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Trump or Hillary, Indo-US ties won't change much: Kanwal Sibal

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 18 May 2016, 8:55 IST
The rapport
  • Former foreign secy Kanwal Sibal believes India and the US have moved closer under PM Narendra Modi
  • Modi has developed a personal rapport with US President Barack Obama
The future
  • It doesn\'t matter if Donald Trump becomes US President or Hillary Clinton, not much will change in Indo-US ties
  • Trump is saying what he wants right now, but he won\'t be able to change foreign or military policy drastically
More in the story
  • What India and the US have achieved together in recent times
  • The Afghanistan question - and why the US is keeping India out of it

Prime Minister Narendra Modi quickly developed a personal rapport with US President Barack Obama. And thanks to this, Indo-US relations have reached new heights, with invigorated cooperation in matters of security, defence and science and technology.

But there have been certain bottlenecks too. Now that Obama's second term is coming to an end, and the US is in the process of electing a new President, former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal tells Catch what this important election means for India.


How do you see the current US Presidential campaign? How do you view the rising popularity of politicians like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US? Do you see it as a consequence of the struggling economy?

I think the US Presidential elections are a bit of a tamasha. The system of primaries is touted as a grassroots selection process, where the appeal of candidates and their political platform is tested.

If, in reality, this system threw up really qualified candidates, one could see value in it. But if, as we see, the candidates are second rate, one wonders what is the value of a process which sees unbridled rhetoric, smear campaigns, false promises, lies, wasteful deployment of huge resources and so on.

People like Bernie Sanders represent the segment of US society that is the victim of the distortions of the US economy in favour of the rich and privileged.

The growing inequality of wealth in the US has become a big issue. The grip of the Wall Street on the system, as well the military-industrial complex that has led the US into costly and unsuccessful military conflicts, are fuelling the kind of discontent that Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn give voice to.

India seems to have moved closer to the US in the last two years, since Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister. Will this bonhomie continue once President Obama leaves office?

It is true that India has moved closer to the US under Modi. He has certainly developed a personal rapport with President Obama. The invitation he has received from the latter to make another official visit to the US in June, when he will also address the US Congress, reflects the growing understanding with the US.

India has moved closer to the US under Modi. He has developed a personal rapport with Obama

There is bipartisan consensus in the US in favour of strong India-US ties. The previous Republican President, George Bush, signed the nuclear deal with India. India and the US issued a Joint Strategic Vision Document on Security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions under Obama, which signified a big change in India's security calculus.

But let it be said that Obama's policies towards India are not wholly positive. His Pakistan and Afghanistan policies, as well as his unwillingness to take a position on the strategic dimension of the China-Pakistan relationship, are problematic for us.

We have serious differences with the US on economic issues, especially in the multilateral context. Let us not, therefore, overdo this bonhomie angle, though it exists. Yes, the improved understanding with the US will continue after Obama leaves office, but the problem areas will remain, as they represent differences in national interest.

What have been the most important achievements in the US-India relationship during President Obama's successive tenures?

Modi galvanised the Indo-US relationship, which had begun to stagnate during the UPA government's second stint. He has transfused considerable dynamism into the relationship by his several visits there. He has wooed the US corporate sector, including the IT giants, in a studied manner.

He has succeeded in working with the US on climate change issues, on which we were subject to a lot of pressure by Obama. He sorted out the politically sensitive civil nuclear liability issues - the invitation to Obama to be chief guest at our Republic Day in 2015 was an imaginative step.

On counter-terrorism cooperation, some progress has been made. Defence cooperation has significantly contributed to strategic ties.

Despite the proximity, India has still been largely kept out of the diplomatic and military efforts to solve the Afghan crisis. Do you see any chances of greater Indian involvement in the future? Also, will there be any change in the US' Pakistan policy once the new President takes office?

The US still does not see India as a central player in dealing with Afghanistan. Its view is that a greater Indian involvement will make make Pakistan more difficult to handle.

The US is working with China in an effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Quad group (consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US) excludes India, though what happens in Afghanistan concerns us deeply as an enhanced Pakistani role there has security implications for us. We are stepping up our "strategic" cooperation with Afghanistan but there are limits to what we can do.

I don't see a greater role for us in the near future. If and when the Chabahar route through Iran becomes operational, we will have more options.

I don't see any major change in US policy towards Pakistan. It's geopolitically important for the US

I also don't see any major change in US policy towards Pakistan, even under a new President. Whatever the US' frustrations with Pakistan, that country is geopolitically important for the US, and therefore the US policy towards Pakistan will remain a problem for us.

Let us not overlook that the US also sees Pakistan as a useful pressure point on India, in purely realpolitik terms.

If Donald Trump - who has been speaking openly against immigrants, wants an isolationist US, and wants to change the H1B visa policy - wins the Presidential race, what would be the implications for India?

Trump is not likely to win, but if he does, he will have to moderate his thinking, and therefore, his stated approach to such issues.

He will have to balance diverse US interests with other countries, including India. He has no responsibility yet, and can take even outrageous positions to win support from various groups.

If he wins, his primary challenge will be China. What he does there will have huge implications; India is a secondary issue.

Trump has also called NATO 'obsolete' and said that the US' allies should pay up. What are the possible implications for this alliance if he is elected?

This is just rhetoric. NATO will stay. The US controls Europe through NATO and European elites, especially East European leadership, will not allow NATO to be wound up. This is pure fantasy.

Trump also wants the US to withdraw from the world and focus inwards. What would be the consequences of the US pulling out of West Asia and Asia Pacific?

US will not do either. Trump's thinking is wholly inconsistent. He wants the US to recover its strength by reducing itself to simply a regional power, protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific on either side. All this is hypothetical.

If Trump wins, his primary challenge will be China. What he does there will have huge implications

Trump will not be able to bring about such drastic changes in US foreign and military policies, though he can cause confusion.

On the other hand, if Hillary Clinton wins the Presidential elections, how would that affect Indo-US ties?

With Hillary Clinton, it will be business as usual. There will be no significant change either way. The positives in our present relationship will continue, and so will the negatives.

Our ties with the US have acquired a certain stability, because of mutuality of interest. The challenge is to decide how far we want to be embraced by the US, and how much sensitivity the US is willing to show with regard to our interests where we don't have convergence, in order to increase our willingness to come closer to it.

First published: 17 May 2016, 22:29 IST