Comment

No threat to strategic autonomy, yet

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeting U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington.  

For its declaratory intent alone, the joint statement signed during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington D.C. sets India’s foreign policy on new and untested waters. The claim that it “tilts” India towards the U.S., however, needs to be examined seriously. If the joint statement set out to advance substantive engagement with the U.S., it certainly achieved this objective. But does it constrain India’s ability to conduct its diplomacy with other major powers like China and Russia? A closer look at the document suggests that this is not the case.

A concession in climate regime

The table highlights the ‘give and take’ diplomacy that went into the drafting of the joint statement. On climate and clean energy issues, India conceded heavily, agreeing to negotiate the reduction of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and airplane emissions under the Montreal Protocol and the International Civil Aviation Organisation Assembly (ICAO) respectively. The Montreal Protocol is a regime instituted to tackle the depletion of the ozone layer, which HFCs have no bearing on. It had previously been India’s position that HFCs, aviation emissions, and other greenhouse gases must be phased down under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 2015, the Indian submission to the ICAO suggested that the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities must drive future commitments in the airline sector. The U.S., however, prefers an ICAO framework that reduces aviation emissions based on “market share”. The joint statement reflects an Indian shift that began with the Paris accord, followed by the Dubai Pathway commitment in 2015 to negotiate HFC reduction under the Montreal Protocol. To be sure, the Indian line continues to seek maximum flexibility for phasing down greenhouse gas emissions. The joint statement is nevertheless a concession, drawing India into a new U.S.-led climate regime.



The India-US Joint Statement during Prime Minister Modi’s visit What India gave What India got
Climate and Energy Work towards an HFC amendment in 2016 “with an ambitious phasedown schedule” under the Montreal Protocol pursuant to the Dubai Pathway US to pursue membership of the International Solar Alliance
Pursue negotiations at the International Civil Aviation Organization Assembly to reach a “successful outcome” to address greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation. Six AP 1000 reactors to be built by Westinghouse; India and the U.S. Export-Import Bank to work together toward a competitive financing package for the project.
Announcement of a $20 million U.S. - India Clean Energy Finance (USICEF) initiative, supported equally by both countries.
$40 million U.S.-India Catalytic Solar Finance Program, also supported equally.
Export Control and Defence Cooperation US to designate India as a “major defence partner.” US re-affirmed support for India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technologies Control Group, the Australia Group and Wassennaar Arrangement
Text of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement “finalised.” US “welcomed” India’s offer to host the Summit on Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism in 2018
The U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region would be the guide for collaboration in years to come. India to receive license-free access to a “wide range of dual-use technologies”, but in accordance with US law, which may adopt stricter standards than the export control norms
Memorandum of Understanding for exchange of earth observation satellite data “finalised.”
Cyber A “commitment” to promote the free flow of information. Mandate for closer cooperation among law enforcement agencies to combat cybercrime.
India supports norm against conducting or supporting ICT-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial purposes. US commits to strengthen “critical Internet infrastructure” in India.
Greater cooperation on cybersecurity standards and security testing. Norm to tackle malicious cyber activity emanating from one’s territory
Counter-terrorism Express iteration of Pakistan’s responsibility to “bring the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai and [for the first time] 2016 Pathankot terrorist attacks” to justice
US re-affirmed its support for a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
Trade Work towards “concrete progress” on IPR issues and enhance bilateral cooperation among the “drivers of innovation” in both countries.
Re-affirm trilateral cooperation with African partners, “including in areas such as agriculture, health, energy”.


However, China also made the same commitments in March. The 2016 U.S.-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change expressly agreed to a ‘market share’-based approach to reduce aviations emissions, which is bound to hurt China’s airline sector. In contrast, Indian negotiators have successfully restrained the language in the joint statement. New Delhi would have done well to consider the strategic implications of signing on to two clean energy financing initiatives with the U.S. The proposals may seem innocuous, but they may limit the role of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in funding India’s clean energy sectors. The U.S. is wary of the AIIB, and the implications for Asia’s economic order if major projects continue to be funded by Chinese capital. Given that the India-U.S. clean energy initiatives amount to a modest $60 million, Indian negotiators can still leverage AIIB as an alternative source of project finance.

In return for these commitments, the U.S. agreed to pursue membership in the International Solar Alliance (ISA), which is an Indian initiative. This provides the opportunity for India to mould climate norms through the ISA, but New Delhi must decide whether the alliance is an attempt at regime creation, or simply a coalition to support solar adoption projects.

Where the tilt seems pronounced

Defence cooperation, as envisioned by the joint statement, is an area where the “tilt” seems pronounced. However, India’s designation by the U.S. as a ‘major defence partner’ is not by itself likely to translate into any meaningful engagement, for the simple reason that exports of sensitive technologies will continue to be dictated by U.S. law. In 2013, for example, the U.S. Department of Commerce proposed guidelines on the export of dual-use technologies that went beyond the requirements of the Wassenaar Arrangement. As the India-U.S. nuclear diplomacy too revealed, domestic debates in the U.S. on export controls can be lengthy and unyielding.

However, the Obama administration’s support for India’s entry into export control regimes is an encouraging sign for countries like France, Japan and Australia to do business with New Delhi. By no means does the joint statement limit the scope of India’s defence engagements with Russia. On cyber issues, both sides traded bargains evenly. India committed to norms that the U.S. sees important for its digital sector. New Delhi’s agreeing to “promote the free flow of information” leaves the door open for negotiations on data localisation, which U.S. social media giants are concerned about. The U.S. would also like India to align cybersecurity standards and hardware testing methods with its own, to keep Chinese vendors at bay. The joint statement’s stand against “ICT-enabled theft of intellectual property rights” is aimed solely at China, since this is a cyber norm that goes beyond what has been agreed at the UN. In return, however, India extracted a number of significant commitments, including U.S. support to tackle cybercrime that “emanates from its territory”. There is now room on both sides to negotiate a mutual legal assistance treaty that ensures Indian access to electronic data for law enforcement purposes. Most importantly, the U.S. has agreed to “strengthen” critical information infrastructure in India, which can be interpreted as a promise to host a “root server” within the country. While several cyber norms the U.S. pushed for in the joint statement may be targeted at China, the fact remains that Beijing has already committed to many of them during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S. last year.

On trade, the U.S. continues to push India on “relaxing” its intellectual property rights regime, but there is no indication in the joint statement of any major concession on New Delhi’s part. The India-U.S. joint statement clearly nudges New Delhi towards new climate, trade and cyber regimes, the economic and strategic implications of which Indian negotiators should assess. It does not, however, limit India’s engagement with the G77, China, or other emerging economies. In fact, New Delhi should work with like-minded countries to balance U.S. preferences in new regimes.

While optics matter in strategic cooperation, the rhetoric of the joint statement on defence issues is unlikely to turn heads in Moscow. China will view the pronouncement with concern, but if India-China ties have lost steam in recent months, it is on account of New Delhi’s failure to engage consistently with the top leadership of the Communist Party. The test of strategic autonomy will be in the Modi government’s ability to carry its relations with other crucial players, using the limited diplomatic resources at its disposal.

Arun Mohan Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 8:45:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/No-threat-to-strategic-autonomy-yet/article14420487.ece

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