The late Robert Jordan used the expression “Let the lord of chaos rule” in his fantasy epic The Wheel of Time. For the Trump White House that seems to be standard operation procedure. Willy nilly, the rest of the world follows in its trail. With a mercurial president whose attention swings from the Stormy Daniels scandal to Russian electoral interference to North Korea’s nuclear programme, and Twitter as the preferred medium for policy leads, no one knows what comes next or why it contradicts earlier pronouncements. The lord of chaos cuts a wide swathe in President Donald Trump’s wake.
This lurid reality show leaves friends and allies with head-spinning conundrums. It jams up their policy agendas, creating insuperable problems in ongoing negotiations. Nowhere is this truer than in two subjects important to the government of India, defence purchases from Russia and the development of Chabahar port in southern Iran.
So far, every meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump has been markedly cordial. Indeed, there is talk of inviting him as chief guest at the Republic Day parade, giving him what his heart most desires, a bang-up military parade. So we could say Trump considers us friendly if not quite bosom buddies. Then again, maybe not, given his government’s warning against buying weapons from Russia. Apparently, it violates American economic sanctions on Russia, recently tightened over its alleged interference in US elections.
This is despite a Pentagon-led effort to seek a sanctions waiver for friendly countries like India. The House of Representatives in July passed an amendment to the law, permitting the waiver. A month later the Pentagon ruled out an automatic waiver on a $5 billion deal to buy Russia’s S-400 surface to air missile system.
Major purchases of this kind, from enquiry to installation, take years to complete. Talks with Russia on the S-400, for instance, began last year. Delivery was supposed to start later this year until the roadblocks went up. But the process of searching for a missile defence system would have begun even earlier, when there were no sanctions of the kind that are in force now. The evaluation process could not possibly have anticipated it.
The Chabahar story dates back about 20 years. That is how long the government waited for the opportunity to develop a route to Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan, a terminal and undersea gas pipeline from Iran and the 7,200 km North South Transportation Corridor, a rail and road network from Bandar Abbas to St Petersburg in Russia’s north across six countries, forming a web that will provide access to Central Asia and Europe. The Obama administration’s Iran deal and the removal of sanctions opened the way for Indian plans. Trump’s decision to rescind the deal last May has slammed the door shut again.
Both require urgent action; the S-400 is part of a long-term plan to upgrade the military, with the government in negotiations to buy Russian guided missile Stealth frigates and helicopters as well. There is also the prospect of Sukhoi-35 aircraft. None of this can go ahead if the sanctions are rigidly enforced, with serious consequences for the modernisation programme. Chabahar and the other deals with Iran are equally important, first for access to cheaper gas for power and fertiliser plants and then to avoid the inevitable complications of dealing with Pakistan.
Each part of the agenda requires careful consideration and massive investment if it is to provide lasting solutions to vexed security and commercial imperatives. The French Rafale fighters deal, for example, was years in the making and the country was fortunate there were no hostilities in this period. This is why the government cannot afford to leave key interests hostage to a process that takes place outside the country and gives no thought to any view other than its own. When that is mediated by an individual as volatile and unreliable as Trump, the uncertainty increases many-fold.
India is not bound by any treaty with the US though the two have much in common and American support is key to its nuclear programme. But where the US sees Iran as an existential threat to the Middle East, India sees a source of hydrocarbons and jumping off point for Central Asia and Europe. Given such fundamental differences of perception the government has to decide where its true interests lie, in the US line or its own line.