The way Prime Minister Narendra Modi has engaged with key states in Middle East (West Asia), has surprised many. Ashley J. Tellis, Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells Business Today's Anilesh S. Mahajan that this has been one of Modi's successes in foreign policy and it holds significant potential benefits for India. Edited excerpts:
Business Today: What significance do you think PM Narendra Modi's foreign policy has? How is it different from what Manmohan Singh's government had?
Ashley J. Tellis: Manmohan Singh's outreach in West Asia focussed on broadening India's engagement with all regional states. That policy was appropriate then, given that India had become disengaged from the region. In contrast, PM Modi's policy has focussed on making big bets on a few states - Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates - even as it has preserved India's traditional ties with others.
BT: Do you think more could have been done?
Tellis: Manmohan Singh's policies towards West Asia reflected the constraints of his time. He focussed fundamentally on transforming ties with the US during his first term, but was unfortunately paralysed on many counts during the second term. Modi's policies represent a natural evolution: India is now stronger, more confident and is more capable of selectively engaging some states based on their relevance to India's national interests. Such selectivity was inevitable but the manner in which India has been able to engage all regional players despite the deep political divides that mark West Asia, is striking.
BT: There was a particular image attached to PM Modi in 2013/14; people had apprehensions about how he would deal with Islamic countries and West Asia. How do you evaluate his stint?
Tellis: He certainly surprised many by the manner in which he engaged key Islamic states in the Persian Gulf, both Sunni Arab states and Shia Iran. This has been one of the major successes of his foreign policy and the potential benefits for India are significant. The way he has managed to enlarge India's ties to Israel, even as he has engaged the Gulf states is also remarkable-though this outcome has been undoubtedly aided by the changing attitude to Israel within the Gulf itself.
BT: Has there been a drift in Indo-US relations under the Trump administration?
Tellis: The risk of drift in the bilateral relationship is real if both sides fail to address current disagreements. There is no doubt that Trump is deeply transactional. It is a product of his worldview, which, as Robert Kagan summarised aptly, "has no sense of responsibility to anything beyond itself". Having said that, however, the Trump administration has also been schizophrenic where India is concerned: it is strongly supportive of strengthening India's military capabilities as a means of balancing China's rise, while at the same time pressing hard on New Delhi to change its economic policies on a few issues to benefit the US. If the tension over trade policy is not resolved, the gains made in the strategic arena could be at serious risk-serious because other US policies towards Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan have the effect of undermining critical Indian interests in ways that the administration's priority on India, in the Indo-Pacific context, will not be able to compensate.
BT: What should be the lessons for the new government in India? How should they move ahead with the US?
Tellis: The new government that will be formed in India should move quickly to address current challenges. Most, but not all, of the economic disputes are actually modest in the scheme of things and can be addressed with some creativity after the pressures of elections are over. There are some difficult issues on the horizon, however, such as the draft Indian legislation on data localisation, which will be deeply damaging to India itself. I hope New Delhi will not move further in that direction because potential US reprisals would be even more damaging than the costs inflicted by the current threatened withdrawal of General Schedule of Preferences (GSP) benefits. But Washington, too, needs to be cognizant of Indian economic interests and create some breathing space for New Delhi, where political differences in regard to Russia, Iran and Afghanistan are concerned. The Trump administration's approach so far has been one of holding India to ransom rather than seeking to achieve a diplomatic solution on these latter issues. I am therefore pessimistic that a genuine transformation in bilateral ties can be sustained during the next two years, though obviously we should not cease to try.
BT: The Trump regime has two different approaches: a) security and trade, and b) business. Do you see this as the new normal in the US approach towards geo-political issues?
Tellis: This is the old normal for the Trump administration. It will not change as long as Trump is in office.
BT: India aspires to deepen the relationship with Central Asia, but sanctions on Iran appear to be a stumbling block. The US administration embargoed it till May-end for reducing oil imports from there to zero. How do you see the situation?
Tellis: I don't see any easy or happy endings here. India cannot reduce oil imports from Iran to zero for both technical and strategic reasons. Equally importantly, any US action vis-a-vis Iran that raises oil prices has severe consequences in Indian domestic politics and for India's balance of payments. The obduracy of the Trump administration, however, implies that satisfactory solutions are unlikely. Even worse, it could push India towards supporting the European, Russian and Chinese positions on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which New Delhi has refrained from doing thus far-with even more problematic consequences for the relationship with Washington.
BT: Will the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the 'Quad', go a long way in containing a rising China in Asia?
Tellis: No, the Quad will not contain the rise of Chinese power, at least not yet. For the foreseeable future, it will remain only a consultative mechanism, not an alliance against rising Chinese power. Balancing China will require other solutions: deepening US alliances and partnerships in Asia, and building up the national capabilities of key Asian states on China's periphery. The Quad is useful, but not central, in this context.
BT: Both India and the US are using muscular policy against Pakistan. The multilateral entities such as Financial Action Task Force (FATF) are tightening the noose around Pakistan to close terror funding. Do you think this is the right approach? Or are we only pushing Pakistan harder towards China?
Tellis: There is no alternative to a tough policy towards Pakistan. All other alternatives have been tried without success. But real change will come only when the Pakistani polity begins to believe that the costs of the policies pursued by its army far exceed the benefits accruing to Pakistan as a country. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.