‘S-400 deal may disrupt India-U.S. defence cooperation seriously’

India’s national interests are more closely aligned with US strategic interests than with Russia. Many in the US Congress will view the S-400 deal as a breach of trust between us: John Hamre

He’s seen many highs and lows in India-US relations, first as former Deputy Secretary of Defence in President Bill Clinton’s administration and then as a key administrative hand in the Barack Obama administration. For the last 19 years he heads a top American think-tank, in Washington DC, specialising in global strategic affairs. John Hamre, CEO and President of Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) spoke to The Sunday Guardian on a wide range of issues, including India-US relations, which, he says, are “currently seeing a high level of strategic and diplomatic engagement”. But he cautions, “threats like the S-400 Russian missile defence system deal and ongoing trade frictions may rock this friendship boat”. He also touched in detail on the United States’ concern over China’s “unfair trade practices” and the US-Iran tangle. “India and the US are natural partners to contain the threats of China, Russia and North Korea,” he said. Excerpts:

Q: As former Deputy Secretary of Defence and global affairs specialist, you have seen many eras of India-US relations. Is the current Modi-Trump era seeing the best and is it a honeymoon period?

A: From a foreign policy/defence perspective, this is a remarkably good time. In fairness, it has been building for many years. President Bill Clinton had a very positive agenda of defence cooperation. President Bush widened the scope of cooperation by getting past the nuclear barrier between us. The Obama administration had a series of Defence Secretaries and Department of State Secretaries that put in enormous work to strengthen ties. And both Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson sustained that focus. So this is the best of times for defence and foreign policy cooperation. But it reflects a consistent American appreciation for how important India is as a champion of democratic values on the world stage.

The best of India-US ties are underway, but it is also not without frictions over trade issue. India and the US must amicably sort this out urgently to have a smooth sail.

Q: Do you think India’s stand on buying the S-400 missile system from Russia may rock this friendship boat to some extent?

A: I am quite worried. You need to understand that we have been in a year-long struggle with Turkey because of Turkey’s plans to buy the S-400. Turkey is a NATO ally. Congress enacted legislation that requires the US to cut off collaboration on the F-35 if Turkey goes ahead with the S-400. They are doing that and we are cancelling training programs for their F-35 pilots, freezing them out of F-35 manufacturing contracts. This is going to go badly. So if India proceeds with the S-400, we can’t take a different position with India than the position we take with Turkey. This could be a very serious disruption of defence cooperation between India and America.

Q: But India has had defence relations with Russia for a long time. Is there a strong view on the Capitol Hill over India’s continued defence ties with Russia and will that affect the growing defence partnership with the US?

A: We understand India’s historic ties to Russia. There are well developed friendships that emerged during the time of active collaboration between Russia/Soviet Union and India. But I believe that India’s national interests are more closely aligned with US strategic interests. Unfortunately, many in the US Congress will view the S-400 deal as a breach of trust between us. I do worry a great deal over this.

Q: Still, both countries are leveraging the current state of strategic partnership. What are the key areas of cooperation?

A: There are good things underway in the final stages of coordination. We have an agreement ready to expand sharing of mapping and geospatial intelligence, for example. We have the most robust mutual training agenda of any partner country, and likely we could expand that. I think we should have a robust dialogue on cyber threats and cyber security initiatives. I am not in government at this time so I am unaware of other areas where we are discussing more extensive cooperation. But I support all efforts to bring us closer together.

Q: How are US-China relations vis-à-vis trade friction and South China Sea?

A: There has been a profound shift in American perceptions of our relations with China. We used to think that China’s economic rise will reduce the geo-political strains between us. But that is not the case. We are on a collision course. It isn’t just a question of trade. It is a view that China is adopting economic policies that disadvantage American companies. We have to turn over intellectual property to do business in China, but we don’t demand that of Chinese companies coming to the US. There is a profound sense of unfairness in China’s economic policies. And the aggressive island building in the South China Sea—based on patently superficial legal reasoning—has changed American perceptions of China’s real intentions. So we are on a very negative trajectory.

Q: Can India fill in as a strong trading partner for US to cut Chinese influence?

A: I try not to argue with a journalist about a question. I think India and US should be strengthening our trade relations as a good thing for both of us, and not as a response to China. Let’s do the right thing between us.

Q: The new world order is not about political territories, but control of global markets. Do you agree?

A: I absolutely agree that economics is the great theatre of competition now and in the future. Countries still care deeply about political territory. We see that everywhere. But the power of nations will be determined by the health and vitality of economies. That is the character of this era.

Q: In that scenario, apart from China, what are the other threats to US global supremacy and how is US going to confront them?

A: I personally think the greatest threat we face is the bitter political divisions within America and the lack of a consensus on the challenges we face and the solutions we need. If America is going to compete effectively against China, we have to recalibrate the moral authority of our leadership in the world, and that starts with fixing our problems at home.

Q: The US has hinted that India will be a strong partner in the new world order developing to confront threats from China, Russia, and North Korea. Your comments.

A: I believe that China is laying the foundations for a competing international economic system. I don’t think they are trying to create an alternative international political system at this time. But they are starting with economics. This is a great competition between “rule of law” countries versus “rule by law” authoritarian states. India and America have a natural partnership in this battle.

Q: In South Asia and Indo-Pacific, India is the perfect partner for the US against terrorism and growing Chinese influence. What new level of engagement do you see in these two regions?

A: We are well on the way to a robust and sophisticated collaboration. We should continue this. But more than that, we need a deep conversation between our respective leaders—not just the President-Prime Minister—about the strategic challenges we face together. The world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy naturally share a destiny. But we need a deeper conversation about the challenges we face and how we can jointly lead a world campaign to strengthen democracies and free enterprise economies.

Q: How are US-Iran relations poised? Can India get affected due to US’ stand or will be exempted on New Delhi’s stand on Tehran?

A: There is a deep consensus in US that Iran is a malevolent actor in West Asia. But there is no consensus on what to do about it. Democrats believed an agreement to stop Iran’s nuclear program for a period of 11 plus years was a practical step forward. Republicans thought it was a terrible deal, and President Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The question now is whether tougher sanctions will cause Iran to seek a new JCPOA agreement. I guess time will determine whether that is right or not. The Trump administration has given exemptions to India. I don’t know if they will continue to do that. I don’t see a strategy beyond “maximum pressure”.

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