The show and the reality
If negotiations conclude as per the expectations of both the parties, it will not only be against India’s interests but will be a strategic setback to India’s regional aspirations.
Finally, Donald Trump is visiting India as the President of the United States of America. India, particularly the Prime Minister’s Office, wanted the visit to happen earlier, but Donald Trump clearly could not find a reason to make it happen. He officially visited many countries, including China and other countries in East Asia, while keeping India waiting almost till the end of his term. Donald Trump also didn’t seem interested in inviting the Indian Prime Minister to the White House. Compared to the warm and receptive Barack Obama, his successor has remained indifferent to India. Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Donald Trump in the United States in 2017, at least a dozen heads of state of different countries had experienced the hospitality of the White House. Although much has been made of the Modi-Trump ‘friendship’, Donald Trump is not Barack Obama. This is clear to one and all, and Indo-US relations have suffered as a result. President Trump evaluates other countries on the scale of economic returns to the United States and views with apprehension countries that have a surplus in trade with the number one economic power in the world.
Trump will be the fourth successive President of the United States to visit India. Barack Obama not only visited India twice but also hosted the then Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in the White House as the first state guest of his inaugural presidency. Obama and his predecessor, George Bush played a key role in ending India’s nuclear pariah status in the world. Bush visited India in 2006, but it was Bill Clinton’s visit in 2000 that truly brought about a new momentum in American relations with India.
Naturally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to be in the league of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh, who had hosted the then US President once and twice respectively. In the times of Vajpayee and Dr Singh, the agenda behind inviting American Presidents was mainly to get recognition as a nuclear power, de-hyphenation with Pakistan, and increasing bilateral trade. These agendas stand almost fulfilled today. So, what is on the platter for Indo-US relations now?
There are two long term agendas and one short term issue that Prime Minister Modi has to handle when he hosts Donald Trump. The short-term issues are unease in the world regarding the Indian government’s decisions regarding Jammu and Kashmir, and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The decision to abrogate Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir has been accompanied by heavy deployment of armed forces and internet shutdown in the valley, while the protests against the CAA and the National Register of Citizens inside and outside the country captured the attention of the world, and raised many eyebrows. It is doubtful as to whether President Trump would have a problem with the Indian government’s decisions. However, there are strong human rights, Kashmir, and pro-Pakistan lobbies in the United States, that are likely to be putting pressure on the Trump administration to harden its position against India on these issues. Trump is not naïve, and is unlikely to be affected by these lobbies, but, as a businessman, he knows how to use them. The United States is probably going to use these issues to make India buy more arms, military armaments, and military and civilian aircraft from American companies. The United States has already replaced Russia as the number one exporter of arms to India, whilst insisting that India should not diversify its arms import basket. India is not likely to view a complete dependency on US arms technology as a favourable outcome. Moreover, it is a compromise to India’s independent foreign policy. However, if India doesn’t agree to these demands, Trump’s America may not be proactive in supporting India on global forums.
Additionally, this is also a challenge to PM Modi’s Make in India campaign, particularly in the defence sector. While India would certainly like American defence production companies to set up their production base in India, Trump is likely to look at it as being at odds with his Make America Great Again mission. However many arms, military equipment, vehicles-helicopters-aircrafts for armed forces that India agrees to buy from the United States, and how much ever American companies agree to invest in India’s defence production would be a key determinant of deciding gains and compromises for both the countries after the Modi-Trump meeting.
Amongst the long-term issues, the first one is about the trade war that Donald Trump has imposed upon India over the past two years. The burgeoning Indo-US trade since 2008-09 resulted in India having a trade surplus with the United States. Trump has reduced India’s trade surplus by almost 50% in the past two years. He has removed India from the list of deserving developing countries for importing goods because he questioned whether a boastful India with G-20 membership really needed it. In fact, the Trump administration is demanding that India starts importing US dairy and agricultural products, along with lessening the taxes of power bikes imported from the United States to further bridge its trade gap with India. Trump is not in a hurry to sign a trade deal, as he wants to put more pressure on India while keeping his electorate hopeful. Trump sells himself as a deal-maker through hard bargaining, and removing special treatments and increasing taxes on imports are known pressure tactics he uses. In this context, eagerness on the part of the Indian government to sign a mini trade deal with Trump is surprising. Trump’s truism hardly believes in win-win solutions, and eagerness could be construed as necessity or weakness. India must be careful and accept that this is going to be a thorn in bilateral relations for a long time.
The second long-term issue in bilateral relations is regarding developments beyond India’s north-western borders. Today, India and the United States have completely different viewpoints and interests vis-à-vis Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. India wants peace and stability within, and on the borders of, Iran. Oil, the Chhabahar port, and the North-South Infrastructure Corridor are an essential part of India’s aspirations in the 21st century. However, the possibility of US aggression against Teheran would impact India’s relationship with Iran. Can PM Modi persuade President Trump to normalize relations with Iran? Or will President Trump pressurize India to participate in his campaign against Iran? These are the questions that will be awaiting answers when President Trump leaves India.
President Trump knows that India will likely not cooperate, particularly militarily, against Iran. Therefore, he has already opened up channels with the Pakistani army. If they both cooperate overtly or covertly, it would be a setback to the Indian mission of isolating Pakistan internationally. Islamabad and Rawalpindi are already necessary components of American plans of withdrawal from Afghanistan. Trump is visiting India at a time when his administration has re-opened negotiations with the Taliban. If negotiations conclude as per the expectations of both the parties, it will not only be against India’s interests but will be a strategic setback to India’s regional aspirations. If PM Modi’s government remains a mute spectator to Taliban’s return to Kabul, even if it is in the guise of a power-sharing arrangement, it would be the second strategic setback to India under his leadership. The first one was the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that happened under the nose of the supposedly proactive and powerful Modi government. These are million-dollar issues. The 100 crore show to welcome Trump will not wash away these issues. We await the answers and the resolutions of the newly emergent issues in bilateral relations between India and the United States.