Just ahead of his re-election bid, the US administration of president Donald Trump was successful in signing a crucial defense deal with India. The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) allows both countries to access each other’s confidential geospatial data for defense purposes. Given the asymmetrical balance of power between the two countries, it is no secret that the agreement provides the US more advantages over India. The move is being viewed as another step in the process of a gradual submission of India’s independent foreign policy to US imperialist ambitions in the region.
On the whole, Trump has maintained an apparent and high decibel pro-India stance throughout his term, even calling India US’ “greatest and most loyal friend.” The Indian government has also never missed an opportunity to boast about the friendship between “world’s largest and greatest democracies.” However, such rhetoric has only served to pressurize India to sacrifice more towards the maintenance of this friendship. In real terms, the relationship between India and the US is asymmetrical, wherein the latter has managed to dictate terms without committing anything in return.
Myth and the reality
The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India has relied excessively on its ideological similarities with the Republicans in the US, and in particular on Modi’s “friendship” with Trump. The portrayal of similarities between the personalities of both leaders is one of the key ways through which the BJP promotes the myth of a growing bond between the two countries. The actual status of India as becoming subservient to US imperialist needs in the South Asian region is glossed over by such slogans as the “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership”, announced during the last Trump visit to India in March.
To note some crucial facts, in comparison to previous US administrations, Trump has done more harm to Indian trade by withdrawing its preferential trade status in June last year and consistently refusing to sign a fresh trade deal. During his March visit, while a trade deal was on the agenda, it was postponed at the last moment until the US elections.
On the issue of migrants, the Trump administration first restricted and later used the COVID-19 pandemic to completely suspend H1B visas, of which Indian professionals were the largest beneficiaries.
Trump views India from a strategic point of view as a potential buyer of its weapons, like several other countries. American weapons were on the agenda in the recently concluded 2+2 agreement between the US and India which also led to the BECA. In fact, the Trump administration has pushed India to buy its weapons on every possible occasion. Trump used his last Indian visit to sign a crucial arms sales deal worth over USD 3 billion. The US also threatened sanctions over India buying Russian missile defense systems.
The Trump administration has also forced India to take a stand on issues which harm Indian interest. India became one of the first countries to stop importing Iranian oil after Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran. India’s submission to the US dictates on Iran cost it a crucial and trusted supplier of economical energy resources. India has also lost its crucial land route to Central Asia via Iran, as well as investment possibilities in Iranian infrastructure projects such as the Chabahar port and the Farzad B gas fields due to American insistence that India toe its line.
A key success of the Trump administration has been to use the China card to its advantage with no perceivable benefits for India. Under the circumstances, Indian policy makers refuse to examine if furthering US imperialist goals in the region will resolve the India-China issue or be in India’s interest. On the other hand, Trump hopes to boost his electoral chances by signing crucial deals like BECA to portray himself as a crusader against the “rising Chinese threat.”
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has however been more clear on the real agenda behind the rising bonhomie with India. During his recent visit to India for the signing of BECA, Pompeo continued his anti-China propaganda, saying “we [US-India] have a lot to discuss today, from cooperating on defeating the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, to confronting the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to security and freedom, to promoting peace and stability throughout the region.”
India’s drive to counter China under the right-wing Modi government has allowed the US to use Indian territory for explicit anti-China propaganda. India has also become an active member of the QUAD initiative, which had been lying defunct since its formation in 2007-08. The previous Indian government had been hesitant about the grouping’s overtly anti-China stance. However, it did not deter the Modi government from playing a pivotal role in its revival. Barring India, the anti-China QUAD grouping includes two of US’ closest defense allies: Japan and Australia. India has announced a joint naval exercise with the other QUAD members next month to prepare for the stated American agenda of maintaining the “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Indian policy makers have demonstrated a myopic vision vis-à-vis China by holding the Indo-China border dispute as a reason to become a crusader for US imperialist attempts to surround and contain China. This is against Indian interest, given the fact that China is India’s second largest trading partner with tremendous potential of mutual growth. Meanwhile, China has repeatedly objected to QUAD’s formation, calling it an American attempt to create an Indo-Pacific NATO.
Imitating Trump, India too tried to blame China for the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the global economy. Following in his footsteps, India not only banned certain Chinese technological firms, but also put restrictions on Chinese investments in the country. There will be greater pressure on India to ban Huawei from its 5G technology upgradation as well.
The US elections and the Indian predicament
The Indian-origin electorate is around 1% of all American voters, thus, they may not have a significant role in deciding who will be the president of the US. Americans of Indian origin are generally considered pro-Democratic, primarily because they are a migrant minority. Republicans on the other hand have been seen as anti-immigrants and anti-minority. In this election too, the Indian diaspora in the US is expected to vote for Democratic candidate Joe Biden in a big way. However, there is at least one section of the diaspora which has endorsed Trump and the Republican cause. This has to do with the Modi government’s conservative preferences that have been in the open for long, as well as the operation of right-wing groups among the Indian community. Modi was criticized for openly endorsing Trump during his last US visit. While the Indian government has recently tried to tone down its euphoric endorsements in light of the significant lead Biden has taken over Trump, the bias is obvious.
Given the uncertainty over the US election results and the nature of Biden’s China policy, the future utility of QUAD and BECA to the US is not clear. These agreements may or may not have real impact on the ground but they set the course for India’s submission to US designs surrounding China. It also makes India a junior partner of the US, as US imperialist ambitions have very little to do with change in its political leadership.