Over the past quarter century, the United States (US) has emerged as India’s primary economic and security partner, as well as home to India’s largest and most successful diaspora. These are incontrovertible facts cited by Kenneth Juster, the outgoing US ambassador to India and representative of the temperamental administration of President Donald Trump. He noted there remained gaps between the two democracies which would need to be addressed as they moved closer. The real concern is whether larger, more fundamental differences are arising which would drive India and the US in different directions or stall the evolution of bilateral relations.
Mr Juster suggested that the idea of self-reliance, if taken beyond a certain point, would weigh down the trajectory of bilateral cooperation in defence and economics. He accepted it was natural that India wanted to have an indigenous defence industry, but unrealistic expectations regarding technology or the abilities of Indian firms would strain the defence relationship. There is an additional issue of India’s practice of buying bits and pieces of its arsenal from different countries and the degree it is incompatible with network-centred warfare, exactly where China is investing heavily. The issue of self-reliance in economics and investment is a more direct concern. India has begun constructing a wall of tariffs and other economic barriers against Chinese economic influence. However, New Delhi is now moving down a slippery slope where such trade barriers are seen as an easy path to domestic economic recovery and are being applied across the board. The US may be right to warn such policies are incompatible with sustained economic growth. But with Washington also moving in this direction, it is increasingly hard for a US envoy to make the case for economic openness.
India and the US talk about a free and open Indo-Pacific but what they are practising is not fully aligned. There is a strong case for India and the US to consider creating an economic and technological partnership, in both civilian and military spheres, underpinned by concerns about China. The mantra behind all this should be strategic economic relations rather than the more exclusive and ultimately negative banner of economic nationalism.