America’s Fickle Foreign Policy Play With India

America’s Fickle Foreign Policy Play With India
Former diplomat Navtej Sarna on the unpredictability of Trump’s decisions on trade and immigration and how Indo-US relations can still grow closer

Navtej Singh Sarna is an author, columnist, diplomat and former Indian Ambassador to the United States. He previously served as the High Commissioner of India to the U.K., and as the Ambassador to Israel. He has also been the longest-serving spokesperson of the Indian Foreign Ministry (six years): under two prime ministers, three foreign ministers and four foreign secretaries, till the end of his term in September 2008. An accomplished writer, his short stories which have appeared in the 'London Magazine' and broadcast over BBC, have been put together in the collection 'Winter Evenings'. His literary columns written over seven years for 'The Hindu' have now appeared as a book titled 'Second Thoughts: On Books, Authors and the Writerly Life'.

The 79th webinar hosted by Synergia Foundation discussed the direction of Indo-US ties – whether they were linear, flat-lined, or estranged in a post-COVID world, and in terms of key issues of divergence and confluence in the Asia-Pacific region, and the immigration Bill. The panel included Richard Fontaine (CEO, Center For a New American Security), Richard Rahul Verma (former U.S. Ambassador to India), and Navtej Sarna, and was moderated by T.M. Veeraraghav (Consulting Editor, Synergia Foundation).

Debating on the history of relations between the countries, Navtej Sarna spoke about how India and the U.S. had started off on the wrong side of history, what with the 1998 nuclear tests and sanctions imposed on India. With the opening up of India’s economy, there was curiosity about India, the India-Pakistan issue, and India as an upcoming economic superpower. This led to an upward rise in relations after President Bill Clinton’s visit, with both countries seeing each other differently. Quickly, the strategic logic of relationship came to the fore, and now it lies between being linear and closer.

William J. Burns, in his article in The Atlantic, saw how even after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initial complicated history with the U.S., he still looked forward to the growth of Indo-US relations. In 2005, George W. Bush invoked the International Religious Freedom Act (1998) that leaves foreign officials who were caught up in “severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for visas. Mr. Modi was denied a visa for concerns over his involvement in anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. Yet, when Barack Obama was in office and Mr. Modi won the elections in 2014, this was put aside to foster a deeper relationship with India. Security cooperation, trade, and investment grew massively during this period. In 2016, the two countries announced efforts to finance clean energy projects, including plans for both to raise US$ 400 million to deliver renewable energy “up to 1 million households” by 2020. They also agreed to establish the “U.S.-India Catalytic Solar Finance Program”, which was expected to attract private investments of up to $1 billion for smaller projects.

Under Mr. Trump, there has been progress in terms of defence, yet Mr. Navtej Sarna says, “Trump, despite his proclivity to bring up trade and immigration issues in a disproportionately large and somewhat unfriendly manner, does understand the logic behind the India relationship. Of course, if we get Joe Biden, then we go back to a more classical foreign policy situation in which things should fall into place really soon.”


On the question of U.S. leadership being at stake, Mr. Navtej Sarna said that the world has taken into account the unpredictability of Mr. Trump's foreign policy, and it isn’t only India that has had to discount it. One of the examples of Mr. Trump’s sudden moves is his re-imposed sanctions on Iran, as he believed that Tehran was not implementing the measures it had agreed to earlier on restricting its nuclear programme. The U.S.’s European allies refused to follow suit, stating that there was no evidence his allegations. Mr. Trump’s Intelligence Chief Daniel Coats also disagreed with the President's view on Iran, stating that “we do not believe that Iran is currently undertaking the key activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device”. Decisions like these even led to Defence Chief General Mattis resigning. India has therefore also had to account for this change in policy. Largely, the effort has been to keep an eye on the goals and ride out the wave on other issues.

Where Indo-US divergence plays up is the undue stress on market access and trade balance. These issues have always been there, and it is also something Mr. Trump had focused on when he met Mr. Modi this year. In the April-December 2019-20 period, bilateral trade between the U.S. and India stood at US$ 68 billion, with India having a trade surplus of US$ 16.85 billion. This issue had earlier been budgeted into the larger relationship, but with Mr. Trump looking to reduce trade deficits and more into the domestic economy, he has shown lesser interest in letting India still stand as a “developing country” and receiving the benefits that come with it.

The other issue is of immigration and jobs, even student visa issues. In a pandemic, with more and more people filing for unemployment, halting immigration is expected. Yet, Mr. Trump’s restrictions on immigration began well before the pandemic. His presidency started off with a ban on Muslims from certain countries, and not allowing them to immigrate to the U.S. This was followed by a plan to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border under the pretext of stopping drug smuggling. The number of refugees that could be admitted into the U.S. was reduced from 1,10,000 to 50,000. The administration also increased the number of denials to foreign-skilled worker requests for settlement, from 6% in 2015 to 32% in early 2019. The Congress’s lawmaking authority has been continually bypassed, with little to no pushback from it. This is an issue that needs focus, since Indian citizens granted green cards were reduced from 64,687 in 2016 to 59,821 in 2018.


Talking on the Afghanistan issue, he said the U.S. has to operate in a way that doesn’t negate Indian efforts and interests. Our maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, and how far are we going in the current move, is to be watched. The U.S. recognises India’s “constructive contribution” to Afghanistan, as per U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. As the U.S. and France, and other powers, look to eventually pull out of the region, the situation looks precarious for those left behind, including India. There is also the matter of Afghanistan’s neighbours moving to secure its vast untapped mineral resources, such as Kabul’s decision to link up with China in a security agreement.

On the question about where the current stand-off with China is going to leave India, Mr. Navtej Sarna opined that with India’s positioning with the Quad alliance, it would stay in the immediate to medium-term unless there is a complete reversal in power.  Relationships between countries don’t change in the blink of an eye, but there could be a chance for closer partnership with the U.S. and other democratic partners in the Indo-Pacific due to the stand-off with China. There is also the challenge of how to make the relationship less about the military and defence and more about development of health and democracy, which would strengthen their relationship. The confluence of clean energy, pharma, and healthcare seem the most obvious as these are relations already in place, where India has a stronghold.