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Op-Ed

Facebook Chat on India-US relations

Editor's Note:

The following is a transcript from a Facebook chat with Fellow Dhruva Jaishankar, held on June 23, 2017. The views are of the author(s) and participant(s). 

Q: Dhruva, according to you which sectors will be the focus of the India-U.S. dialogue?

Dhruva: Thanks for your question. The India-U.S. agenda is very broad, and will remain so. In the official meetings this weekend a lot will come up, including trade, immigration, security, etc. I suspect the meeting between Modi and Trump will be more focused, and on the positive elements, in a bit to set a positive tone. Thus, strategic affairs (Indian Ocean, Afghanistan), defence ties, possibly energy could be discussed, as well as how much India is investing in the U.S. and creating jobs.

Q: Wouldn’t you consider Afghanistan a sore point given that the US has very recently woken up to the fact that India is a responsible stakeholder and should have a say in the future of Afghanistan?

Dhruva: There has been a lot of ambivalence on the part of the U.S. about India’s role in Afghanistan, which swings between concern (believing that India’s presence creates insecurities in Pakistan and justifies that country’s support for terrorist groups) and complaints that India is not doing enough. The pendulum has swung quite clearly onto one side now, and the U.S. has become more outspoken about welcoming India’s civilian and military support. The level of coordination between Washington and New Delhi on Afghanistan has also increased. The past is the past, and while there were sharper differences before, it’s now an area of growing convergence and cooperation.

Q: Kenneth Juster’s possible appointment as US Ambassador to India is being seen as a reprimand to him for his pro-globalization views. Although he is the right man to have in New Delhi, would he have enough capital to argue India’s case for more jobs and better defense cooperation?

Dhruva: Good question. No one is doubting that Juster is qualified and capable. He has a private sector background, worked on defense export controls in the Bush administration, understands international economics and has a strategic bent. But if he’s leaving the White House under a cloud, it might not augur well for his clout within the system. Still, on balance, he’s probably a better pick than many other ambassadorial choices that have been made to other countries (who are often donors), even if his views may not always be on the same page as the Trump Administration’s.

Q: What are the ramifications of US approving the deal to sell India 22 drones in the backdrop of Modi visiting Washington?

Dhruva: Drones are one technology that India has been seeking for some time, but has been complicated by concerns and sensitivities in the U.S. Congress. Unmanned drones are seen as an important step to much more complex systems. It’s a technology that India has a lot of uses for, including counter-terrorism and reconnaissance.

Q: How will Modi deal with conventional issues like the H1B1 visas. A conventional issue that recent PMs haven’t had to deal with.

Dhruva: I’m not sure this makes sense for Modi to bring up in a one-on-one meeting with Trump, for a number of reasons. One is this falls as much to the U.S. Congress, as it requires legislative changes. Two, it is as likely to provoke a harsher response as lead to a productive outcome. So while officials on both sides will discuss it, and have been over the past several months, it’s unlikely to be raised at the highest levels.

Q: Would the ongoing Russia investigation have any tangible impact on the talks?

Dhruva: It certainly has weakened Trump’s position domestically, and it could be that he’ll be politically embattled for some time. But India’s position is that it has to deal with whoever is in power in the United States today, and that is Trump. Support for India is, however, broad, and there will be engagements with other elements in Washington as well, including Vice President Pence, members of the cabinet, and the U.S. Congress, which has long had a moderating influence on India policy (for better and for worse!).

Q: Under Trump what is future of US pivot to Asia strategy and role of India in it , knowing Trump seems to be closer to China than any partner or ally, or middle power alliance time has come. Can India and US still think of taking bilateral trade to $500 billions once John Kerry talked about, or now we shall see a US asking what you can do for us. India has an ambitious climate change target can we fulfill without US, knowing GCF fund of $100 billion annual now look impossible. Can we make a strategic alliance without economic co-operation, knowing a strong military only possible if one has strong domestic economy? TPP was one such move to not just challenge China in terms of military might but also hit them on their economy.

Dhruva: The U.S. pivot to Asia is closely affiliated with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. While not calling that, he has hinted at a bigger military role in Asia, including through increases in the budget. At the same time, he has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which the Obama administration saw as the economic linchpin of the pivot. Much will now hinge on the Trump administration’s approach to China, which is still in flux. Modi will probably seek some kind of clarity on that front. Trade is problematic for a number of reasons, but there is less of an appetite for trade deals in most countries than in the past. On climate, Modi has indicated a willingness to go forward with India’s targets, regardless of the U.S. withdrawal. Given the decreased costs of clean energy and decreased costs of capital, Indian emissions will continue to decelerate, and emissions from the US are likely to go down even further.

Q: Will climate be on agenda considering the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement, citing India and China as reasons? If it is discussed, should India justify the disparity in the targets which were to be achieved by the agreement?

Dhruva: The U.S. has made its position clear on climate change by withdrawing form Paris. A few caveats: many state governments and U.S. corporations that are major emitters have not followed suit. Similarly, the Indian government – specifically, Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj – have made India’s position clear. I’d be surprised if climate change is brought up in person by Modi with Trump, unless Trump brings it up first and Modi clarifies what India’s position is (which is that it’s not contingent upon billions of dollars from America). The economics of clean energy and renewables – and financing mechanisms – have changed so much in the past couple of years as to make emissions targets more achievable. It’s quite likely that U.S. emissions will continue to fall despite Trump’s withdrawal from Paris.

Q: Will there be any announcement on F16 deal as few online reports mentioned that LM will manufacturer F16 only if it wins contract ?..Can we also expect any mention of Pak sponsored terrorism in the Joint Statement ?..Finally, what can we expect from H-1B visa issue..

Dhruva: (1) I’d be sceptical of some of the news reports you’ll see about defence deals. The single engine fighter tender is still open and there is a process. The recent announcement in Paris was meant only to make one particular bid more attractive, and should not be seen as a sign of an imminent contract. (2) There will 100% be a mention of terrorism in the joint statement, since it’s a high priority for both governments. I’d be surprised if Pakistan is mentioned, given the U.S. position, but as in years past, it is quite possible that Pakistan-based groups will be mentioned specifically. If Pakistan is mentioned, it would be a very strong signal on Washington’s part. (3) I’ve addressed the H-1B issue in another answer: it involves the U.S. Congress and is politically sensitive. While Indian and U.S. officials will be discussing it (and have over the past several months) I don’t see any wisdom in Modi raising it with Trump.

Q: Trump govt is preparing its strategy for Afghanistan. What would be the US expectation from India in this regard? What India would be able to provide?

Dhruva:  India is already a major provider of civilian assistance to Afghanistan. It is the 5th largest aid provider, it has built the Salma Dam and Afghan parliament, it’s trained 4000 Afghan security force officers, and there are 16,000 Afghan students in India. It is important for India to highlight its contributions, and not just to Trump. Beyond that, the question is what can India do to support security efforts in Afghanistan. I suspect providing military hardware (beyond four second-hand helicopters) could be on the table, and increased training. But Indian troops in Afghanistan may be a step too far. Troop numbers are no longer much of an issue – the U.S. presence has dwindled and the ANSF has built up over time. But highlighting extant Indian efforts, and perhaps increased military assistance in the form of equipment and training may be in the offing.

Q:  How will Modi deal with the fact that Trump singled out India and China as the ‘freeloaders’ of the Paris Accords?

Dhruva:  External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj did respond to that, and the Indian government has made it clear that Trump’s view is mistaken – India’s participation in the Paris Accord is not contingent about “billions and billions and billions of dollars,” as Trump said. I doubt climate change cooperation will feature prominently in the face-to-face meeting between Modi and Trump, but further cooperation on energy – including U.S. gas exports to India – could very well come up, as a potentially beneficial deal for both countries.

Q: What can we expect from the joint statement of Modi and Trump!!

Dhruva: Much of that is being hammered out in the days and hours before Modi and Trump meet on Monday. We could be in for some surprises. Areas of natural convergence will feature: terrorism, freedom of navigation, Afghanistan. Lot of the usual language about the importance of each country for the other. I’d keep a particular eye out for something on the Indian Ocean region. On bilateral issues, perhaps defense and energy. But the real question is how much detail the two sides will go into. Sweeping statements are one thing, but more detail on any of these matters would be a positive.

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