April 24, 2014

Challenges in dealing with US: Threats of sanctions on Indian exports

G. Parthasarathy 

Faced with criticism from an assertive Republican Party, President Obama also faces a credibility deficit in his conduct of foreign and security policies. He is widely depicted as being "weak" on issues of national security and foreign policy. The insensitive handling of relations with India is symbolic of the malaise which afflicts his second term. In fairness, allegations of his being "weak" and "indecisive" are somewhat uncharitable. He faces accusations that he should have resorted to military force in Syria and beefed up the NATO alliance after the Russian actions in Crimea. He is also accused of being "weak" and vacillating in the face of Chinese military pressures against allies like Japan, the Philippines and South Korea. But at the same time, he cannot ignore public weariness at recent military misadventures and the loss of many American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a larger perspective, the American establishment has yet to come to terms with the reality that unlike the years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world order today is more democratised and no longer unipolar. An American military involvement in Syria would have resulted in a takeover of the country by Al Qaida-linked Salafi extremists. Obama acted wisely by listening to Russian advice on the subject, but then sought to undermine Russian influence in Ukraine, resorting to not so covert and clumsy means. He found that while right wing Ukrainian mobs could forcibly take over the capital Kiev, they inevitably provoked President Putin to retaliate in the Russian-dominated eastern Ukraine. The reintegration of Crimea with the Russian federation and the takeover of cities in eastern Ukraine with large Russian populations by armed Russian resistance inevitably followed. Moreover, Americans constantly threatening sanctions nowadays sound
reminiscent of the boy who cried "wolf" too often!

Similar bungling has characterised the Obama Administration's dealings with China's growing assertiveness. After objecting to China's unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), the Obama Administration meekly asked all its civilian airlines to bow to Chinese demands on the ADIZ. Shockingly, this came just after Japan and South Korea refused to fall in line with the Chinese demand. Moreover, while Tokyo has reacted strongly to Chinese transgressions of international law close to the disputed Senkaku Islands, which have been controlled by Japan since 1895, the US has spent time on counselling "restraint" on Japan and nitpicking on issues pertaining to the Yasukuni shrine. 

The US has stood by silently as the Chinese have used force to militarily take over the Mischief Reef, located well within the Philippines Exclusive Zone and the Scarborough Shoal. With Indonesia now joining other affected ASEAN countries to challenge China's exaggerated claims on its maritime borders, American credibility, in the Asia Pacific, is being called into question. Relations with India have also entered into a tailspin in the second Obama Administration, after John Kerry took over as Secretary of State. In the days of Hillary Clinton the State Department engaged in a robust dialogue with India on the Asia-Pacific. Under Kerry's watch, this dialogue has been virtually discontinued. 

Differences between India and the US have also arisen over approach to developments in Bangladesh. India's relations with Bangladesh have been excellent ever since the Awami League Government headed by Sheikh Hasina assumed office five years ago. Apart from earmarking significant economic assistance, including transmission lines for the supply of electricity from India, New Delhi acted swiftly to help when a mutiny by members of the paramilitary in Bangladesh spilled across the border. Bangladesh, in turn, forced out of Bangladesh members of Indian insurgent groups, which enjoyed the support of her rival Begum Khaleda Zia and her Islamist allies. Differences with the US widened after the Americans, unlike Russia, China and virtually all Asian powers, ignored the fact that the boycott of the recent elections by Khaleda Zia and her Islamist allies like the Jamat e Islami was unconstitutional and that the elections held in Bangladesh were valid
constitutionally. There have been similar differences over the approach to the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka where the US has chosen to act unilaterally in the UNHRC, ignoring the perspectives of India and virtually all its Asian neighbours.

The atmosphere of India-US relations has soured after the Devyani Khobragade affair. While the US Ambassador and her colleagues cannot escape blame for being disastrously wrong in assessing what India's reaction would be to the handcuffing and arrest of an Indian diplomat, it would be wrong to presume that action was taken without the approval of the Secretary of State. Worse still, there seems to have been total lack of coordination and sensitivity. When just after the US Ambassador called on Mr. Narendra Modi, the State Department announced that there was no change in their position on the denial of a visa to the prime ministerial candidate. Moreover, one cannot but feel outraged when Sonia Gandhi is summoned in a politically motivated case by a US Court, when reportedly undergoing medical treatment in the US. This, after former ISI chief Shuja Pasha was granted diplomatic immunity by Senator Kerry, when charged with involvement in the 26/11 terrorist

The US is India's most important and largest trading partner. Annual trade in goods and services is $120 billion. But this relationship now faces challenges from threats of sanctions on Indian exports in the crucial pharmaceutical sector, issues of solar energy, visas for IT professionals, taxation issues and Intellectual Property Rights. India's Ambassador in Washington S Jashankar recently noted: "The sensible thing to do is to switch to the problem-solving mode. There has to be public acceptance that there is a context in which we both operate. If tax issues loom large in the business relationship, let us not forget that enhancing revenue is not a goal of the Indian government alone. The pharmaceutical field has emerged as another field of contention. Details apart, the underlying reality is, that affordable health care cannot be the prerogative of a few".

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