India's Diplomatic Relations with the US

A Roller Coaster Ride

By Sakshi Jain

A Chinese coammentator once rightly said that irrespective of a country’s geographical position, America is everybody’s neighbor. America has diplomatic ties with most nations across the world except Iran, Bhutan and North Korea to name a few.

The diplomatic relationships between the US and India have witnessed a lot of ups and downs from the cold war and falling-out over India’s successful nuclear test, to stronger relations over the recent year with both the countries sharing the same concern involving rising China’s influence in Asia and globally. The leaders of India and the US often describe the countries as being natural partners with a shared strategic interest. Donald Trump also called himself a “big, big fan” of India. But first, let’s look into how exactly they started off, Shall we?

Sour start…

The story goes back in time to the year 1949 when the then Prime Minister, Nehru met the then US President Truman. However, the efforts to create a stronger bond between the two nations were hindered when in the onset of the cold war, India took a leadership role in the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), representing developing countries. India’s role during the cold war was rather of de-escalating the cold war and promoting harmony and peace not just for itself but third world countries as a whole. Though India was a part of the NAM, it seemed to have found a lot of common ground with the Soviet Union in the economic, political and military front. And of course, the US did not tolerate this and was a major reason for the rising tensions between the two nations in the 1960s.

Fast forward to the year 1974, where India amazed the world with its first successful underground nuclear test “Smiling Buddha” carried out in the Rajasthan desert near ‘Pokhran’. India claimed that the test was done only for peaceful purposes, but the US thought otherwise. This led to decades of estrangement between the nations. Worse still, in the year 1978, when the Jimmy Carter administration enacted the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act (which requires countries that are not of the Non-proliferation treaty, including India, to allow their facilities to be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency), India refused. And Washington ceased all nuclear assistance to Delhi.

Only after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi met with President Reagan in 1982 did the two countries attempt to resolve the dispute over nuclear power and increase cooperation. In the years that followed, the two nations improved their strategic and economic relations. The economic reforms of 1991 also helped expand economic ties with the US.

So far so good, but then in 1998, India again announced the completion of a series of underground nuclear tests close to the border with Pakistan. This test surprised US intelligence organizations and raised fears across the region. President Bill Clinton imposed economic sanctions against India.


A turn for better…

And then comes the first trip of a US President to India in about 20 years, with Bill Clinton’s trip to the country in 2000. This trip set the stage for better economic relations. And in the coming years when Washington Bush became the President, it only got better. All the remaining sanctions that were imposed on India after its nuclear test were lifted in 2005. Bush and Manmohan Singh signed the Civil Nuclear Cooperation initiative, under which India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities. In exchange, the US agreed to work towards civil nuclear cooperation with India. This nuclear deal, made India the only country outside of the Nonproliferation Treaty that has nuclear capabilities and is allowed to participate in nuclear commerce.

Both the countries cooperated with each other on a wide range of issues in the years that followed. From signing the “mangoes-for-motorcycles” deal to Chandrayaan-1 (the first Indian spacecraft to land on moon) carrying scientific instruments designed by NASA scientists (that later discovered water molecules on moon’s surface) they came a long way.

The wide range of US India ties are impressive. The US is now India’s largest economic partner, with trade in goods and services expected to cross $150 Billion. India is also predicted to have procured defense items worth $18 billion from the US by the end of 2019. The US is also the biggest market for India’s IT sector. India and the US have also reached an increasing level of strategic convergence with India’s increasing concern over China’s growing presence in South Asia, and the US also seeking to counter China’s growing global influence.

However, trade tensions between the two countries continue to rise with Trump calling out on India as one of the reasons for trade deficit in the US. In 2018, it imported US goods worth $33 billion while exporting goods worth $54 billion. Owing to which, Trump Administration terminated India’s preferential trade status, which allowed the goods of India to enter US markets duty free. In retaliation, India slapped tariffs on 28 US products. And the issue of restrictions on H1-B visas because of his “Buy American, hire American” policy continues to be there.


The way forward…

The future prospects of their relations will largely be affected by the result of the most awaited

US presidential elections in November 2020. It has now become apparent that Joe Biden will be Trump’s opponent in the elections. What happens when either of the two becomes the President? Let’s figure out.

Trump calls himself a big ‘fan ’of India, and both the leaders call themselves strategic partners. Then came the ‘Howdy Modi ’event at Texas and also ‘Namaste Trump ’event in India. But were these events substantial enough? Or were they just a political gimmick? The fact that both the countries were not able to agree upon a meaningful trade, possibly means it was the latter. Trump’s “America First”, “Keep America Great”, “Buy American, Hire American” campaign, building walls to stop immigrants, and banning H1-B visas could also mean that he plans to make the US more isolated by restructuring trade agreements. Perhaps, India would not have much to gain if Trump becomes the President for a second time.

In contrast Joe Biden, who was the Vice President during Obama presidency. Biden as President would mean a continuation of the ties between India and US during Obama administration. It was during Obama’s administration that the US elevated India’s status to that of a strategic global partner. That view could remain sustained in Biden’s administration. Biden, is a strategic thinker and has also been a long-standing friend of India. Earlier in his campaign for President, where he laid out his foreign policy vision, he stated that US should reach out to India and other Asian partners to strengthen ties with them. The areas of interest would include climate change, nuclear ties and cyberwarfare. Biden also stated that if he was elected, he would revoke H1-B visa suspension.

The future US India relationship ties depend much upon the coming American electorate. So, let time unfold what it has to offer.