Between atmospherics and substance: India waits for President Trump

Between atmospherics and substance: India waits for President Trump

Every American President starting with Bill Clinton have visited India during their tenure in office; and so will President Donald Trump. Having skipped his Republic Day invite last year, POTUS will be coming to India on February 24 and 25 and spend time in Ahmedabad, Agra, and New Delhi.

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Every American President starting with Bill Clinton have visited India during their tenure in office; and so will President Donald Trump. Having skipped his Republic Day invite last year, POTUS will be coming to India on February 24 and 25 and spend time in Ahmedabad, Agra, and New Delhi.

The optics and the atmospherics will be there for all to see — an energized and mercurial President — waxing in eloquence after his recent impeachment acquittal in Senate hoping to convey messages that will be of relevance to the Asia Pacific and the Indo Pacific where the United States continues to be a big hitter, strategically, economically, politically and diplomatically. However, in India it remains to be seen how Trump sees the future of America in the region and beyond.

For an administration that has shown to have shifting interests and commitments, President Trump’s words will be carefully weighed in New Delhi and other Asian capitals.

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No one expected that President Clinton would visit India in 2000, especially after the United States imposed tough sanctions in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests. But the visit did materialize paving the way for the gradual upswing in the years thereafter between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy.

The de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan by the George W Bush administration was yet another step that furthered the relations that continued well into the Barack Obama era.

A lot has transpired in the last three-plus years of the Trump administration even if every now and then the American leader has upset Indian officials over his remarks on Kashmir without understanding the broader contours of the issue.

Irritating, still to many Indians, is that at a time when many nations are convinced of Pakistan’s role in global and cross border terrorism, some in the West and Washington seem to look for ways to soften the blow on Islamabad, one example being in not pushing hard on the compliance of Islamabad with the Financial Action Task Force requirements.

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The American President will have to see the changed environment of the Asia Pacific and how the United States and India could fit into the evolving framework meaningfully.

The strategic environment of India, as it pertains to the Indo Pacific, is indeed challenging. The “noise” within the neighborhood aside, New Delhi has had to deal with China over its String of Pearls strategy, the inroads of Beijing in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Mauritius, not to speak of the continuous and ever-growing nexus with Pakistan.

The persisting border dispute with China is one irritant that will remain absorbing for India’s leaders, but now New Delhi will have to answer the aggressive challenge of Beijing in international waterways such as the South China Seas.

The dispute over the Spratly’s also involves nations in South East Asia, for China has started militarizing the islands and islets; and countries in the ASEAN are looking at ways to draw up rules of conduct that seem so elusive in the face of an obstinate China maintaining its “sovereign” rights in the area that is seen to be rich in oil and natural gas reserves, thus far unexplored.

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With Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia also claiming the islands group, in whole or in part, South China Seas is seen as a potential flashpoint.

There was a time when the United States was a dominant actor in the area, politically and strategically; and even today it is perhaps the only power that has the extent and reach and in more than one theatre at a time. But to the dismay of key players in the region, the United States is scaling down its commitments and wants a “sharing of the burden” in the Asia Pacific.

More than scaling down, the present Trump administration has been presenting an incoherent picture to allies and adversaries — talking of cutting back American deployments around the world and at the same time sending additional combat reinforcements to troubled areas of the Middle East.

The notion of a “free ride” on defence spending is a faulty perception that dates back to the 1970s-80s and one that has been raised frequently by President Donald Trump blaming allies in Europe and Asia.

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The big question is if Washington under a continued Republican dispensation beyond 2021 is going to aggressively counter China in the Asia Pacific as it would have to retain the existing force structure, if not substantially, add on to the existing capabilities given the emerging threats in the region. And in the strict context of India, Washington has been frequently talking of New Delhi’s expanded roles in Afghanistan without understanding the strategic and geo-political compulsions of India in the process.

In the India-United States context, President Trump will, in all probabilities, continue to pressure New Delhi on cutting off Iranian oil imports. The same goes as far as India’s relations with Russia and the purchases of weapons systems. The American leader will have to be quietly impressed that each country will have to follow a foreign policy based on their national interests together with historical and civilizational ties just as how President Trump boasts to his constituency of protecting and projecting American national interests.

The American President’s visit has also raised the prospect of “deals” — on matters of defence and overall trade. Some are even talking about a “mini” trade deal in the offing. But if the range of contentious items that are set out on the table are anything to go by, even a “mini” deal would seem to be difficult.

Any deal, mini or major, would have to accommodate the interests of both sides and cannot be a one-way street.

The United States, for instance, wants India to open up its dairy markets; India has apparently in favor of some products provided they come from cows that are “vegetarian” and not fed meat. India wants to export bovine meat to the United States but the latter is resisting on the grounds that Indian cows are not free of Foot and Mouth Disease. America wants India to be open for blueberries and cherries but is resisting Indian grapes. Washington wants India to buy pizza cheese and whey protein… and the list continues.

Perhaps the only areas of defence purchases to the tune of about US$ 6 billion are seen likely at this juncture.

With Indian farmers watching the Trump visit and a trade deal carefully, the Modi government may also have to play a safe game in the process. With two-way goods trade around US$ 89 billion, the Trump administration is also wary of posting a deficit of around US$ 21 billion with India. The issue of trade deficit is indeed a red herring to President Trump given that he constantly harps on deficits with China and to a lesser extent Japan.

The biggest challenge to India at the time of President Trump’s visit is to keep the American President engaged.

Trump is known to be distracted as well as not quite glued to facts as also in a tendency to be not quite focused on any one topic for an extended period of time. And he is not exactly to be considered as a geography buff: in a meeting with Narendra Modi on the sidelines of a leaders conclave in Manila in 2017, Trump stumped the Prime Minister by saying: “It’s not like you’ve got China on your border”, seemingly dismissing the threat to India.

(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)

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