An upbeat tone amid tensions

The gushing rhetoric between India and the U.S. says something about the strength of the relationship

July 05, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in New Delhi on June 26, 2019.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in New Delhi on June 26, 2019.

In recent weeks, amid an upsurge in U.S.-India tensions, the rhetoric on both sides has remained remarkably upbeat. While there has been ample criticism from senior U.S. and Indian officials, it has largely been directed at policies rather than at the partnership. Even U.S. President Donald Trump’s India-directed taunts tend to target the issues that aggrieve him rather than the relationship.

Gushing rhetoric

Witness, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s effusive praise for the partnership in June. “We’ve come a long way,” he said. “And now the Trump administration and the Modi administration have an incredibly unique opportunity to take advantage of this special partnership. We can move further.” Mr. Pompeo and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar expressed similar sentiment about the relationship and expressed hope that they could overcome its obstacles when they held a joint press conference in New Delhi several days ago. And President Trump himself said of the relationship at the G20 meeting in Osaka: “We have become great friends and our countries have never been closer. I can say that with surety.”

Given that the U.S.-India relationship is suffering through one of its most challenging periods in years, it’s natural to dismiss such happy talk as a mere ploy to mask the serious strains in the partnership. In reality, the gushing rhetoric is more significant than it may seem — and it says something about the continued strength of the relationship.

For one thing, it is a reminder of just how much worse things could be. The last time the relationship faced a particularly bad stretch was in 2013, when India’s deputy consul general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested in New York, subjected to a strip search, and briefly jailed. During that tense period — much tenser than today — there was no happy talk, only angry words. One Indian official described Ms. Khobragade’s treatment as “despicable and barbaric,” while another fumed that “we’re not a banana republic”. In a dramatic response, New Delhi removed security barriers from the U.S. Embassy and revoked many perks for American diplomats in India.

Imperative to move forward

In contrast, today the criticism is softer and the reprisals less dramatic. In fact, until New Delhi’s recent decision to slap retaliatory tariffs on the U.S., India had been very restrained amid the intensification of trade tensions. Additionally, the positive messaging from both sides signals the commitment of both countries to work through their disputes — a commitment rooted in the realisation that there is a strategic imperative to move forward. Washington and New Delhi appear to genuinely believe that their shared vision for Asia — a free, open, rules-based system meant to push back against Chinese power — ensures a continued strong partnership. To be sure, such future comity is far from guaranteed. As pointed out in a recent essay by the Brookings Institution, converging U.S.-India views on China following the 1962 India-China war did not lead to deeper cooperation. Still, the positive rhetoric telegraphs the belief on both sides that the relationship, warts and all, remains on a positive trajectory, at least for now.

Also, the relationship could eventually turn sour and even plunge into a full-blown crisis. Imagine if the U.S. were to investigate India’s trading practices, or if it penalises New Delhi for completing its S-400 deal with Russia. Such moves would ratchet up tensions to the point where any effusive rhetoric would sound disingenuous more than reassuring. But that’s not where we are today.

The writer is Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington, DC

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