When Donald Trump visited India in February last year, bilateral ties were elevated to a ‘comprehensive global strategic partnership’. It mainly meant that defence imports from the US were galloping and that White House acknowledged India as the most useful regional power. The ever-looming shadow of Pakistan over Indo-US ties had finally been overtaken by the realisation in Washington that Islamabad is important only in the context of Afghanistan but India’s external canvas is exponentially wider. The US has met India’s security needs to a large extent, but there has been no economic concession of any kind, including restoring duty-free access to Rs 40,000 crore of Indian exports.
It appears that successive US administrations have cottoned on to where the gravy lies in ties with India. Ever since the US-India Defense Framework Agreement was renewed during Barack Obama’s visit in 2015, defence and security have occupied centre stage at each and every high level interaction. Quad has met four times in the past 18 months, but only US-India Economic and Financial Partnership dialogue was held in this period. The US-India Trade Policy Forum, said to be a key pillar of the strategic relationship, went comatose earlier. In the energy sector, plans for tie-ups in low-carbon alternatives and renewable energy exports have been overtaken by a simple buyer-seller relationship of petroleum. The US private sector capital is yet to meet the expectations of India’s infrastructure needs.
The upswing in defence ties has created a vast opportunity for Indo-US amity. But its lopsidedness has produced constraints in India’s relationship with Moscow and Beijing. The only Indian apprehension with regard to the Biden administration seems to be a hard-press on human rights and majoritarianism. But currently, Washington has other countries as priorities on this count. The US would also not want to press India too hard for fear that defence ties that are posed to make a bigger leap do not get jeopardised. Ties have certainly moved much beyond Indira Gandhi’s exhortation to Ronald Reagan in 1982 to ‘find a common area, howsoever small’. But they should also not be straitjacketed into a couple of verticals.