced oil purchases from Iran following recent tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Similarly, on easing the hardening American and Indian stances on data localisation, in addition to compartmentalisation, a consultative approach must be explored. Towards that end, the India-US Commercial Dialogue and India-US CEO Forum could serve as appropriate starting points for a joint working group involving a diverse set of stakeholders from the public and private realm.
In New Delhi, the US Secretary of State will push for the prioritisation of long-term strategic potentialities over near-term economic upsets.
This week’s visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to New Delhi comes amidst a mix of convergences and divergences in the US-India bilateral dynamic. Even as US interests clash with India’s on issues like arms acquisition from Russia and energy imports from Iran; US and India are moving forward with strategic developments like the transfer of armed Sea Guardian drones. India’s strategic alignment with the US, signifies New Delhi’s willingness to share the onus of continuing the cultivation of strategic ties despite irritants on other fronts.
On the trade front, issues like the US’ revocation of India’s designation as a ‘beneficiary developing country’ under its Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) program bear near-term economic costs. In 2017, India was its largest beneficiary with exports to the US worth $5.7 billion, also enjoying duty free access. On the US’ revocation, India retaliated by raising tariffs on 28 US products.
In New Delhi however, Secretary Pompeo will likely temper tensions on such issues by underplaying them as ongoing discussions, and elevate conversations on strategic potentialities.
The US’ revocation of India’s GSP benefits stems from its attempt to coax India to rethink its approach to ongoing trade negotiations — now in its second year much to the US trade negotiators’ frustration, on some of the long-standing fundamental issues in US-India trade. Earlier this month, Secretary Pompeo announced that on the GSP decision, the US is “open to dialogue” and most importantly “honest about what it is we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to take down barriers – financial barriers, non-tariff barriers – and create open markets.”
However, trade talks have been stalled, as India has approached the same as a matter of Trumpian aberration on fixating over ‘US’ trade deficits.
Whereas, US negotiators have viewed them from a standpoint of what they view as long-standing issues in bilateral trade, such as market access for dairy products and price caps on medical equipment. During his visit, although Secretary Pompeo would likely continue to stress on the fundamental divergence in either parties, approach to trade negotiations and avenues for US-India strategic ties will assume centre-stage given their monetary volume and long-term significance.
In recent years, strategic ties have assumed the fore of the evolving US-India dynamic. The Trump administration’s follow-through on the US Congress’ prescription to accord India with the status of ‘Major Defence Partner’ and Strategic Trade Authorisation-I, has opened greater avenues for US -India strategic cooperation.
Ahead of Pompeo’s visit, the US and India have already lined up defence deals worth around $10 billion. The same would encompass, India’s acquisition of 10 Poseidon-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft, 30 armed Sea Guardian drones, 24 naval multi-role MH-60 Romeo helicopters, and the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II. Lastly, the US and India are reportedly also in talks to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation –– last of the three force inter-operability agreements.
The push by Secretary Pompeo for New Delhi to underline such strategic potentialities would also pertain to setting the stage for President Trump’s upcoming meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 summit. This year, for Trump, the G20 summit is also going to be particularly crucial for his domestic political standing.
This month, President Trump announced his re-election bid for the 2020 US presidential elections. On his flailing foreign policy record, Trump has accused Democrats of obstructing the ratification of successful trade renegotiations like his administration’s flagship United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Across the aisle, Democratic candidates have also referenced US-China trade tensions as a sign of Trump’s failings on the foreign policy front. With some candidates like Pete Buttigieg already outlining their worldview with the customary foreign policy speech otherwise meant to be delivered at a later stage of the primaries, the efficacy of Trump’s transactional approach to American international relations is emerging as a major election talking-point. Add to the mix: the first round of the Democratic primary debates will be held on the eve of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
Apart from all eyes being on Trump’s highly anticipated bilateral with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Trump is reportedly also set to hold seven other sit-downs with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, and Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan. These three meetings are sure to ruffle feathers back home given the US’ charged domestic polarisation over possible Russian interference in the 2020 elections, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Turkey’s exclusion from the F-35 development program. All this leaves Trump with four other bilateral meetings to score some foreign policy wins, or at least the appearance of wins through photo-ops and light-hearted moments. With Angela Merkel, Trump’s relationship has taken another turn for the worse, with his recent threat to move “as many as 2,000 US troops from Germany to Poland” over Germany’s inadequate defense spending.
Rest of the meetings are with leaders from the Indo-Pacific region — India’s Narendra Modi, Australia’s Scott Morrison, and Japan’s Shinzo Abe. In light of recent flare-ups in the Persian Gulf, questions have been raised over the US’ strategic shift to the Indo-Pacific. The meetings with fellow Quad members Modi, Morrison, and Abe would assume renewed relevance as an opportunity for Trump to reiterate US’ Indo-Pacific focus away from the turbulences of the Middle East. Moreover, in the particular case of India, the upcoming rounds of the US-India 2+2 consultative platform between foreign and defense portfolio chiefs, and the India-US Strategic Energy Partnership working groups between India’s Petroleum Minister and US Energy Secretary, would provide for better opportunities –– away from the galore of meetings between the heads of state, to iron out differences over India’s arms acquisition and energy imports policy.
Hence, in New Delhi, Secretary Pompeo will likely brush aside some of the recent contentions in bilateral ties, and elevate the conversation on upcoming avenues of strategic cooperation. As a result of which, at the Modi-Trump meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit, the uneasiness over the former will stand eclipsed by the emphatic hugs and laughs over the latter.
Washington is seeking to share onus with New Delhi on continuing the cultivation of strategic ties.
Ahead of his visit to India on 25-26 June, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a policy address on the India-US ties at the India Ideas Summit and 44th Annual Meeting of the US-India Business Council (USIBC) in Washington DC. In underscoring the criticality of the evolving dynamic between the two nations, Secretary Pompeo said, “it’s only natural that the world’s most populous democracy should partner with the world’s oldest democracy to maintain our shared vision throughout the Indo-Pacific.”
This address comes amidst a recent flurry of attention to India’s central position in the US’ strategic calculus. For instance, the recent US Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report underscores the cruciality of the United States “building new and stronger bonds with nations that share our values across the region, from India to Samoa.” Furthermore, building on the June 2017 discussions between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump, the US has now reportedly agreed to sell surveillance version of the Sea Guardian drones. If the sale goes through, India will be the first non-formal treaty partner of the US to receive the MTCR Category-1 Unmanned Aerial System.
Secretary Pompeo’s upcoming visit to India is set to be marred by US interests coming at odds with India’s Iran oil imports, Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) status, and S-400 purchase from Russia.
Despite this seminal development on India-US defense ties and commendations emanating from the highest levels of the US State Department and the US Department of Defense, Secretary Pompeo’s upcoming visit to India is set to be marred by US interests coming at odds with India’s Iran oil imports, Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) status, and S-400 purchase from Russia.
Analogous to its approach of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, the Trump administration recently doubled down on Iran’s oil exports. By not continuing sanctions waivers for India and seven other Iran oil-importing countries, the US’ attempt to coax Iran back to the negotiating table bought India’s energy security into the crosshairs.
Not only has Iran been India’s third-largest source of oil, it has also extended benefits to India such as “a 60-day credit period, free insurance, and cheaper freight.”
However, the US seems unfettered as the decision to not extend waivers stems from the Trump administration’s increased focus on its Iran policy. Some of them being, efficacy of Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach with North Korea coming into question, known Iran hawk US National Security Advisor John Bolton centralising the National Security Council’s consultative processes, and Iran not outrightly violating core tenets of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal since Trump’s withdrawal from the same. The focus on Iran has peaked to a point that the US is now reportedly weighing sanctions even against “the Iranian financial body set up as a go-between for humanitarian trade with Europe” –– poised to rake up another round of transatlantic tensions.
The US recently revoked India’s designation as a ‘beneficiary developing country’ under the GSP. India was the largest beneficiary of the program in 2017 with duty free access given to goods worth $5.7 billion going into the US. Owing to this status, over 12 percent of all Indian exports to the US in 2017 benefited under the GSP scheme.
The US’ move seems to be aimed at forcing India to rethink its approach to trade negotiations – which have dragged on for over two years much to US trade representatives’ frustration.
Many even warned that the US action could be counter -intuitive towards the Trump administration’s broader “trade war” with China. For instance, according to a report by the Coalition for GSP, as US imports from China have decreased under the Section 301 tariffs, imports of some of those products from GSP-status countries “increased the most in the first quarter of 2019”. Specifically, imports from India of Section 301 list products “increased by USD 193 million (18 percent).”
However, the US’ move seems to be aimed at forcing India to rethink its approach to trade negotiations –– which have dragged on for over two years much to US trade representatives’ frustration. The negotiations have stalled, as India has approached the trade negotiations as a matter of Trump’s fixation on trade deficits. Whereas, US negotiators have approached negotiations with India with regards to, what they view as long-standing issues in bilateral trade such as market access for dairy products and price caps on medical equipment.
Last year, despite the threat of sanctions under the US legislation Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India inked the deal to purchase five S-400 batteries worth around $5.43 billion. Eventually, contention with the US over the purchase stood dampened as the US Congress provided provisions for waiver to India, Vietnam and Indonesia under Section 231 of CAATSA.
Although, the waiver has to-date not been granted by President Trump, the provision itself overtime came to be seen as Washington according an exception to New Delhi on account of the promising trajectory of bilateral ties between the two nations. In recent months however, the issue seems to have been reignited.
At first, it seemed like the US was reigniting the S-400 issue with India merely to convey the American resolve to Turkey on its purchase of the S-400, and to avoid any exemptions for India on the matter hindering its attempts to rein-in Turkey. However, with the US now offering to India alternate systems (like National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II) and possibly even the F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, the Trump administration seems to be leveraging the prospect of CAATSA sanctions on India to further its ‘Buy American’ policy for increased US arms sales.
As US interests on those issues clash with India’s, the US continues to press on with outstanding strategic developments. For instance, the US is pushing for a “specific framework to facilitate sharing of critical military technology by American defence firms with their Indian counterparts.” The same is intended to address long-standing roadblocks such as “liability, intellectual property rights and industrial safety” in case of technology transfers and defense co-production.
As bilateral tensions centred on India’s interests on trade, defense acquisition, and energy security continue, the US seems to be pushing India to also not let irritants on those fronts hijack the rising tempo of strategic ties.
As in the past, through Republican and Democrat administrations, an understated dictum informed the US’ approach to India. In developing an exceptional template for courting a country that abhors formal alignments, the Carter mantra prescribed Washington to be “patient as the Indian system works through its responses to US templates, and be flexible.”
Named after Ashton Carter — former Secretary of Defense and architect of the US-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, the approach encompassed the US to focus on harnessing strategic ties and not let differences on other fronts like trade to crowd out minimal-yet-positive developments.
Under Trump however, the US seems to be doubling down on that approach by shifting the onus also onto India. As bilateral tensions centred on India’s interests on trade, defense acquisition, and energy security continue, the US seems to be pushing India to also not let irritants on those fronts hijack the rising tempo of strategic ties.
Therefore, India’s challenge to ascertain the now increasingly apparent thin line between its strategic alignment with the US and its quest for maintaining strategic autonomy, will cloud Secretary Pompeo’s upcoming visit.
Over the past two years, the deficit between the US and India has been decreasing. US exports to India registered a 28% increase last year.
This month, India has once again postponed the imposition of retaliatory duties on US products. This move comes against the backdrop of US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ recent derision of India’s “overly restrictive market access barriers.” Trade talks have been at a stalemate over inherent differences on access to agriculture goods, dairy products, and data localisation. Another issue raking trade tensions is the Trump administration’s intent to terminate the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) programme with India.
Another issue raking trade tensions is the Trump administration’s intent to terminate the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) programme with India.
India is the biggest beneficiary under the GSP regime, with its goods accounting for “over a quarter of the goods that got duty-free access into the US in 2017.” Further, of all Indian exports to the US in 2017, over 12 percent — worth $5.58 billion — benefitted under the GSP scheme.
With little progress on the trade imbalance between the two countries, the Trump administration’s move to initiate the withdrawal of GSP status for India was set to come into force on 3 May 2019. However, at the request of 25 American lawmakers to the US Trade Representative to not press ahead with the withdrawal, a final decision on the matter seems deferred until further notice.
Meanwhile, a window of opportunity for greater strategic cooperation seems to be emerging.
As China imposes retaliatory tariffs in response to the Trump administration’s recent declaration of raise in duties on Chinese products to 25 percent, India must convey the rising strategic relevance of its GSP status with respect to the administration’s approach to China.
Beijing and Washington find themselves in a game of chicken: over which party will — and most crucially can — hold out longer. For Beijing, the costs may accentuate, owing to its trade surplus. For Washington, the costs may trickle down to local manufacturers that source cheaply from, and export finished products to China, levying the brunt of tariffs on Americans from both ends. To dampen those costs and wean American manufacturers away from Chinese goods, the Trump administration may be forced to re-evaluate its decision on India’s GSP status.
To dampen those costs and wean American manufacturers away from Chinese goods, the Trump administration may be forced to re-evaluate its decision on India’s GSP status.
According to a recent report released by the Coalition for GSP, a group of American companies and trade associations, as US imports from China have decreased — because of Section 301 tariffs — imports of those products from GSP-designated countries “have increased the most in the first quarter of 2019.” Specifically on India, the report states: “97 percent of increased 2019 GSP imports are on the China Section 301 lists.” To that effect, imports from India of Section 301 list products “increased by USD 193 million (18 percent).”
Therefore, as the report rightly points out, terminating GSP status for countries like India would not only “hurt many American companies and workers that have relied on GSP for years, it would also reduce viable sourcing options for companies looking to buy less from China in response to Section 301 tariffs — thereby undermining the President’s own objectives.”
Furthermore, this dichotomy for the US comes at a time when President Trump is increasingly facing a credibility crisis.
During his campaign trail and in office, Trump often touted his command over the “Art of the Deal” to deliver “big-league” wins on some of the world’s most pressing challenges like nuclear non-proliferation. Today, Trump’s questionable deal-making skills are at an abysmal display. US Withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has only drawn a wedge between America and her Transatlantic allies, and now raised the spectre of another war in the Middle East. Whereas, North Korea continues to insist on simultaneous relief on American “maximum pressure” sanctions in exchange of any denuclearisation effort. It even conducted two missile tests recently. Going into the 2020 presidential elections, many of Trump’s challengers from across the aisle are already making his deal-making skills a talking point.
At this juncture of vulnerability for efficacy of Trump’s ways, India could partly draw from the Chinese playbook. In exchange for relief on GSP, India could offer Trump credible assurances on raising US imports — and thereby effectively institute an incremental approach to resolving persisting issues on the trade front.
In exchange for relief on GSP, India could offer Trump credible assurances on raising US imports — and thereby effectively institute an incremental approach to resolving persisting issues on the trade front.
Back in November 2017, amid opening salvos of the US-China trade war, China infused an incremental approach during Trump’s maiden visit to the country. China not only held back all stops on pomp and pageantry (“state visit-plus” experience) for the image-conscious American president, but also handed him contractual assurances worth $65 billion, which Trump took back as testament to his deal-making abilities.
Initially, this allowed the Chinese to figuratively kick the can down the road and institute an incremental approach. Eventually, as those assurances failed to culminate into a bilateral trade deal or even substantially reduce the deficit between China and the US, the Trump administration chose to double down on its winner-takes-all approach.
India, however, is in a position to offer assurances grounded in recent trends that are only favourable for the US.
Over the past two years, the deficit between the US and India has been decreasing. US exports to India registered a 28 percent increase last year, to effectively bring down the goods trade deficit from $22.9 billion in 2017 to $21.2 billion. Furthermore, this development — favourable to Trump’s singular focus on correcting trade imbalances — is only set to accentuate, given the rising tempo of Indo-US strategic ties. Notably, in the period 2013-17 — relative to the previous five years, US arms exports to India increased by over 550 percent — with the US now assuming the spot of India’s second-largest arms supplier.
Over the past two years, the deficit between the US and India has been decreasing. US exports to India registered a 28 percent increase last year.
Additionally, India has shown credible intent by proposing middle-of-the-road solutions like the offer to reduce duty on imported high-end phones, instead of the US’ demand to revoke the 20 percent duty on all phones. This approach could singularly benefit the US’ export of high-end phones (like Apple iPhones), whereas cutting duty across the board could even benefit cheaper Chinese phones penetrating the Indian market.
Therefore, with an American president facing questions over his “deal-maker” persona, India could leverage emerging opportunities for Indo-US strategic cooperation to institute a gradual, incremental approach to tackling tensions on its trade front.
New Delhi must guard its interests as Washington attempts to rein in Ankara
Last month, during a US House Armed Services Committee hearing, Assistant Defence Secretary Randall Schriver deemed India’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defence system as “an unfortunate decision.” Schriver added, “We are very keen to see them (India) make an alternative choice… we’re working with them to provide potential alternatives.”
Despite the looming threat of secondary sanctions under the 2017 legislation Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) – which aims to punish countries that do business with Russian defence or intelligence sectors — India inked the deal late last year. Since then, contention over the S-400 stood dampened as India hailed the decision to ink the deal despite the US pressure as a sign of New Delhi pursuing “an independent policy.” Whereas, the United States sought wiggle-room with its legislators providing provisions for waiver to India, Vietnam and Indonesia under Section 231 of CAATSA. Although, the waiver has to-date not been granted by President Donald Trump, the amendment was seen as making an exception for India in view of the promising long-term trajectory of Indo-US relations.
Schriver’s recent statement, however, may be seen as reigniting the contention over India’s purchase of five S-400 batteries worth around $5.43 billion. The answer to why the US is now once again raking up the issue with India may lie in the recent downturn in its relation with Turkey.
In recent years, the US-Turkey relationship has been inching towards an inflection point. The same has been caused by differences over a range of issues like, the back-sliding of democratic norms under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the extradition tussle over US-resident Fethullah Gulen, the imprisonment and release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, and Turkey’s arrest of employees of US consulates on charges of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – the Kurdish insurgency movement deemed terrorist by both the US and Turkey.
These issues have spurred American anxiety over Turkish conduct being that of a mere ally “on paper”. The latest point of contention has been Turkey’s plan to also purchase the S-400 missile defence system from Russia over the US-made Patriot Air Defence System. Given Turkey’s NATO-ally status, the US has viewed this move to potentially compromise the security of its F-35 stealth fighter jets – which Washington plans to sell to Ankara “as part of a European consortium.” The Trump administration has responded by suspending Turkey’s participation in the F-35 development programme – wherein Turkey-based companies “manufacture parts for all F-35 variants and customers.”
Certainly, Turkey and India occupy different positions in the American security calculus in two distinct regions. One is a NATO ally, the other is an evolving security partner. Turkey holds more relevance in near-term American goals like seeking post-conflict security guarantees for Syrian Kurds (People’s Protection Units, YPG) – the crucial US allies in the fight against ISIS, which, much to Erdoğan’s ire, stand affiliated to the PKK. Whereas, India hones the potential to be a central player in the long-term US interest of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.
However, the recent sparring between Turkey and the US over the S-400 does spur parallels with India. Most crucially, it reignites the prospect of India being sanctioned under CAATSA, as a matter of further conveying American resolve to Turkey.
Another point of commonality in recent American foreign policy vis-à-vis India and Turkey is the Trump administration’s intended suspension of trade benefits under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) on grounds of the two “no longer” complying “with the statutory eligibility criteria”.
However, with the suspension of GSP benefits in case of Turkey, the Trump administration seems to be employing the lever of economic coercion. Many in the US foreign policy community have long argued for the US to rein-in Turkey by targeting its economy which stands as “Erdogan’s greatest domestic vulnerability”.
With India, the move has been seen as a result of the Trump administration’s frustration with continually stalled trade talks. However, the possibility of the suspension of GSP benefits also impacting India’s domestic political space, is all too real, as India is gearing up for its general elections in which the economy is sure to be a major political lightening rod.
In recognition of that untoward impact, Rep. George Holding (R-NC) in a letter to the US Trade Representative said, “It is my request that the administration postpone the termination of India’s GSP eligibility and revisit this decision after India’s general election. At that point, we would be free from the turmoil of politics and would be able to have a more productive conversation.” Holding, the co-chair of the India caucus in the US House of Representatives even went on to warn, “terminating their (India’s) eligibility now politicises these negotiations and undermines our chances for a successful outcome.”
One may argue, the recent US re-invocation of the S-400 issue with India, maybe the Trump administration’s attempt to avoid exceptions for India being an irritant in its other foreign policy goals. Consider the case of North Korea. Even the two rounds of President Trump’s personality-centric approach with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-Un, have failed to yield substantial results. It is now increasingly apparent that North Korea has little inclination to completely denuclearise, adding much credence to Victor D. Cha’s “India-type deal” analysis.
Back in 2009, the former US Deputy Head of Delegation for the Six Party Talks wrote, the ideal outcome from North Korea’s standpoint is “a situation similar to the arrangement that the United States negotiated with India”. Wherein, much like the US-India civil nuclear energy agreement, North Korea could retain control “of a portion of their nuclear energy and weapons programs outside of international inspection.”
For India however, such exemptions stand central to her interests of gradually enhancing its “strategic alignment” with the US. Towards securing the same, India must intensify its efforts at the Capitol Hill – where India isn’t at the receiving end of Congressional strong-arming. Whereas, Turkey recently has faced vocal condemnation and tabling of punitive actions even at the hands of American legislators. (For instance, the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act.)
On CAATSA, President Trump has held off on granting a waiver to India with a cryptic response: “(India) will soon find out”. In making a case for a waiver, India must step-up efforts to court influential US legislators like Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) who also is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sullivan has been a vocal advocate for acting on the “desire among lawmakers to find some way to manage India’s past commitment to Russia and its defense relationships with that country”. One such possible way would be to pursue another legislative amendment of resting the authority to grant waivers with the US Secretary of State – known to have led the advocacy of instituting the waiver provision for India, instead of the US President. India must also emphasise that in-line with the spirit of the waiver provision amendment to gradually “wean” countries off Russian equipment, Moscow’s arms export to New Delhi has decreased by “a whopping 42 per cent between 2014-18.” Whereas, around the same period (2013-17), the US witnessed “a blazing growth in its arms exports to India, recording over 550% growth” relative to the previous five years.
On GSP, India must strongly endorse Rep. George Holding’s appeal ahead of the Congressional notification of suspension of GSP benefits taking effect in the coming days with a presidential proclamation. India must also underscore the invalidity of Trump’s suspension rationale of India being the third biggest economy and thus not needing any preferential treatment intended for developing countries. When in fact, India is “much poorer per capita income wise than Turkey.” In addition, in-line with Trump’s attention to correcting US trade deficits, US exports to India registered a 28 percent increase last year – decreasing Washington’s deficit with New Delhi from $22.9 billion in 2017 to $21.2 billion.
Thus, in summation, noting that India and Turkey both stand in the US’ cross-hairs over the S-400 purchase and GSP trade benefits, India must guard its interests as Washington attempts to rein in Ankara.
Recent tensions between India and Pakistan, have bought the US’ arms export policies into question. In a dogfight over the Indo-Pak Line of Control (LoC), Pakistan shot down an Indian MiG-21 Bison and captured its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. Whereas, India shot down a Pakistani F-16 which crashed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Pakistan not only denied India’s claim but also denied having deployed the US-made F-16 fighter jets against India. Thereafter, in a news conference by senior Indian Air Force officers, evidence was presented in the form of mangled remains of an Advance Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile recovered in Indian territory. In underscoring the use of F-16s, Air Vice-Marshal R G K Kapoor said the missile was “appropriate for carrying only on the Pakistan F-16“.
This reportedly prompted the US Embassy in Islamabad to announce that it was “looking into reports that Pakistan used F-16 jets to shoot down the Indian pilot, a potential violation of Washington’s military sale agreements that limit how Pakistan can use the planes.”
Sale of F-16 upgrades for Pakistan was considered in 2008, amidst much controversy. The Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs even held a hearing titled ‘DEFEATING AL–QAEDA’S AIR FORCE: PAKISTAN’S F–16 PROGRAM IN THE FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM’. Subcommittee Chairman Gary L Ackerman had raised concerns over “how can we be assured that the F–16s will be used as a counterterrorism tool rather than just the way to boost Pakistan’s conventional warfare capabilities vis-à-vis India?”
Eventually, the sale went through to “increase the capability of the Pakistan Air Force to conduct close air support and night precision attack missions” towards achieving “shared goals in countering militants along its western border”.
On ascertaining if Pakistan’s recent use of the F-16 constitutes a violation of that rationale for sale, the specifics of the US-Pakistan “end-user agreement” are not public as per US’ government-to-government Foreign Military Sales guidelines. Moreover, the US embassy in Pakistan also announced that the US Government “does not comment on or confirm pending investigations of this nature.”
However, if the end-user agreement does indeed bar actions beyond counterterrorism mandates, Pakistan’s deployment of the F-16 against India maybe an attempt to push the envelope on deployment restrictions devised during the heydays of the War on Terror.
This Pakistani effort to seek steady erosion of those limitations via setting a precedent, may also complicate America’s plan to capture India’s $15 billion-market for fighter jets.
Since 2008, Indo-US defence trade has increased from under $1 billion to now over $18 billion –with US arms exports to India increasing by over 550 percent during 2013-17. On fighter jets specifically, India – the world’s largest arms importer, is expected to be a burgeoning market for the United States – the world’s largest arms producer and exporter. For instance, the US defence firm Lockheed Martin is competing chiefly with Boeing’s F/A-18, Saab’s Gripen, Dassault Aviation’s Rafale, and the Eurofighter Typhoon “to supply the Indian Air Force (IAF) with 114 combat planes in a deal estimated to be worth more than $15 billion.”
Furthermore, the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) has moved India and the US away from a traditional “buyer-seller” dynamic to one of co-production and co-development. This collaborative approach under DTTI is central to addressing concerns over Modi’s ‘Make in India’ and Trump’s ‘America First’ outlook being incompatible. In this vein, Lockheed Martin has offered to shift its F-16 production line – in partnership with Tata Advanced Systems, to India. Overtime, India would become the sole global production centre for the F-16 in order to also cater to overseas markets.
Last year, Lockheed even announced that its joint venture will produce wings for the aircraft in India, “regardless of whether it wins the Indian military order”. One may argue the announcement was a result of the US firm finally accepting “what many have warned it for years: That the IAF would never buy a fighter whose very name is associated across India with the Pakistan air force which has operated the F-16 since the 1980s.”
In tackling the stigma with the F-16, Lockheed Martin recently introduced the F-21 at Aero India in Bengaluru. Though deemed to be specially configured for the IAF, experts have noted “little to differentiate the F-21 from the F-16 Block 70.”
Described by Vivek Lall (Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics) as being “different, inside and out”, the F-21 is essentially a recast of the F-16 with its airframe and engine remaining “largely the same”. A significant India-specific addition, however, is the F-21’s dorsal fairing – “a rib along the fighter’s spine in which additional equipment can be carried in the future, in order to improve the fighter’s avionic capability.” The F-16 had been rejected in IAF’s past Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft contest as the air frame was not considered capable of “integrating future capability expansions.”
Aiming for India’s 114 plane requirement, the F-21 is being touted as “For India, From India”. However, this exclusivity raises the stakes – and possibly even the price-point with the economics of scale by catering to overseas markets not figuring in the case, as co-production with Tata Advanced Systems may not take off unless the bid is won. Furthermore, Pakistan’s discussed effort to push the envelope on deployment restrictions would complicate the F-21’s bid to capture India’s fighter jet market.
Due to past corruption scandals over arms acquisitions and the recent political rancour over the Rafale deal, arms acquisitions in India now play out in the hyper-polarised public domain. Given the F-21’s broad similarities to the F-16, perceptional parity with Pakistan may continue to factor in – if not exacerbate unpopularity given the case that India shot down a Pakistani F-16 with a relatively less-advanced MiG-21 Bison.
Most importantly, recently Pakistan’s ambassador to the US was asked about the misuse of the F-16. In response, he decried any violation by stating, “I think the question is whether Pakistan is prevented” of such an action by the end-user agreement. The envoy’s statement raises questions if Pakistan’s agreement has wiggle-room to justify its use of F-16s. For instance, in some cases of the United States’ end-user agreements with Israel, deployment of US arms are permitted on the vaguely-termed grounds of “legitimate self-defense.”
For a long time, the United States’ relations with Pakistan served as an impediment to the development of Indo-US ties. Off late, US actions like its support for grey-listing Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force have gone a long way in tackling that hurdle. Progress on this front may stand jeopardised if the US gives Pakistan a pass on its effort to erode deployment restrictions.
Therefore, US response on Pakistan’s possible deployment of the F-16 will bear heavily on its effort to tout the F-21 as an all-exclusive platform for India – despite India-specific value additions like the dorsal fairing and its boost to ‘Make in India’. In the meantime, $15 billion hang in the balance.
Despite the US calling Pakistan out on the Pulwama attack, three ongoing developments are likely to dampen the American response in support of India in the near term.
The recent terror attack in Pulwama, organised by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), which have left over 40 CRPF personnel killed and over 35 wounded, once again bought to front and centre Pakistan’s complicity in sheltering terror organisations. The attack’s severity, being the worst of its kind in Kashmir, and its addition to India’s long-standing fight against cross-border terror, spurred international support for India.
On behalf of the United States, National Security Advisor John Bolton was reported to have spoken to his counterpart in New Delhi twice. Offering condolences, Bolton expressed support for India’s “right to self-defence against cross-border terrorism” and offered assistance in removing “all obstacles” to designate JeM leader Masood Azhar as “a global terrorist under the UN Security Council Resolution 1267 Committee process.”
Certainly, the response was strong in terms of calling out Pakistan. In the past, US administrations have dispatched high-level officials to urge restraint and de-escalation.
A case in point being, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s shuttle diplomacy between New Delhi and Islamabad after the attacks on the Indian Parliament. In contrast, Bolton extended, as some commentators view it, a free hand, which “allows New Delhi to fashion its answer to the Pakistani provocation.”
However, a case could be made that the same signifies little more than mere bluster under Bolton’s overtly centralised US National Security Council setup.
In continuing the Clinton era precedent, cross-border attacks on India had led to a mobilisation of the US national security apparatus to pursue de-escalation measures or monitor possible escalations at the very least. For instance, although the 2008 Mumbai attacks coincided with Thanksgiving break, the Bush national security apparatus convened conversations remotely and ultimately cut short their breaks to reconvene in Washington a few days later. The Bush NSC put together an inter-agency plan to undercut misinformation –– and by that extension miscalculation, with “a three-way flow of information among Washington, Islamabad and New Delhi.”
As the National Security Advisor, Bolton supervises the National Security Council and hones the power to convene a principals’ committee meeting of cabinet chiefs to advise the US President on analyses, responses, and policy options. At first, it did seem as if Bolton was bringing in an inter-agency response to Pulwama, when it was reported that he rewrote an initial State Department statement on the attack that did not directly call out Pakistan. However, Bolton has been known to have reduced the frequency of such meetings to an extent that cabinet chiefs have felt “shut out of policy process”. Hence, it is no surprise that in the follow-up to Pulwama, no such meeting of principals or even their deputies was reportedly convened.
On Bolton promising cooperation over sanctioning the JeM leader at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), one cannot help but wonder his seriousness, given his reputation of repeatedly questioning the UN’s efficacy (“The [UN] Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”). Most importantly, US representation at the UN continues to be in a limbo since Ambassador Nikki Haley’s departure last year. Last week, it was reported that President Donald Trump’s pick for Haley’s successor as the US ambassador to the UN, Heather Nauert, has withdrawn her nomination.
In addition, three ongoing developments are sure to further dampen any American response in support of India in the near term.
Many rightly argue that Pakistan’s centrality in the ongoing Afghanistan peace process might pose challenges for the US support to India on Pulwama. This assessment holds additional credence, given the Islamabad’s role as host for the upcoming talks between the Taliban and US officials. However, it was recently reported that the Islamabad round of talks have been cancelled in view of “most members” of the Taliban negotiations team being “unable to travel due to the US and UN blacklist”. The talks will now be held once again in Doha on 25 February.
Although this may signify a reduction in Pakistani control over the process, it hardly undercuts Islamabad’s influence in a post-conflict Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is leading the American end of negotiations, credited Pakistan for “helping push the Taliban to the negotiating table” and intended to “improve” US relations with Pakistan.
In the days to come, once the US and Taliban iron out the hurdles in their “draft framework”, Pakistan will be highly critical in operationalising the intended withdrawal of 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan. More importantly, if the US and Taliban do come to an agreement over the Americans sustaining their airbases in Bagram and Shorabak astride Pakistan’s western border, security and intelligence cooperation between the US and Pakistan will gain a shot in the arm.
Despite honing a trade imbalance of only about $30 billion and standing tenth in the list of countries that the US registers a deficit with, India has not escaped Trump’s ire over his desire to acquire “fair” and “reciprocal” trade relations. India was hit by the US steel and aluminum tariffs last year, against which New Delhi announced its own tariffs on goods worth $240 million but held its imposition due to ongoing talks.
Nearly two years on, reports suggest trade talks continue to be at a stalemate, with the US contemplating further action. The Trump administration is now “preparing to tighten the screws” by considering to remove India from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) programme. The GSP allows India to “export goods such as jewelry, vehicle parts and electric motors worth $5.6 billion free of US tariffs”.
Given President Trump’s inclination to often link US defence commitments and partner nations’ security dependencies with trade imbalances and immigration issues, the ongoing Indo-US trade negotiations will surely be a matter of priority over Pulwama.
The Trump administration is at war — not with an international adversary, but at home. Although it narrowly avoided another government shutdown recently, the Trump administration has spurred yet another constitutional crisis. In continuing his insistence on securing funds for a border wall, President Trump recently declared a National Emergency, putting him on a war-footing with the US Congress and eventually with the courts, where his declaration is sure to be challenged.
There is already considerable pressure on the Republican-led Senate to check Trump’s Executive overreach by joining the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives to pass, with a veto-overriding majority, a joint resolution terminating Trump’s National Emergency. Some are even asking if the way forward is to amend existing laws to restrict Executive leeway over declaring National Emergencies without Congressional approval.
Given the serious precedents such a tussle between the legislature and the executive can lead to, in the days ahead, the Trump administration is going to have limited room in dealing with foreign policy crisis abroad.
Much less India, which in the US foreign and security policy circles isn’t seen a “problem child” relative to say, Iran or North Korea. More importantly, if the Senate does rebuke Trump on his emergency, the Trump administration will have considerably less capital with the Hill. Hence, positions of immense consequence to the Indo-US dynamic like the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs may continue to remain without official confirmations.
In summation, the American response on the Pulwama terror attack packs a punch with regards to calling out Pakistan and extending support for India’s efforts to sanction Masood Azhar at the UNSC level. However, Bolton’s overtly centralised NSC processes and US representation at the UN being in a limbo pose questions over the seriousness of the US’s support.
Further dampening any American response in the near term are considerations over Pakistan’s central role in a post-conflict Afghanistan, trade negotiations with India being at a critical juncture, and the Trump administration being on a war-footing with the American legislature and judiciary over its declaration of a National Emergency.
Pentagon’s recently downsized sole country-specific cell may experience an upturn in its fortunes
Last month, reports emerged of the India Rapid Reaction Cell (IRRC) being shifted out of the Pentagon to an administrative building about six miles away. Established under the Obama administration, the IRRC is the only country-specific cell focused on increasing “operational tempo” of initiatives under the Indo-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) for co-production and co-development of military equipment. The relevance of DTTI –– and the IRRC by that extension, has thus been at the core of the evolving Indo-US dynamic, due to its purview over joint-development of crucial platforms like the next-generation Raven unmanned aerial vehicles and integrated protection ensemble increment-2 (personnel protection gear against chemical and biological threats). Given the exclusivity that the IRRC accords to the Indo-US dynamic, varied analyses reading the tea leaves over the cell’s ouster from the Pentagon thus emerged.
While one analysis deemed the move to signify the United States having “lost interest in India as a strategic partner”, another deemed it to possibly usher an understanding that “India is not the natural ally of the US”. Beyond such analyses that prematurely spelt a spiraling of the Indo-US dynamic however, some offered a more micro-level analysis. For instance, one analysis professed looking hard at Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) Ellen Lord’s past.
Currently serving as the chief of AT&L, Lord was formerly the president and CEO of Textron Systems. Earlier this year, Textron was fined $300,000 by India for failing to meet certain offset commitments to supply precision-guided cluster bombs. As a result, Textron even decided to wind down its India operations. In this context, analysis drawing a parallel between Lord’s background and the sudden “bureaucratic disinterest in the India cell”, holds water given the role of the chief of AT&L in IRRC’s functioning.
Given the sensitivity of technology transfer initiatives and the slow –– yet promising, development of the Indo-US dynamic at the bureaucratic and institutional levels, a hands-on approach spearheaded by the chief of the AT&L makes sense.
Therefore, although the US Secretary of Defense actively participates in the workings of the IRRC, it is the International Cooperation Office of the Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics that mainly drives its functioning.
Moreover, in pushing for greater defense cooperation with India and its integration into the US regional calculus, it was a former AT&L chief (Ashton Carter) who went on to preside over the establishment of the IRRC as President Obama’s Secretary of Defense. Recognising impediments on levels of bureaucracy, it was the Carter mantra that sought platforms like the IRRC as a special mechanism to fast-track harnessing economic and defence ties beyond differences — on trade, diplomatic and strategic fronts — to facilitate minimal-yet-positive developments.
In view of Ellen Lord’s sour experience with the Indian dispensation then, the shifting of the IRRC may bear signs of the diminished efficacy of the Carter mantra. However, this may be short-lived, as reports emerge over Lord’s own departure from Trump’s defence establishment.
Reportedly, Lord “is uncomfortable with Trump’s statements” and “not happy” with Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan assuming the role of Acting Secretary of Defense since the departure of James Mattis. Furthermore, Shanahan and Lord have had a rocky relationship. Most recently, in October, Shanahan accused Lord and her office of dropping “the ball” with regards to an “unpopular proposed change to the way the Pentagon handles industry cash flow.”
In addition, former Boeing executive Shanahan’s ascendency as Acting Secretary of Defense may also address the recent “bureaucratic disinterest” that seems to have crept in with regards to India.
Under the Trump administration, the overt influence of Boeing –– the world’s largest aerospace company, has been apparent. Given Trump’s “personal relationship” with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing has won successive lucrative bids towards Pentagon arms tenders.
In eyeing foreign markets as well, Boeing has hardly had a discouraging experience like Textron in India. In addition to being a burgeoning arms market, Boeing recently also rated India to “become the third-largest commercial aviation market by the early 2020s,” with India set to order “a record of up to 2,300 new planes worth $320 billion from global planemakers over the next 20 years.”
Furthermore, the Trump administration’s inclination to prioritize US arms exports is no secret. Examples of the same go from Trump referencing Saudi Arabia’s arms imports from the US to justify inaction on the Khashoggi matter, to pushing the Shinzo Abe government in Japan to purchase more US stealth fighters to “narrow the bilateral trade imbalance”. As a result, under the Trump administration, American foreign arms sales have totaled $55.66 billion in 2018 – registering a 33% increase to reach its highest ever point since 2012.
With regards to India specifically as well, it is hard to predict a downturn due to Ellen Lord’s predispositions as the broader Indo-US trajectory in the recent past has been promising to say the least. For instance, in the period 2013-17, the US witnessed “a blazing growth in its arms exports to India, recording over 550% growth”. This upward trend is sure to continue with the US under Trump pushing for oil, gas and arms exports to square off trade imbalances with allies and partner nations. In this vein probably, India’s new envoy to the US recently announced New Delhi to have “committed to purchase $5 billion worth of oil and gas from the US per annum and $18 billion worth of defence equipment that are under implementation”.
Lastly, Acting Secretary Shanahan – and by that extension influence of arms exporters like Boeing, seems to be here to stay given Trump’s imbroglio over the border wall and limited options on appointing a successor to lead the Pentagon. Shanahan has broadly been known as a “compliant figure” on controversial issues like the Space Force and banning transgenders in the military. In the near future, if Trump declares a national emergency to reallocate funds from the military’s $700+ billion budget to build the wall, a complaint Defense Secretary could be particularly useful. For instance, after a declaration of national emergency, Shanahan can “direct the army’s civil works program to construct a structure needed for national defense and use the military budget to do it.”
As for appointing a successor to lead the Pentagon, Trump’s options to tap a credible Republican nominee who can get confirmed by the Congress with a bipartisan mandate are slim. Although the recent mid-term elections led to some gains for Republicans in the Senate, their majority hangs by a slim margin with 53 seats. Further, discontent continues to brew within Senate Republicans over Trump’s policies –– often voiced by the likes of Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), or reflected in the voting records of Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). Hence, in case of a future contingency, such as a Senate vote on convicting Trump following a Democrat-controlled House opting for impeachment proceedings, every single Republican Senator’s vote would matter for the fate of Trump’s presidency. This calculation seems to have figured in Trump’s mind when he recently said that he is in “no hurry” to replace Acting Secretary Shanahan and that “I sort of like ‘acting’” because “it gives me more flexibility.”
Thus, with the possible departure of the AT&L chief Ellen Lord, and the heightened influence of arms exporters like Boeing with Shanahan continuing to be at the helm of affairs, a shot in the arm –– if not a relocation back at the Pentagon, for the IRRC may be on the cards.
The Trump administration’s recent decisions to withdraw US troops from Syria, have once again sparked a debate on the United States’ role in the world. In a series of recent tweets, President Donald Trump hailed his decision to withdraw US troops and questioned the rationale for the US fighting counter-terrorism operations abroad. Trump deemed the United States to have received “NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing?”
Predictably, most American lawmakers, media, and academia gasped over Trump’s decision undercutting American commitments towards allied Kurdish forces, ceding ground to growing Iranian influence. They warned of this decision emboldening Russian stranglehold over the region, and even that it may pave way for the resurgence of the Islamic State. Yet, a small, but prominent, group of commentators and legislators hailed Trump’s decision. For instance, noted realist scholar Stephen Walt claimed that Trump had done “the right thing”, and Republican Senator Rand Paul – known for his libertarian views – announced that he was “very proud of the President” for withdrawing from Syria.
Increasingly, calls for a more narrow conception of US interests abroad have been growing. Advocates for US retrenchment to a grand strategy of restraint often deem the United States to lack “the need, the capability, and the mandate to manage global security.” Moreover, some even argue sustaining American primacy for the longer term by husbanding resources with an offshore-balancing strategy. Stopping short of outright isolationism, such an approach dictates, “instead of policing the world, the United States would encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary.” Most importantly, this approach construes US global leadership as “not an end in itself”, rather it deems the same to be “desirable only insofar as it benefits the United States directly.”
In Trump’s conduct of the United States’ foreign policy, such a view holds currency – from accusing European and North American allies of treating the US “like a piggy bank to be robbed”, to announcing other countries like Turkey to take the lead in fighting the Islamic State.
In addition, in expressing deep aversion on nation-building activities abroad, senior Trump administration officials have announced that the United States will no longer pursue its “longstanding pattern of aid without effect, assistance without accountability, and relief without reform.” One may look no further than Pakistan with regards to evidence supporting that shift in policy, as the Trump administration holds back aid amounting to over $1 billion, and supports Pakistan’s grey-listing at multilateral platforms like the Financial Action Task Force. Furthermore, on husbanding resources, the Trump administration’s repeated outcry over seeking “fair” and “reciprocal deals” has even pulled into Trump’s cross-fire countries like India – notwithstanding the fact that India takes the tenth spot on the list of countries that register a deficit with the US and supposedly enjoys broad bipartisan support amongst US policymakers and national-security officials.
Further, although the transactionalism witnessed in recent American foreign policy can, in large parts, be attributed to Trump, a slow shift away from the standard pre-set for liberal internationalism has been evident in the post-Cold War world.
With continued American primacy – chiefly in the military realm, at its core, the immediate aftermath of the Cold War under President George H. W. Bush hailed the emergence of “a new world order, where brutality will go unrewarded and aggression will meet collective resistance.” Thereafter, the Bill Clinton years saw the employment of US force for a myriad range of non-combat missions – across the Balkans and Sub-Saharan Africa, under the liberal internationalist grand strategy of “enlargement” of democratic regimes mainly in the areas of the former Soviet Union.
This inclination towards employing the US military as the ‘tip of the spear’ towards US foreign policy interests, reached its peak under the subsequent George W. Bush years. Armed by a neoconservative outlook and American military primacy riding high in the post-9/11 fog of war, the Bush administrations pursued regime-change agendas primarily in the Middle East. Subsequently, an American standing – tarnished by the Bush-era’s militarised unilateralism – fed the Obama administrations’ motivation behind ‘leading from behind’, encouraging burden-sharing, cobbling multilateral coalitions across varied realms of nuclear non-proliferation, combating terrorist safe-havens, and even humanitarian interventions.
Finally, the trend away from liberal internationalism seems to have reached its farthest point on non-intervention and minimal US stewardship with the Trump presidency. By April 2016, support for American activism abroad had dwindled. According to a poll, about 57 percent of Americans agreed that the United States should “deal with its own problems and let others deal with theirs the best they can.”
In the near-future, charged by nationalist overtones of a renewed conservative movement, the ‘America First’ outlook may just usher in the last mile towards offshore-balancing.
Many see the shuttering of The Weekly Standard – run by noted neoconservative commentator Bill Kirstol, as an ominous sign of the shift away from the Reagan era conservatism of touting the United States’ perceived stature as the “shining city upon a hill”. Moreover, commentators have even noted Trump’s conservative nationalism of ‘America First’ to have forced the marginalised liberal internationalists and Bush-era neoconservatives to find common ground despite their divergences over employment of force and multilateralism.
Further, increasingly younger American generations seem to have a greater preference for a less global America, as revealed by a recent Pew Research polls. One poll found younger Americans (under 30) to be generally less likely to prioritise limiting power and influence of foreign powers like Russia, and China – only three-in-ten young people concurred, while 54 percent (65 or older) argued for the US to actively engage in limiting the influence of Russia. Another poll found a substantial age divide in the priority given to maintaining US military primacy – 64 percent older Americans concurring vs. 30 percent younger Americans. Reduction of American military commitments abroad drew support of 34 percent younger Americans vs. 20 percent older Americans. On combatting terrorism as well, younger generations seemed to support less US military activism. When asked if the US should actively take measures towards seeking and destroying terror groups in other countries, only 27 percent of Americans under 50 deemed it as a top priority compared to 44 percent of those 50 and older.
Thus, future generations’ preferences against US activism abroad compounded by the rise of Trumpian conservative nationalism, seems poised to challenge the post-Cold War dominance of liberal internationalism in American strategic culture.
Recent developments signify an Afghanistan held hostage by competing interests of Russia and the United States.
For the second time, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad met Taliban officials in Doha on 14 November to discuss the issue of ending the war in Afghanistan. Taliban deemed the meeting as mere “preliminary talks” during which “no agreement was reached on any issue.”
Earlier this month, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) had submitted its quarterly report to the US Congress. Painting a grim picture, the report stated, “The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.” Recently, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford even went on to say that the Taliban are “not losing right now… we used the term stalemate a year ago and, relatively speaking, it has not changed much.”
In the meantime, Russia conducted the second meeting of the ‘Moscow format’ of consultations on Afghanistan on 9 November 2018. While no official representatives from the Afghan government attended the event, members from the non-official Afghanistan High Peace Council were present. This bore a continuity with regards to Afghan insistence on a Kabul-led approach. For instance, earlier this year, the Afghan government had categorically denied Russia’s offer to sponsor negotiations, stating that “the government will not participate in any further meetings that are not led by the Afghan government.”
These recent developments signify an Afghanistan held hostage by competing interests of Russia and the United States.
Russia has long insisted on the futility of the use of force in resolving the situation in Afghanistan. At the Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan (May 2018), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had stated that “the conflict cannot be resolved by force, no matter which strategies foreign capitals may approve.” He also raised concerns regarding the growing presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan along the borders of Central Asian states. There is, however, little credence to Moscow’s claims regarding the presence of an estimated 10,000 Islamic State fighters — which remains insignificant as compared to the Taliban’s hold in Afghanistan. In August 2018, the Islamic State (IS) even lost control over its territories in the northern province of Jowzjan bordering Turkmenistan, when its 150 fighters surrendered to Afghan security forces.
There is, however, little credence to Moscow’s claims regarding the presence of an estimated 10,000 Islamic State fighters — which remains insignificant as compared to the Taliban’s hold in Afghanistan.
By underscoring the expanding influence of the IS in Afghanistan and beyond, Moscow intends to gather support from the Central Asian states to push for a political dialogue with the Taliban and undercut any lasting US military presence.
The US, under President Trump, has borne little success in America’s ‘forever war’. In announcing his administration’s New South Asia strategy, Trump deemed the US effort as being geared “to fight and to win.” However, today the Afghan government merely controls 229 of 407 districts. The rest, 59 are controlled by the Taliban and another 119 continue to remain hotly contested between the Taliban and the coalition-backed Afghan security forces.
Inheriting the Obama-era train and advise mission in Afghanistan, President Trump grudgingly agreed to continue the US effort. Contrary to his original instinct to pull out, Trump’s approach led to a fresh infusion of US troops, greater operational latitude to theatre commanders, and an intensification of the US aerial bombings. This militarisation of US effort under Trump has borne Nixonian traits.
Similar to Richard Nixon’s approach in Vietnam to incessantly ramp up military strikes, gain on-ground initiative and coax the opposition to the diplomatic table, the Trump administration deemed “conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables” as its guiding approach. At first, this constituted a departure from the Obama administration’s approach — which also saw a surge in US troops but capped the presence with a predetermined withdrawal deadline.
However, a little over a year since the initiation of Trump’s New South Asia strategy, the results are little. For instance, Afghan security forces’ casualties have now reached the 1,000 mark for August and September alone, and the Taliban continues to occasionally overrun government-controlled towns. This has raised serious questions on the capabilities of U.S.-trained Afghan forces.
Inheriting the Obama-era train and advise mission in Afghanistan, President Trump grudgingly agreed to continue the US effort.. This militarisation of US effort under Trump has borne Nixonian traits.
In addition, both the Moscow and Washington led approaches hardly meet Indian interests due to their inclusion of the Taliban in the political solution.
Russia’s approach aims to maintain its channels with the Taliban to gain leverage in the negotiation process. Moscow’s motive appears to be to block any attempts by the US to maintain any form of military presence in post-conflict Afghanistan. Russia has also developed its relations with Pakistan to gain more leverage in the negotiation process. Recently, the two sides conducted their third joint military drills that began in 2016. Thus, dialogue with the Taliban and developed relations with Pakistan assures Russia an entry into the negotiation process and the post-conflict scenario.
Russia’s approach towards the negotiation process is at odds with India’s interests vis-à-vis Washington’s continued military presence in the country. India considers US presence in Afghanistan as a net security provider in the backdrop of Taliban’s increasing control. In view of India “lobbying for continued NATO presence in Afghanistan,” Russia is likely to garner support for its narrative through the SCO, if push comes to shove. Such a move would only isolate India in the regional grouping as the only voice that prefers some sort of American presence.
Hence, irrespective of the success of the Moscow-led talks, Indian concerns over the security of its investments in Afghanistan would not be assuaged.
On the other hand, the US’s approach seems to be centered on President Trump’s eagerness to wind up the war — now in its 17th year. Back in July, in order to “jump-start” Afghan negotiations, the Trump administration ordered its diplomats to engage directly with the Taliban, and in September, appointed noted US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as special adviser to Afghanistan.
India considers US presence in Afghanistan as a net security provider in the backdrop of Taliban’s increasing control. In view of India “lobbying for continued NATO presence in Afghanistan,” Russia is likely to garner support for its narrative through the SCO, if push comes to shove.
As in case of President Trump’s willingness to sign a peace declaration with North Korea without preconditions on its nuclear programme, direct talks with the Taliban undercut Washington and Kabul’s long-standing insistence on an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” diplomatic process.
Furthermore, talks have sputtered as the Taliban continues to pose serious tactical challenges to the foreign and local security forces’ efforts to hold on-ground advances. With over 100 districts continuing to be contested, the Taliban still has a fighting shot to gain more territories. Accentuating this trend are instances such as, the Taliban claiming an attack on Operation Resolute Support Commander General Austin Scott Miller and the killing of Kandahar Police Chief General Abdul Raziq. Such instances hamper coalition forces’ attempt to build self-reliant Afghan security forces and also impact prospects of peace negotiations.
Lastly, even if the Taliban is coaxed to the table following Gen. Miller’s recent vow to institute a more aggressive policy towards “regaining the tactical initiative,” the conflict would be far from over. Continued US military presence towards long-term American strategic considerations have proved to be the bone of contention in talks with the Taliban. The US has been insisting on at least two bases — Bagram and Shorabak — to remain under its control well beyond a political settlement. The Taliban has refused to even entertain this American demand as the Taliban’s “casus belli” for its insurgency has been the foreign occupation itself. Thus, the US holding talks with the Taliban — instead of an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” process, may not serve India’s interests of wanting a self-reliant, stable Afghan government. Notably, former US ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker has concurred with this view, stating direct talks between the US and Taliban “undermines the credibility of the Afghan government.”
In the end, India may have to simply read the writing on the wall to view the Taliban as “an indigenous force in Afghan society, part of the political fabric.” Since its ouster in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, most negotiating parties have considered the Taliban to be an important part of the post-conflict solution. While the international community insists on dialogue with the Taliban, India must also make efforts to be a part of the process and not let its interests be short-changed.
In such a scenario of competing Russian and American interests, Uzbekistan’s approach may prove to be India’s guiding light. Tashkent’s approach seems novel because no other Central Asian state has established channels with the Taliban.
Since Shaukat Mirziyoyev’s rise as its President, Uzbekistan has developed warm relations with Afghanistan. Relations have strengthened following talks over several investment projects, like a free trade zone at the Uzbek-Afghan border, a railway project connecting Mazar-i-Sharif with Herat, and the establishment of six textile factories by Uzbek companies.
In the end, India may have to simply read the writing on the wall to view the Taliban as “an indigenous force in Afghan society, part of the political fabric.” Since its ouster in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, most negotiating parties have considered the Taliban to be an important part of the post-conflict solution.
In addition, Uzbekistan kept Afghanistan by its side when it invited Taliban’s delegation to Tashkent in May 2018. Uzbekistan mainly discussed with the Taliban the security of existing and future investment projects like railroad and power lines. This investment security-focused approach may also bode well for India.
For New Delhi, Afghanistan is important from the perspective of connectivity to Central Asia. Uzbekistan, through its cordial relations with the Afghan government and an understanding with the Taliban, can assure the security of Indian investments in Afghanistan. Given India’s substantial contributions towards the Afghan reconstruction effort and its record as “a responsible aid provider,” banding with the Uzbeks for further investments and its security must be considered.
As an initial collaboratory project, India can consider accepting Uzbekistan’s invitation to participate in the 650-km long Mazar-i-Sharif – Herat railway project. Additionally, such cooperation can be of immense consequence towards India’s own grand strategic connectivity projects into the Eurasian landmass — like the International Transport and Transit Corridor, and the International North-South Transportation Corridor.
Certainly, the idea is not to rely solely on the Uzbekistan approach with regards to India’s stakes in a post-conflict Afghanistan. However, given the recurrent stalemates spurred by competing interests of the US and Russia, heeding to a fresh regional voice in the room may be New Delhi’s best out of a litany of the worst.
In view of the recent cancellation of the highly anticipated Indo-US 2+2 dialogue for the second time, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote to India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with a message of reassurance. According to reports, Mattis’ letter bore reassurances about the cancellation not implying a downscaling to “a lower priority” of the Indo-US relationship. The letter reportedly even went on to underscore the “trajectory of the strategic partnership” between New Delhi and Washington to remain unaffected by the sudden cancellation of the dialogue.
Although the US Defense Secretary’s gesture to reach out with the letter cannot be undermined, recently some serious questions have emerged over Mattis’ future in the Trump administration. And by that extension, if the former four-star military general-turned-US Secretary of Defense still hones enough currency to matter in Trump’s praxis of American foreign policy.
In recent times, Washington watchers have been reading the tea-leaves over Mattis’ decreased influence on President Trump. They chiefly point to President Trump’s recent decision to announce the setting-up of the US Space Force as the sixth branch of the US armed forces.
Whereas, Mattis has been on-record in his opposition to “add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations.” Other such divergent areas include, the president’s declaration to halt exercises with South Korea at the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit, the president raising the spectre of reducing US troop presence in Germany, and announcing an imminent cessation of US activities in Syria.
These recent developments that reportedly ran contrary to Mattis’ prescriptions to the president, have led many like former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to pointedly observe, that Mattis has now been relegated to being “a lonely warrior in this administration.”
However, according to a survey conducted earlier this year, over one-third of registered voters approve of Mattis’ performance as Secretary of Defense — rendering him to lead “the pack as the most-approved-of member of President Trump’s Cabinet.” Plus, around the world, Mattis continues to be seen as a bankable member of the Trump administration. As former assistant secretary of defense Derek Chollet puts it, Mattis stands “without question” as “the most respected person in President Trump’s Cabinet.”
So, what explains the recent inconsistencies between Mattis’ high stature and his supposedly declining influence in the Trump administration?
Back in the early days of the Trump administration, the real-estate mogul-turned-US Commander-in-Chief seemed to bear grim prospects for the future of the United States’ role in the world. However, the presence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis was seen as a beacon of sobering presence in the Trump circle. Collectively termed as the ‘Axis of Adults’ by foreign policy elites in the US Congress, media, and academia, the trio oversaw some key successes in tempering Trump’s unique approaches to American international relations. Some of their successes encompassed having Trump renege on his campaign promises to have a continued US military engagement in Afghanistan, adopting the Reaganesque ‘Peace Through Strength’ model to acquire an unprecedented raise in US military spending, and occasionally playing nice with US allies in case of achieving multilateral goals like tightening the sanctions noose (‘Maximum Pressure’ campaign) on North Korea.
However, eventually reports ran awash of Trump catching up to that scheme. According to some reports, in a quest to then break the mould of those advisers “managing” him, President Trump sought the “cashiering” of Tillerson and McMaster.
According to Thomas Wright, their ouster “can be seen as the fulfilment of his (Trump’s) preternatural need to have things his own way, no matter the advice of more seasoned players on the world stage.”
With two-thirds of the ‘Axis of Adults’ gone, and only to be replaced by avid Trumpsters John Bolton and Mike Pompeo as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State respectively, Mattis seems to have foreseen the writing on the Trumpian wall.
Hence, in recent times, Mattis seems to have tempered his defense of American internationalism in accordance with the Trumpian outlook.
For instance, recently the Secretary of Defense joined the President in stressing on greater burden sharing amongst the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) partners. In a letter to the British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson, Mattis struck a Trumpian tone to call on London to raise defence spending to a level “beyond what we would expect from allies with only regional interests.” In the letter, Mattis also warned Paris could replace London as Washington’s closest European security ally.
This caused many in the foreign policy circles to collectively gasp, and deem Mattis to be losing ground to Trump. However, Mattis has “lost” battles against Trump before. For instance, although Mattis was an ardent Iran hawk in the years past with respect to the Iran deal, upon assuming the office of the Secretary of Defense, he openly broke from his Commander-in-Chief. Not only did Mattis deem staying in the Iran nuclear deal to be in US national interest, he also defended the deal’s provisions as encompassing “pretty robust” oversight mechanisms on Iran’s activities.
Eventually, the chips obviously did not fall in Mattis’ favour when Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the multilateral arrangement negotiated to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
However, Mattis’ relevance goes beyond such instances of him finding his prescriptions to be on the diagonally opposite end of Trump’s decisions. Largely, the Secretary of Defense seems to have been engaged to “hold the line” –– to draw on Mattis’ own advice to US troops in Jordan, with respect to tempering the effects of Trump’s status quo-altering foreign policy moves on America’s traditional relationships.
Last year, when President Trump refused to underscore the United States’ commitment to Article 5, –– NATO’s bedrock principle of an attack on one being an attack on all –– Secretary Mattis assuaged allies’ concerns with a simple, “Bear with us.” Speaking a few days after Trump’s visit to the NATO headquarters, Mattis affirmed, “We will still be there, and we will be there with you.”
Notably, in just the past few months, Secretary Mattis and others like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford have led or hosted crucial visits to/from American allied nations such as the United Kingdom, Israel, Australia, Thailand, and Japan. Further, in the aftermath of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit that raised the spectre of a diminished US presence in the Indo-Pacific region, Secretary Mattis was quick to embark on a trip to the region (interestingly, his seventh visit to the region as Secretary of Defense) to assuage alliance abandonment concerns. Most notably, in Japan, the Secretary iterated Washington’s support for spearing the Japanese abductees issue with Pyongyang, and assured Tokyo of “the longstanding alliance” between Japan and the United States as continuing to be “firm.”
Further, theses “reassurances” don’t just encompass Mattis’ soothing rhetoric. The Secretary has also pursued policies at the Department of Defense to make sure the United States is seen as a security partner that puts real dollars where its mouth is.
Consider this week’s NATO summit for instance. As President Trump singled out Germany’s Angela Merkel, and raved about NATO partners’ asymmetrical defense contributions, the Secretary of Defense had deftly worked behind the scenes to “hold the line.” Mattis has been successful in securing an agreement on a plan known as the 30-30-30-30 –– which “would require NATO to have 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons and 30 ships ready to deploy within 30 days of being put on alert.” Plus, the Secretary’s tenure has also overseen an impressive “91 percent increase in Pentagon funding requests for the US military’s European Deterrence Initiative, which was created to help reassure nervous European allies after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.”
Further, Mattis has also been pivotal in case of nurturing Washington’s nascent partnerships with countries like India. The Secretary has been the lead voice on according necessary waivers to circumvent the Trump administration’s “great power competition”-inspired sanctions on Russia from harming long-term interests with New Delhi. If successful, Mattis’ advocacy can be crucial in circumventing the dire consequences of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to Indian interests.
In addition, for India, Mattis’ continued presence in the Trump administration holds promise beyond his advocacy of waivers. At a time when New Delhi is mulling crucial Indo-US defense interoperability decisions such as, signing onto the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and posting an Indian Military Liaison Officer at the newly christened Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, questions over the United States’ credibility as a security partner under Trump are bound to arise. Having an experienced former US general like Mattis — who also enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support in the US Congress (confirmed 98-1 by the US Senate), at the helm of the US Department of Defense then, is sure to lend credibility to the future prospects of the Indo-US dynamic beyond the Trump era.
Although for readers of US civil-military relations, overt dependence on former generals is rightly worrying. However, in the Trump era, it stands imperative to discount those long-term consequences of having former celebrity generals — as the “adults” in the room, on the sanctity of the principle of the civilian control of the military.
In the immediate near-term, such last-standing “adults” playing the role of steadying the course of Trump’s worldview — that all too often draws on manichaean and transactional approaches, stands more integral. In Mattis’ case, as discussed, the key realm has been, his role as the “secretary for reassurance.”
Moreover, in case of an American president who “gravely undervalues what he is giving up” with respect to his dismantling of the US -led world order, the importance of Mattis’ role stands elevated for the success of the president himself. Hence, on the question of Mattis’ future in the administration, former NSC official Richard Fontaine is perhaps on-point in professing, “If the president is lucky, Mattis will stay in place.”
President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or simply, the Iran nuclear deal) has invited grim assessments of the action undermining US “reliability and responsibility” in the long-run. The consequences on America’s trans-Atlantic ties are increasingly clear as even the prospect of the US levying economic sanctions on European companies doing business with Iran is souring Washington’s bonhomie with its transatlantic allies of nearly three quarters of a century. Further, US allies in Asia watch nervously as the timing of the US withdrawal “complicates” the prospect of a deal over North Korea’s nuclear weapons right after Washington has scuttled “an existing one that everyone considered to be working.”
Such developments with regards to the US’ relations with its allies and partners often spark a conversation on America’s “credibility”. In underscoring the imperativeness of the same, pundits and policymakers often recount an anecdote dating back to the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Back then, the US’ intelligence community gathered photographic evidence of the Soviet missile activity in Cuba. In an attempt to muster diplomatic support beyond the Organisation of American States, President John F. Kennedy reached out to US allies in Western Europe. To France – another veto wielding power at the UN Security Council, Kennedy dispatched former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. At the meeting, French President Charles de Gaulle refused to see the photographic evidence that Acheson had bought across the Atlantic. Instead, de Gaulle simply replied, “The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.”
It is believed that through the Cold War, asserting US credibility — carefully matching rhetoric with actual US foreign policy praxis, was crucial in maintaining its alliances across the world. The importance of which could hardly be overstated, as these partnerships in the strategic areas of Western Europe and East Asia were meant to balance out the Soviets and their vassals, and in a sense, uphold the geopolitical containment of Moscow.
In the post-Cold War world, however, as the Soviet expanse crumbled, emphases on US credibility outlived the bipolar system. Stemming from a strong neoclassical realist dictum of upholding a liberal world order via honing favourable balances of power, American primacy thrived owing to Washington’s multiple advantageous alliances and partnerships.
Thus, in the post-Cold War world, allies and partners not only played hosts to US forward operating military bases on their territories but also played ball when Washington needed more bite for its diplomatic bark. Recent instances of successfully cobbling a multiparty military coalition to combat the Islamic State or the coordinated diplomatic offensive to levy punitive economic sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine stand as crucial cases in-point here.
Hence, preserving alliances and its “special relationships” with partners like Israel and the United Kingdom are deemed to be in US national security interests owing to the limits of American unilateralism –– which Secretary of Defense James Mattis once underscored as, “Not all the good ideas come from the nation with the most aircraft carriers.” However, a little over a year into the Trump presidency, US “credibility” has been undermined with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord and now, the Iran nuclear deal.
Moreover, it is important to note that multilateral deals such as the one with Iran involved considerable cooperation with countries that would otherwise be deemed adversarial by Washington. For instance, Russia and China supported at least four rounds of sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council (UNSC), which were seminal in eventually coaxing Iran to the negotiating table. Further, during the negotiations, China was instrumental in breaking the impasse over the plutonium-run Arak heavy-water reactor. Beijing impressively reinvigorated the negotiations by putting forward “a redesign plan to modify the reactor so as to disable its potential for making weapons-grade nuclear materials.”
Thus, when the US arbitrarily reneges on such a deal, it not only sets a poor precedent but also undermines future avenues cooperation on matters of mutual interest. It can be argued, therefore, that an impaired American credibility holds ramifications for cooperation with friends and foes alike.
Furthermore, in its national security pronouncements, the Trump administration has purported the confrontational disposition of “great power competition” with China and Russia. Deeming the same to now be the “primary focus of US national security”, the Trump administration has accused Beijing and Moscow of wanting “to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests.” In such an overtly confrontational context, any opportunity – big or small – to cooperate with China and Russia stands integral. Not only to dampen prospects of on-ground miscalculations serving as slippery slopes to broader military confrontations but also to build sustained confidence building mechanisms via engagements on the civil servants’ level or ministerial level strategic or economic dialogues. Moreover, apart from being two veto-wielding powers, China and Russia also hold considerable sway in the resolution of many contemporary issues – like North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship and the fate of the Assad regime in Syria that present significant challenges to the US-led world order. Hence, in combating China and Russia’s alleged wish “to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests”, more – and not less, cooperation stands imperative.
In addition, undermining prospects of cooperation with countries with excessive American unilateralism only confirms the worst assumptions of the US-led world order that is often derided by its naysays as being a host for the United States’ hegemonic excesses. In case of adversarial countries then, the same only emboldens hardliners, who, then pushback against any prospects of cooperation with the US. In a recent interview, former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul underscored the reason behind the failure of the Obama administration’s ‘Reset’ policy with Russia, which, instead, oversaw only further deterioration of US-Russia relations by the end of Obama’s terms. Speaking of President Obama’s first meeting with Vladimir Putin, McFaul recounted the Russian strongman to be very “surprised” when Obama interjected his tirade on “all the mistakes that the Bush administration had made” with respect to pursuing regime change in Iraq.
As McFaul recounted, Obama essentially agreed with Putin by saying, “I was against that war, from the very beginning, and I’m not going to do that. We’re not going to be in the business of regime change.” However, pointing to the Obama administration’s subsequent 2011 military intervention against the Gaddafi regime in Libya, McFaul deemed that instance to possibly be “the beginning of the end of the Reset” with Putin realising that “Obama actually is no different from George W. Bush.”
Interestingly, President Trump – the ‘America First’ Commander-in-Chief with a disdain for exporting US values abroad – ended his address announcing the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal by professing the “people of America” to be standing with the “long-suffering people of Iran.” Referring to the Islamic revolution of 1979 as the rise of a “dictatorship” that “seized power and took a proud nation hostage”, President Trump added, “Most of Iran’s 80 million citizens have sadly never known an Iran that prospered in peace with its neighbors and commanded the admiration of the world.” If his speech is an indicator, then the chances of the US withdrawal from the deal morphing into a vocal regime change agenda (if not aided by a military intervention) – championed by the likes of Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, are all too real. In that case, it is possible that this era of “great power competition” would gain a more confrontational flavour, starting with a similar epiphany about President Trump being “no different” dawning on the leaders in Beijing and Moscow.
This week, China is slated to hold its largest naval live-fire drill in the Taiwan Strait “involving 10,000 personnel, 48 ships and submarines and 76 fighter jets.” This comes barely a month after China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, entered the Taiwan Strait. The carrier was also reported by Taiwanese Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa to have crossed into parts of Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). Considering Chinese President Xi Jingping’s recent warning of the “punishment of history” for any attempt at Taiwanese separatism – the island which Beijing has long-viewed as a wayward province – this recent uptick in Chinese assertiveness vis-à-vis Taiwan cannot be dismissed as singular events. Moreover, it signifies a broader trend in response to the Trump administration’s repeated inclination to employ/stoke the Taiwan ‘issue’ as a transactional lever against Beijing.
The most recent being President Donald Trump’s signing of the ‘Taiwan Travel Act’ which encourages “visits between officials of the United States and Taiwan at all levels”. The act, which challenges – at the very least, the unstated norm of the ‘One China’ policy – to refrain from having high-level exchanges that may be deemed as the U.S. according legitimacy to the government of the ‘Republic of China’, was “firmly opposed” by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Interestingly, on the day of the Chinese aircraft carrier’s intrusion, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State appeared alongside the Taiwanese President at the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. In his address, Alex Wong, the senior official of the US Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, declared the US’ commitment to Taiwan to have “never been stronger” and lauded the island as “an inspiration to the rest of the Indo-Pacific region.” One may argue that these actions by the Trump administration hack away at the very essence of the ‘One China’ policy that has served as the bedrock of contemporary US-China relations.
Since the Nixon normalisation that led to the recognition of the communist regime in Beijing, subsequent US administrations like the Ford, Carter and Reagan dispensations laid down the ‘One China’ policy with joint communiques between the US and China. Overtime, the ‘One China’ policy encompassed America’s acknowledgement of the mainland Chinese position that “there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China.” However, the same stopped short of deeming which of the two – the Republic of China (based in Taipei) or the People’s Republic of China (based in Beijing), represents the ‘One China’. Under Trump, however, this ‘One China’ policy – traditionally aimed to precariously balance America’s commitments towards Taiwan to deter Chinese efforts of unification via force, whilst at the same time maintaining relations with the mainland – has often been deemed as a transactional lever to be employed against Beijing.
In December 2017, when the then President-elect Donald Trump spoke to the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen in the immediate aftermath of the former’s election victory, the disdain for the ‘One China’ policy was apparent. Talking to Fox News, the President lambasted the policy’s efficacy. Arguing for the use of the ‘One China’ policy as a bargaining chip with China, he said, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” Citing US policy interests contemporarily at odds with China, he brandished America to have been “hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing; and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea.” A little over a year into the Trump presidency, however, this transactional approach to Taiwan has not served US interests well on these three avenues – trade, South China Sea and North Korea – that were deemed to be hurting America.
On North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship, it initially seemed that China was serious about its commitment to see a diplomatic resolution to the issue when it joined Western powers at the UN to slap some of the most crippling sanctions on the Kim Jong Un regime. However, it was eventually reported that China was violating the sanctions that sought to drastically curb trade with the country. American reconnaissance satellite images showed Chinese ships transferring oil to North Korean ships in the West Sea on multiple occasions in violation of UN sanctions. With the recent Xi Jingping-Kim Jong Un meet, it is now clear that China was merely aiming to “recapture its historic leverage over North Korea through coercive diplomacy”.
On the militarisation of the South China Sea, although the Trump administration has increased frequency of ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations by the U.S. military in the contested areas, the Chinese have hardly been deterred. Recent reports suggest the installation of “military jamming equipment”, and positions “prepared” for the possible deployment of “surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles” on the contested islands over which the Chinese claim territorial sovereignty.
Finally, on China’s trade practices, President Trump has refrained from fulfilling his campaign promise to declare China a “currency manipulator” owing to the $375.2 billion trade deficit between China and the United States. With respect to President Trump’s off-the-cuff declaration of unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, it is increasingly clear that the same reflects the “president’s preference to punch first and negotiate later.” This was evident in the Trump administration’s desire to coax “fair” deals for the US vis-à-vis multilateral platforms like NAFTA or with allied countries like South Korea.
In the case of China, the chances of Beijing acquiescing to US interests are, however, narrow. Declaring that “China doesn’t hope to be in a trade war, but is not afraid of engaging in one”, China has doubled down with what it deems as the “necessary response” to announce reciprocal tariffs. Some of these tariffs are meticulously aimed at products that hail from regions that were crucial Trump voter bases in the 2016 election. Beijing has thus rendered Trump’s tactic into a game of chicken poised with the possibility of a destabilising trade war between the world’s two largest economies. Thus, far from fulfilling US interests on the avenues cited by Trump, China has consistently outsmarted the ‘deal-maker’ President with rigorous stalemates and sheer indifference for his bluster.
Moreover, playing this ‘Taiwan card’ has only accentuated Beijing’s military “assertiveness” as evidenced in the aforementioned cases. Further, in early-2017, Taiwan’s Defence Minister confirmed China to have deployed Dongfeng 16 (DF-16) medium-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. In addition, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, the Chinese Air Force conducted in all 16 exercise drills around Taiwan in 2017 alone. Finally, the recent breach of Taiwan’s ADIZ by China’s aircraft carrier was the fourth such incident (with the other three occurring in January 2017, July 2017, and January 2018) since the Trump-Tsai call. In all, a defence review by the Taiwanese Defence Ministry noted 25 drills in Taiwanese airspace and waters conducted by Beijing between mid-2016 to late 2017. Disturbingly, some of these instances even resulted in Taipei scrambling its fighter jets – raising the prospects of miscalculations sparking a broader military confrontation between China and the United States.
The Chinese have also stepped up their rhetoric. At the prospect of President Trump signing the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2018 that contains a provision to consider establishing the “port of call exchanges” between Washington and Taipei’s navies, the Chinese didn’t mince words. At a Chinese embassy event in Washington, Chinese diplomat Li Kexin was reported to have told US officials that, “the day that a US Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s main port) is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force”.
Looking forward, the inclination to play the Taiwan ‘Trump’ card is not set to wane. A year into the Trump presidency, it is clear that US foreign policy is perpetually marred not only with policy incoherence and unhinged twitter storms but also with frequent shuffling of the US national security team. The latest being former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton assuming the National Security Council top job. A Bush-era official, Bolton in the past has expressed views analogous to Trump’s idea of employing Taiwan as a bargaining chip. Moreover, Bolton is infamous for having argued for the US to recognise Taiwan’s statehood to coerce Beijing to withdraw militarily from the South China Sea. Bolton has also suggested stationing US military personnel and assets in Taiwan as the same was argued to be much closer to “East Asia’s mainland and the South China Sea than either Okinawa or Guam, giving US forces greater flexibility for rapid deployment throughout the region should the need arise.”
The effect of this change of guard at the helm of the US national security apparatus is apparent in the recent reports of the Trump administration considering the sale of the F-35 to upgrade Taiwan’s aging air power and deter China. Although certain Congressional Republicans have led that consideration, the prospective sale may stand in lock-step with the Trump administration’s recent heightened rhetoric over the US dutifully fulfilling its commitments towards Taiwan. However, as evidenced, playing this Taiwan ‘Trump’ card may not only be unsuccessful in terms of meeting US interests, but may also further exacerbate Chinese assertiveness.
On January 26, The Washington Post reported that the Donald Trump administration is expected to seek a staggering $716 billion in defence spending in its 2019 budget. The proposed budget would be “a 13 per cent increase over 2017, when the United States spent about $634 billion on defence.” The planned increase in defence spending comes after President Donald Trump promised his maiden national security strategy to be a “major departure from the past” with respect to “once again investing in our [US] defense – almost $700 billion, a record, this coming year.” In the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, this call to “renew America’s competitive advantages” was summarised as the Trump administration’s will to ‘Preserve Peace Through Strength’. However, this emphasis on sustaining the United States’ military superiority “across a full spectrum” is not exclusively Trump’s.
Through the twentieth century, calls to hone military superiority have been a recurring tenant in US security policy –– from President Franklin Roosevelt’s call for amassing the “great arsenal of democracy” to defeat the forces of fascism, to successive administrations through the Cold War hunkering down to confront the “hostile design” of the Soviet Union. The Cold War saw US defence spending peak at 13.2 percent and 9.5 percent share of US GDP during the Korean and the Vietnam Wars, respectively. Further, even as the Cold War was sputtering to a close, under the Reagan administration’s assertion of securing “peace through our strength; (since) weakness only invites aggression”, US defence procurement budget soared “to $147.3 billion from $71.2 billion in 1980”.
In the post-Cold War world, the emphasis on maintaining American military superiority assumed greater relevance as the United States faced an impending economic decline in face of the rise of the rest. As the global economy’s axis shifted to the east, sustenance of US military superiority became the silver bullet – if you will, to preserve American primacy and the liberal world order at-large.
Hence, despite being bereft of the Cold War rationale, through the nineties, the United States and its allies continued to account for “a formidable 75 percent of global military spending” and US defence spending declined by a meagre 3 percentage share points to US GDP in the period of a decade (Data: World Bank). This post-Cold War “peace dividend” failed to be a substantive one as successive administrations continued to advocate for maintaining America’s military “edge” in newer contexts. Thus, as new threats were deemed to evolve in the post-Cold War world, the raison d’être for higher defence spending too differed through successive administrations.
Hence, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the George H. W. Bush administration sought to simply redefine and not limit the US military’s role. President Bush deemed the sustenance of America’s sprawling defence architecture as central to the “promise of a new world order, where brutality will go unrewarded and aggression will meet collective resistance”. Thus, the 1991 National Security Strategy underscored “a forceful reminder that there are still autonomous sources of turbulence in the world”, and called for investment strategies to “hedge against the unknown, giving future Presidents the flexibility” that comparatively advantageous capabilities provide. Similarly, the Clinton administrations advocated for maintaining “overarching capabilities” for future contingencies even as it embroiled itself in humanitarian interventions in Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, the 1996 National Security Strategy underscored “near-simultaneous hostilities with North Korea and Iraq” to require capabilities that “deter and, if necessary, defeat aggression in concert with regional allies in two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts”.
Subsequently, jolted by the attacks of 11 September, 2001, the George W. Bush administration emphasised the US military’s role as the ‘tip of the spear’ in meeting policy ends. The 2002 National Security Strategy underscored the need to “build and maintain our [US] defenses beyond challenge”. Further, the 2006 National Security Strategy purported it to be aimed “to extend freedom across the globe by leading an international effort to end tyranny and to promote effective democracy.”
Defence spending under this expansive rationale amounted to the largest US defence build-up since the aforementioned Reagan build-up. In figures adjusted to the 2009 US dollar levels, defence spending in the Bush era rose by a staggering 47%, peaking at $661 billion in 2009 – including Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) figures. Even under President Barack Obama, US defense spending continued to be high despite the congressionally imposed sequester and drawing down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the winding down of the aforementioned wars drastically decreased the OCO figures, the base budget figures under the Obama administration increased “from $497.3 billion to $521.7 billion, an increase of 5 per cent” from 2015 to 2016 alone. Further, on comparing eight years of the Obama administration’s base budgets with the Bush administration’s, Obama’s “exceeds Bush’s by a sum total of $816.7 billion.” In the Obama administration’s national security literature, this increase in defence spending was often construed in the lexicon of ‘American Exceptionalism’. For instance, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review stated, “America’s interests and role in the world require armed forces with unmatched capabilities and a willingness on the part of the nation to employ them in defense of our interests and the common good.”
This emphasis on sustaining US primacy vis-à-vis its military capabilities continues to hold credence in the Trump era. Moreover, as in the case of previous post-Cold War administrations, merely the jargon adopted to justify higher defence budgets has changed. For instance, in his 18 December, 2017 speech, President Trump invoked the aforementioned Reagan administration principle of “peace through strength” in the context of emerging threats of the 21st century. Promising to “recognize that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unrivaled power is the most certain means of defense,” President Trump spoke of “a new era of competition” requiring the United States to ace “vigorous military, economic, and political contests [that] are now playing out all around the world.” In January, whilst unveiling the US National Defense Strategy, Secretary of Defense James Mattis similarly argued to “restore our comparative military advantage” to address “great power competition, not terrorism” as the “primary focus of US national security.”
Further, the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy deemed a US military “overmatch” competitive advantage to be central to the “long-term strategic competitions” with China and Russia that “want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests” – aimed to “weaken” America’s influence.
In summation, Trump’s National Security Strategy does appear to be a “major departure” from the George H. W. Bush years’ promise of the “New World Order”, the Bill Clinton years’ focus on preparedness for “multiple major” regional contingencies, the George W. Bush era’s crusade against “tyranny”, and the Barack Obama administrations’ bullishness over American stewardship on the world stage. It nevertheless preserves the enduring tenant of US security policy of persevering Washington’s primacy via sustaining America’s military superiority. The Trump administration’s focus on sustaining the US military’s superiority – although in its new context of “great power competition” – therefore reflects a classic primacist American world view than a disruptive, ‘drain-the-swamp’ Trump outlook.
Thucydides’ assertion of the fifth century war being “inevitable” owing to the “rise of Athens” and the fear it “instilled” in the “ruling” power of Sparta — holds key relevance in the 21st century.
In 2015, the Harvard Belfer Center, under the tutelage of noted power transition theorist Graham Allison, studied 16 historical cases of “ruling” and “rising” powers. The study propounded 12 of the 16 adopted cases within the past 500 years to have eventually devolved into war — offering a stark endorsement of the ‘Thucydides trap’. It is named after the Greek historian Thucydides, whose account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta continues to be a seminal piece of work on the theory of power transitions. And if the United States’ unprecedented show of strength during President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Asia is an indication, Thucydides’ assertion of the fifth century war being “inevitable” owing to the “rise of Athens” and the fear it “instilled” in the “ruling” power of Sparta — holds key relevance in the 21st century.
The post-Cold War world has witnessed China’s meteoric rise. In 1984, five years after the Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, America’s share of the world economy was 12.8 times that of China. By 2016, that ratio plummeted to 1.7 times. In 1996, five years before China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation, US trade with the world was 3.9 times that of China. By 2010, China had become the world’s largest trading nation. In recent years, China’s GDP has swelled nearly five times — from $2.3 trillion in 2005 to $11.2 trillion in 2015. China’s economic rise has also translated into greater security maximisation. Its defence budget increased from a mere $52 billion in 2001 to $214 billion in 2015 (Read). In comparison, the US continues to hone its primacy with respect to its economy — GDP (2016 absolute terms) of $18.62 trillion at current prices (Read). Militarily, the United States in the post-Cold War era has consistently accounted for over one-third of the world’s total military expenditure (Read). Lastly, globalisation continues to be a euphemistic outlet for America’s soft power expanse. Benjamin Barber once referred to it as MTV, Macintosh, and McDonalds: “pressing nations into one homogenous global theme park.” Today, the same may have diffused into the multiples of Netflix, Facebook and Starbucks; globalisation nevertheless remains bedrocked by the fundamentals of American soft power. However, China’s rise has fanned neorealist prophecies of a coming power transition war between the “rising” power of China and the “ruling” power of the United States.
Globalisation continues to be a euphemistic outlet for America’s soft power expanse. Benjamin Barber once referred to it as MTV, Macintosh, and McDonalds: “pressing nations into one homogenous global theme park.”
The same stands evidenced in Chinese and American security policy corridors’ discourse on China’s Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) strategies and its American corollary of the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) doctrine. From the Thucydidean standpoint, Graham Allison thus deemed the “the preeminent geostrategic challenge of this era” to be the “impact of China’s ascendance.” In the Trump era, this “challenge” stands greatly exacerbated due to increased American militarism stemming from the US foreign and security establishment’s fixation with sustaining US “credibility”.
The Peloponnesian war between the “rising” power of Athens and the “ruling” power of Sparta can be traced to either parties’ entrapment with their alliance commitments. When the city-states of Corinth and Corcyra/Corfu sparred, Sparta rushed to its ally Corinth’s defence fearing the wane of its own influence — by extension, in the probability of its ally’s loss. This left the “rising” power of Athens “little choice but to back” its ally Corfu. In the pedagogy of alliance politics (à la Glenn H. Snyder), credibility stands central for alliance partners to effectively balance between fears of abandonment and perils of entrapment. In deterrent cases, sustaining credibility within alliances is a virtue of positive peace. In other cases — as enunciated in case of Sparta fearing a decline of its influence — following through on commitments to sustain one’s influence (by extension), can be a catalyst for escalation ending in strategic disasters. Thus, noted scholar Joseph Nye’s assertion of politics being “a contest of competitive credibility” holds seminal pertinence.
In case of the United States, which has served as the sole military superpower in the post-Cold War world with security partnerships with over 60 countries, many of its strategic missteps have stemmed from its fixation with “credibility”. In the heydays of the Cold War, the United States — in its zeal to contain the Soviet Union — engaged in a limited intervention in the then-French Indo-China. In the years to come, that limited intervention, in a bid to sustain American “credibility”, devolved into the all-expansive Vietnam War, which by late 1968 forced Washington to engage over half a million troops in the region, spend approximately $35 billion annually, leaving over 50,000 US soldiers dead.
In an interview with The Atlantic in 2016, President Barack Obama expressed his disdain for the US foreign policy establishment’s “fetish” with credibility — especially the “sort of credibility purchased with force.” President Obama, however, had his own share of fixation with credibility in his first term — best evidenced in his insistence to not “brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader” in case of the West’s intervention in Libya. The subsequent US military operation reduced Libya to an active breeding ground for religious extremists and terrorist networks. Having learnt the pitfalls of this credibility “fetish”, President Obama in his second term refrained from militarily intervening in Syria. In national security meetings, President Obama would often nip arguments for employing force with the assertion that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.” Regardless of this wisdom that befell the 44th president in case of Syria, fixation with American credibility — underpinned by the imperatives of America’s supposed “responsibilities” as the world’s sole “indispensable” power — has been a regular fixture in US foreign policy.
Having learnt the pitfalls of credibility “fetish”, President Obama in his second term refrained from militarily intervening in Syria. In national security meetings, President Obama would often nip arguments for employing force with the assertion that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”
In case of the Asia-Pacific, where the US boasts the exceptionality of its ‘hub & spokes’ alliance system (à la David Shambaugh), overt fixation with American credibility is reinforced by its expansive conception of interests in the region. Consider the 2017 Annual Report to Congress on ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’. Submitted by the US Department of Defense, the report asserts that the US would ensure it “retains the ability to defend the homeland, deter aggression, protect our allies and partners, and preserve regional peace, prosperity, and freedom.” Such expansive conceptions can have grave consequences in terms of perpetuating what Barry Posen refers to as activist grand strategies’ preeminent feature of “domino theories”. In case of the US, Posen defined the same as foreign and security policy discourses that string together a chain of “individually imaginable, but collectively implausible, major events, to generate an ultimate threat to the United States and then argue backward to the extreme importance of using military power to stop the fall of the first domino.”
In the Trump era, the excesses of “domino theories” is compounded by the US foreign and security establishment overcompensating for the Trump administration’s policy incoherence with greater military posturing to reassure allies and partners in the region — and by that extension sustain US “credibility”.
Consider President Trump’s recent five-nation visit in the Pacific Rim. In Japan, he bonded with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who in the recent snap elections enjoyed a decisive endorsement of his revisionist vision for the pacifist country. In South Korea, after attempting to alleviate Seoul’s concerns with a fairly-tempered speech at the Korean National Assembly, President Trump irresponsibly volleyed insults at North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. In Vietnam, he accused the region’s countries of trade malpractice, and pledged to “always put America first.” In the Philippines, he once again expressed his affinity for authoritarian leaders by reportedly appearing “sympathetic” towards President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs, and bonded with the Filipino strongman over their shared dislike for President Barack Obama. In China, President Trump failed to address Beijing’s human rights record, and showered President Xi Jinping with “embarrassingly fawning accolades” — to borrow former National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice’s words.
In the Trump era, the excesses of domino theories is compounded by the US foreign and security establishment overcompensating for the Trump administration’s policy incoherence with greater military posturing to reassure allies and partners in the region — and by that extension sustain US credibility.
Meanwhile, the US Department of Defense was engaging in an unprecedented show of force. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford even downplayed the significance of the overlapping timelines as mere “coincidence”. Nearly a fortnight before President Trump’s arrival in the region, the US Navy on 24 October 2017 announced the arrival of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt along with its Carrier Strike Group (CSG) in the “Indo-Asia-Pacific Region”. The same was set to join USS Ronald Reagan — the US 7th Fleet’s “only forward-deployed carrier strike group” in the region generally operating out of Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan — then anchored off the port of Busan in South Korea. A day later, the “scheduled deployment” of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the region was also announced. Along with its Carrier Strike Group, the USS Nimitz was set to arrive in the region after “concluding operations in US 5th Fleet” in the support of Operation Inherent Resolve — codename for US-led coalition operation against the Islamic State.
In perspective, the last time the United States had three aircraft carriers in the region was a decade ago off the coast of Guam — miles away from the volatility of the East China Sea and the Korean peninsula. These deployments rendered the US Navy to have seven out of its total 11 nuclear aircraft carriers to be “underway simultaneously for the first time in several years.” Further, a day before the arrival of the aircraft carriers was announced, the US Air Force also reported a ‘first time in several years’ escalation. The US Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein told the security news website Defense One that the Air Force was updating B-52 bombers armed with nuclear warheads to the 24-hour alert status — a “ready-to-fly posture not seen since the Cold War.” Although the US Air Force later reneged on this announcement of escalation, the run-up to Trump’s visit oversaw the first operational deployment of the F-35A fifth generation stealth fighter in the region, and increased frequency of ‘show of force’ operations by long-range B1-B Lancer strategic bombers.
Although all aforementioned deployments were underplayed as “scheduled” deployments, CNN military analyst and a former US Navy admiral John Kirby said the deployments were meant to send a message of “making sure China knows it’s [US] still the predominant force in the Pacific region.” This analysis holds credence in view of General Dunford’s categorical denial of the deployments being meant to “specifically” target North Korea. Rather the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs went on to attribute a broader rationale behind the same — to demonstrate US “commitment to the region” at-large. These deployments also come barely three months after President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon ridiculed the media’s outsized attention on North Korea. In an interview in August before his dismissal as President Trump’s chief strategist, Bannon called the nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula as “just a sideshow”, while the coming “inflection point” with China was deemed to be “everything.” Since then, a marked increase in US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the highly contested South China Sea has also been reported. Not only has the frequency of the operations increased under President Trump, but it is deemed to be currently “on course for 900 ship hours” in 2017 alone. Thus, the greater military posturing seen under President Trump thus cannot be entirely attributed to the issue of North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship.
In Beijing, the message intended by this uptick in US military posturing has not only been received, but has also acquired the Asian giant’s ire. This week, a Hong Kong daily reported that China held a “large-scale military exercise” in the region “in response” to the arrival of three US aircraft carriers in the region. It is crucial to note that such precedents of military posture escalation raise the prospects of miscalculations that may serve as tripwires to greater military confrontations — probably of Thucydidean proportions — between China and the United States.
In his farewell address in 1796, George Washington warned against “interweaving our destiny” with that of other countries to “entangle” American “peace and prosperity” in exchange. Certainly there exists no medium to ascertain if Washington was a proponent of American isolationism. However, the founding father’s words over two centuries later stand pertinent in context of American interests swelling in perpetuity in view of American foreign policy being “entangled” with missions meant to convey its “credibility”. The United States under Trump thus needs to take note of the writings on the Thucydidean wall, if it wishes to avert its now increasingly plausible tryst as a “ruling power”.
In the post-Cold War world, successive US administrations have jostled with the inclination to adopt military means to achieve policy goals. Reflecting the regularity of such an inclination are the findings of a recent US Congressional Research Service report, which states that the United States has deployed its armed forces in over 190 rotational and active conflict missions abroad between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and October 10, 2017.
This ‘militarisation’ of US foreign policy is underpinned by Washington’s sprawling defence architecture. The United States’ Department of Defense or the Pentagon is the world’s largest employer with “over 3.2 million employees” as per the World Economic Forum.
Monetarily, it has had an average (post-Cold War) budget of about $553 billion – with its spending accounting for over one-third of the world’s total military expenditure (source: SIPRI). Also, the American defence architecture has an unparalleled power projection capability of “nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad”. Thus, spurring the implication – unarguably honing the best hammer renders every problem to appear as a nail.
The militarisation of US foreign policy was most famously evidenced in 1993 in the then-US Ambassador to the UN Madeline Albright’s advocacy for American military intervention in Bosnia. In a meeting with national security officials who were reluctant for military engagement in Eastern Europe, barely a couple of years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ambassador Albright complained, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” In an interview with The Atlantic in 2016, President Barack Obama referred to this trigger itch – if you will, as the “Washington Playbook”, which prescribes “responses to different events” that mostly “tend to be militarised responses.”
This militarisation thus spurs a möbius strip of institutionalising an activist, values-exporting US foreign policy under Neoclassical Realist constructs stemming from an adherence to America’s “urgent” need to maintain its aforementioned unparalleled military capability year after year.
With nine months in, it is still ambiguous on what sense of grand strategy or worldview lends structure to President Trump’s foreign policy. However, greater militarisation of US foreign policy under his leadership is increasingly apparent, beyond his erratic tweets declaring that US forces are “locked and loaded”, bluster-filled comments like vowing to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea, and undermining the efficacy of diplomatic solutions by repeatedly undercutting his chief diplomat Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Moreover, President Trump has exacerbated the risks of an all too militarised US foreign policy in the following ways:
From a political standpoint, President Trump seems to have abdicated his constitutionally-mandated duty as Commander-in-Chief to exercise civilian oversight in order to conveniently distance himself from when military operations fail.
For instance, following a botched military raid in Yemen that left one US Navy Seal dead, President Trump conveniently blamed the military. In an interview with Fox News, he said, “This was something that was, you know, just – they wanted to do”.
This abdication of civilian oversight has also encouraged the military to act with increased nonchalance. In the last nine months, the US has dropped the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb – the “largest non–nuclear bomb ever used in combat” – in Afghanistan without the military needing President Trump’s approval; the Pentagon has raised the total number of US military personnel in Syria to nearly 1,000; and it has decreased transparency by classifying key figures like troop levels and casualties with respect to its mission in Afghanistan. As per foreignpolicy.com, under President Trump, America has “dropped about 20,650 bombs through July 31, or 80 percent of the number dropped under [President] Obama for the entirety of 2016”. This greater militarism has also had ramifications in terms of civilian casualties. The UK-based non-profit monitor Airwars recently reported that the Trump administration’s fight against the ISIS in its first seven months has “already resulted in more civilian deaths than under the entirety of the Obama administration”. Whereas in Afghanistan, the UN recently reported a 67 percent increase in civilian deaths from US airstrikes in the first half of 2017 compared to that of 2016.
Compounding the President’s decision to accord theatre commanders greater latitude by decreased civilian oversight, stands the Trump administration’s unwillingness to articulate clearly-defined strategies. In the absence of well-defined strategies i.e. clearly defined political end-states, tactical and operational considerations, which are strict domains of the military under the United States’ tradition of objective civilian control of the military, double as strategies. For instance, the Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, recently lamented the lack of a strategy in Afghanistan. Addressing Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford, Senator McCain said, “… we know that the military has been given more flexible authorities to target our enemies. But we still do not know how these military gains will be translated into progress toward a political solution.”
In his speech in August on the “New South Asia Strategy”, President Trump underscored an ambiguous strategy that had influences of both; a limited counterterrorist mission that called for “the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future”, and an expansive counterinsurgency-inspired open ended conflict not based on “arbitrary timetables”.
Whereas, speaking in Afghanistan alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the former four-star marine general-turned-Secretary of Defense said, “our coalition is committed to doing everything humanly possible to protect the innocent caught up in this war where our enemy purposely targets the innocent”. The Secretary’s statement reflects an ambitious shift to an overarching population-centric mission in contrast to President Trump’s limited interests’ mission of “We are not nation-building. We are killing terrorists”. This failure to outline a coherent strategy with clear political end-states has rendered military operational and tactical aims to serve as slippery slopes to an ever-expansive war.
The inefficacy of employing military means without outlining a desired political end-state was also apparent in the decision to order airstrikes on Syrian Air Force facilities in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in early 2017. The same was not coupled or followed by a diplomatic endeavour to oversee the systematic dismantlement of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, until months later when Syria agreed to join the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention with its staunch ally Russia’s coaxing.
Lastly, the ramifications of this greater militarisation also encompasses the Trump administration setting an uneasy precedent for American civil-military relations. Speaking at a Center for a New American Security conference in June 2017, Dr. Kori Schake – an observer of American civil-military relations – accused the Trump administration of “hiding behind the military’s institutional credibility”. Dr. Schake opined that overtime such a trend could “cause the public to believe that politicised roles are okay for our military when, in fact, public support for the military comes from them being rigorously apolitical.”
Such an implication coupled with the fact that the Pentagon is “the most admired” of all US institutions including democratic institutions like the Congress, has evidently militarised America’s foreign policy further. In a televised interview in September 2017 on the issue of North Korea’s continued nuclear brinksmanship, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told CNN’s Dana Bash: “We have pretty much exhausted all the things that we could do at the [U.N.] Security Council at this point. Now, I said yesterday I am perfectly happy kicking this over to General Mattis, because he has plenty of military options.”
Not only was the Ambassador’s frivolous demeanour to opt for a military solution alarming, but also a testament to the administration’s overt affinity for a route that could endanger the lives of nearly 25 million in the region. In addition, the Ambassador’s use of the term ‘General’ whilst referring to a retired Marine General now serving in the second most powerful civilian role in the military chain of command – as the Secretary of Defense – denotes the administration’s attempt to – in Dr. Schake’s words – hide “behind the military’s institutional credibility.”
Another example of the Trump administration hiding behind the brass includes, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster – who remains on active duty as a Lieutenant General of the United States Army – addressing the press to defend the President’s decision to share sensitive intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. Retired four-star marine general and now the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly recently addressing the press to defend President Trump reportedly telling a grieving widow of a slain soldier that her husband “knew what he was getting into” also suggests similar conduct.
In late 1961, armed with the benefit of hindsight in the aftermath of the botched military invasion of the Bay of Pigs under the advisement of bellicose Joint Chiefs, President John F. Kennedy observed, “The first thing I’m going to tell my successor is to watch the generals, and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.” As various foreign policy challenges – from North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship to Venezuela being on the brink of a sociopolitical fallout – surface, the prospects of greater American military adventurism under the Trump administration are all too real with Kennedy’s advice continuing to escape the present Commander-in-Chief.