Make Trump’s visit count

PM Modi should not shy away from extracting his pound of flesh

Make Trump’s visit count

Big game: Modi and Trump are hoping to reap political gains from the latter’s visit.

Shyam Saran

Former foreign secretary and senior fellow, centre for policy research

Ahmedabad is getting all decked up for the Big Fat Visit. President Trump is coming to town and as he himself has tweeted, a sea of humanity is being assembled to greet him with ‘Namaste Trump’, a grand sequel to the ‘Howdy, Mody!’ rally in Houston last September. The visit and the optics surrounding it are designed to deliver tangible political gains to both Trump and PM Modi. For Trump, relations with India are a rare success story in his otherwise bleak foreign policy record. The visit will play to his own constituency at home, win some support from the influential Indian diaspora and put the negativity of the failed impeachment process behind him. He may not be able to extract a trade deal that meets his insistent demands but he will go back with another lucrative defence deal, this time for American helicopters, which he can flaunt as the next big thing.

For Modi, there are also significant political gains. The visit will demonstrate that despite slowing growth rates and diminishing economic prospects, India remains a key international actor to which the world’s top leader comes to pay court. With Trump at his side and hopefully avoiding the ‘K’ word, the pressures from Western civil society, legislators and media on Kashmir, the CAA and what is seen as India’s lurch to the right, can be neatly deflected at least for the time being. The Chinese will take note especially as they are now in the dumps due to the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that Trump comes to India to celebrate Indo-US partnership even while Pakistan remains on the FATF grey list will no doubt be a matter of satisfaction. This may help dispel some of the anxiety, already apparent, at the US-Taliban understanding which may lead to a peace settlement and the withdrawal of the remaining US troops from Afghanistan. Pakistan has and will play a role in this and its success in avoiding being put on the FATF black list is price for its cooperation. This is not good news for India but its downside may begin to appear later.

So, is this visit only about spectacle? Not entirely. Compared to US allies, adversaries and assorted partners, with the exception of Israel, India has got off relatively lightly as far as Trump’s unpredictability and hostility is concerned. Counter-terrorism cooperation, defence cooperation, the steady crystallisation of the Indo-Pacific strategy, and more specifically, the Quad, which brings together India, the US, Japan and Australia in a closer security relationship, have all expanded during the Trump years. The visit will add momentum to this process. At a time when India’s economic promise is at a discount, a stronger Indo-US security partnership is even more important in safeguarding India’s interests and maintaining its profile as an influential international player.

What are some of the risks involved in identifying too closely with Trump? One of the great strengths of this partnership has been the bipartisan consensus it has enjoyed despite the sharpening political polarisation in the US. There is a danger that in courting Trump with such patent enthusiasm, India may be losing some of the sympathy and support it has traditionally enjoyed with the Democratic Party. This may also result in an influential constituency in the US Congress training its sights on what may be considered regressive political developments in India. Even a sympathetic administration may find it more difficult to push through initiatives to strengthen Indo-US partnership if there are dissenting voices in the Congress. We have seen this before. The bipartisan support for India in the Congress was nurtured by sustained and careful diplomacy over the past two decades. This is an asset one should endeavour to preserve. This will be particularly important if the current expectation that Trump will return as President is belied.

Expanding security cooperation may, to some extent, balance the continuing disconnect on economic and trade-related issues. However, if the economic pillar of the relationship continues to be shaky and weakens even further, this could undermine other positive elements, including security cooperation. Therefore, it is important to give high priority to addressing this vulnerability. This will be difficult. If India has been unable to join a relatively low standard regional trading arrangement such as the RCEP, it is unlikely to satisfy even the minimal expectations of the US while pursuing a bilateral trade agreement. The US, EU and Japan are working together for the reform of the World Trade Organisation. The objective is to move towards a reciprocity-based trading order, replacing the system which recognises differentiation based on levels of development. The US has already declared India as a developed economy for certain purposes. If a future multilateral regime does away with the differentiation principle, India’s interests will be significantly damaged. Part of the problem is that much of the US, indeed western, policy prescriptions are directed against China, and India suffers collateral damage because it is put in the same category. It is imperative that India distinguishes itself from China and in negotiations on a new multilateral regime, seeks a sui generis status for itself. It is unlikely that Trump will be impressed by such arguments since he is essentially transactional in his approach. Nevertheless, it is in India’s interest to keep the trade issue high on the agenda rather than seek to deflect pressures through tactical concessions alone.

The pomp and ceremony would have been worthwhile if behind the scenes, a substantive agenda is also pursued and progress achieved, however modest, on some key concerns. Spectacle must not become a substitute for substance.

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