While much of the foreign-policy attention of the Trump administration centers on the imperative of disentangling militarily from Syria and Afghanistan, at the other end of the spectrum, concerted attempts have been made by the administration to strengthen the US military as well as economic presence in the Indo-Pacific region, indicating a shift of American foreign-policy focus.

The concluding day of last year witnessed President Donald Trump signing the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) authorizing spending of US$1.5 billion toward developing a comprehensive, multifaceted US policy for the Indo-Pacific region. The act recognized the vitality of Indo-US strategic partnership in the overall strategy. Similarly, New Delhi looked poised to beef up its defense preparedness and sought strategic partnership with the US in view of growing Chinese presence as well as activities in the Indian Ocean and across the Himalayas, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi took care to distance his government from any group or policy that aimed primarily at containing China in the Indian Ocean at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore on June 1, 2018.

India concluded defense agreements with the US such as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), allowing access to designated military facilities on either side for the purpose of refueling and replenishment, and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), to facilitate interoperability as well as Indian military platforms’ access to encrypted, cutting-edge and high-end secured communication equipments from the US. These were primarily aimed at containing growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean under the Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime Silk Road project. Indian strategists conceived the Chinese designs as a “string of pearls” (encirclement) strategy.

The strategic partnership nonetheless contributed to India’s concerns by shrinking space for its strategic maneuverability (strategic autonomy) needed for its policy of multi-alignment and by weakening its Central Asian and Afghan strategy. Recent trade rows meanwhile reeked of the fledgling nature of the strategic partnership, which stood on the centrality of common stakes in the Indo-Pacific and containing the rising influence of China, enhanced militarization of the Indian Ocean resulting from the Quad members’ (US, Japan, India and Australia) increased strategic activities would contribute to India’s lingering security concerns.

Afghan concerns

It is worth recalling that President Trump’s remarks that Indian Prime Minister Modi, with whom he shared a friendly personal relationship, was “constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan…. That’s like five hours of what we spend…. And we are supposed to say, ‘Oh, thank you for the library.’ I don’t know who is using it in Afghanistan,” did not go down well in New Delhi. It also revealed Trump’s ignorance about India’s concerns and involvement in Afghanistan.

As the recent developments concerning the Afghan peace process indicate, the Trump administration is seeking to bring a hasty end to America’s more than 18-year Afghan entanglement through invigorating peace efforts. American and Taliban representatives have been negotiating since October 12, 2018, in Doha, and the American interlocutor Zalmay Khalilzad has visited India meanwhile as part of his effort to reach a peace deal.

While India still clings to a policy of not engaging with the Taliban and presses for an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace initiative, what has been worrisome from New Delhi’s perspective is that any potential peace deal, rather than being Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, so far looks like a deal with the Taliban from which the Afghan government as well as civil-society groups representing concerns of women and minority groups have been excluded.

It is worth mentioning that India had sent two former diplomats in a “non-official” capacity to a conference on Afghan peace process in Moscow in November last year that was attended by a high-level Taliban delegation. However, India seems to be lacking a coherent strategy as to how to deal with the Taliban, which has emerged as the most powerful actor in the Afghan political scenario.

Trump offered to mediate between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue primarily to strengthen his Afghan strategy by setting right the deteriorating relations with Islamabad impacted by continued military sanctions. However, he had to withdraw from the gambit in light of India’s resistance to any kind of third-party intervention on the issue.

Multi-alignment

India intends to pursue a policy of multi-alignment so that it can diversify its relations with many powers, decrease its dependence on any single power and thereby fulfill its economic and military objectives without compromising its strategic autonomy and sovereignty. India has continued to express its willingness to continue close defense ties with Russia as well as to forge new defense deals in order to diversify its military supplies as part of its policy of multi-alignment despite the probability of US sanctions.

John Hamre, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), recently told The Sunday Guardian: “Threats like the S-400 Russian missile defense system deal and ongoing trade frictions may rock this friendship boat.” He further asserted that “if India proceeds with the S-400, we can’t take a different position with India than the position we take with Turkey. This could be a very serious disruption of defense cooperation between India and America.”

Similarly, while the leadership in New Delhi has theoretically affirmed that India would only respect sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, Indian responses to the sanctions imposed by the US strike a discordant note with its assertion and indicate its rising economic and military dependence on the US. For instance, in May 2018, when the US first announced its sanctions, the then-external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said India would never abide by unilateral sanctions from the US, and only followed “UN sanctions.” However, Modi reportedly told Trump that New Delhi had, in fact, reduced its intake of Iranian oil, in accordance with Washington’s request to “zero out” Iranian oil imports after May 2 of this year. Further, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a visit to New Delhi, lauded India’s efforts by making an announcement that “assertive” India had stopped buying oil from Iran.

In a similar vein, Shahid Beheshti Port at Chabahar, Iran, which was handed over to India in 2018, witnessed little progress, marred by India’s confusing position precipitated initially by the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran and then following the termination of an India-specific waiver for the project. This can be understood from developments such as India Ports Global – an Indian joint venture mandated to execute the Chabahar project – not only failing to pay a European company for supplying hardware, it has also canceled its search for an agency to manage the port. India has also slashed its budgetary allocation for the project in 2019-20.

India’s ability to forge close ties with Iran for energy supplies and gain accessibility to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan based on national interests independent of the Trump administration’s sanctions against it would fall squarely within its preference for a policy of multi-alignment. However, it is yet to be seen how India manages to settle the troubles stemming from Washington’s iron-fisted approach.

Trade rows

India perceived its interests being served from international trade arrangements that favored and met the requirements of developing countries as long years of colonial exploitation, late industrialization and neocolonialism (subtle forms of exploitation by developed countries through international financial arrangements favoring their interests) placed it on a platform shared by other Third World countries.

Trade rows between the two countries began this March, and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said: “India has implemented a wide array of trade barriers that create serious negative effects on US commerce. Despite intensive engagement, India has failed to take the necessary steps to meet the Generalized System of Preferences criterion.” India imposed retaliatory tariffs on 28 US products including almonds and apples from June 5, after the Trump administration revoked its preferential trade privileges.

Militarization of the Indian Ocean

The US decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which aimed at eliminating conventional and nuclear missiles ranging from 500 to 5,500 kilometers from the American and Soviet (now Russian) arsenals, will contribute to Chinese speculations about the American military designs in the Indo-Pacific. While on the one hand, China would take steps to enhance its deterrence capacities in the region, the US and other major powers now have greater leeway in breaching them. This has raised the likelihood of a more militarized Indian Ocean. As efforts toward demilitarizing the Indo-Pacific region and promoting it as a “zone of peace” are not under way, this is likely to enhance India’s long-term security concerns, since it a shares maritime boundary with the Indian Ocean.

Indo-US strategic partnership appears to stand on Indian centrality to the American Indo-Pacific strategy and has been less effective in allaying New Delhi’s concerns as regards maintaining close strategic ties with countries sharing troubled relationship with the US such as Iran and Russia. Further, India’s Afghan concerns still remain as Washington and New Delhi do not seem to be on the same page as regards their perception of sources of insecurity and an approach toward the peace process.