New Delhi: The unreliability of the United States as India’s strategic partner has once again been brought home. India was under some manner of illusion that the Donald Trump administration would favour it in trade and commerce while erecting tariff barriers for the rest of the world, including Western allies and adversaries like China. Trump may still make some concessions for Canada and Mexico because they form part of the same landmass as continental America. But India does not count. The United States president never lets pass an opportunity to make snide remarks about Indian custom duties on Harley Davidson motorcycles, in favour of which the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence terminated a case of duty evasion a short while ago. Now, anti-dumping duties have been imposed by the US on Indian aluminium exports, and more are on the way. This is in addition to the squeeze on India’s IT industry both in respect of onsite work in the United States and outsourced call centres located in India. The immediate trigger for trade actions against India appears, per media accounts, to be situated in the country’s rejection of antiquated US F-16s to replenish the air force’s depleted squadrons. Early in the life of the Trump administration, a decision had been taken for a joint meeting of India and the United States’ cabinet ministers for foreign affairs and defence. Scheduled for April this year, it has been postponed on account of Trump sacking the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and his successor yet to be confirmed. Whenever it is held, it promises to carry forward US-India relations to no new and exalted place, and it would be a miracle if ties do not backslide. The Narendra Modi government cannot hide its embarrassment and dismay at the turn of events, and all kinds of bromides are being planted in the media about the good health of India-US relations. Take them with a generous pinch of salt.

There are simply no shortcuts for success in geopolitics. Geopolitics cannot be conducted in denial of geography and neighbourhoods. Geography imposes its own choice and selection of neighbourhood politics, and it has been India’s lot to have adversaries like Pakistan and China on a major portion of the land frontiers and even at sea. There is simply no escape from them. In the early 20th century, Great Britain sought an alliance with Asia’s first Great Power, Japan, to contain Russia. Containment of vaster dimensions ended with the Cold War. The United States’ NATO allies refused to participate in the Vietnam War calling it “out of area”. The refusal was rooted in the Suez Crisis and the perception that America had let down Britain and France. Nevertheless, the net outcome was that America fought the Vietnam War (a legacy of France) alone and lost. If NATO can get divided on Vietnam, what is the chance that the United States will consent to be India’s cat’s paw against China or Pakistan? Everyone is on their own in today’s world, and the Narendra Modi government has yet to cotton on to this primary lesson of contemporary geopolitics.

Making trade concessions to the United States without reciprocity won’t get India and the United States closer: If anything, Trump will put the bite on India the more. It is not entirely dissimilar to India challenging China on Doklam and then meekly surrendering on the Dalai Lama and the Tibet question: In geopolitics, nations are implacable, and even more so when you try to bluff them. Since India made the economic turnaround in 1991, it is perceived worldwide as a challenger to the global trade order. Its market is hugely attractive for the West and for China. It has no strategy currently to leverage its market: China has cornered large chunks of it and there is nary a murmur or complaint from the Modi government. Modi thought he could challenge China and Pakistan by playing the US card without calculating the costs to be incurred. Now it transpires India is in no position to pay “protection money” to the Trump administration. Fixated on “America First”, Donald Trump sees no reason to suffer Narendra Modi further. As long as India serves US aims in Afghanistan, against China, and so on, there will remain some small utility for India in Washington. Mostly, though, India has been downgraded by the Trump White House, and India sensibly should wake up to this reality and pre-empt any insulting communication to this effect from the US side.

India’s future lies in South Asia and it makes sense to restore relations to normal or near-normal with China and Pakistan. A. B. Vajpayee never trusted the US government and insisted on the permanence of geography and neighbours as factors in international relations. Quacks cannot be expected to look beyond the horizon as Vajpayee often did.