Trumps visit had all the smoke but little fire

Trump's visit had all the smoke but little fire

Only the politically very naïve would have thought that the American President’s visit to India would have set either the Potomac or the Indian Ocean on fire. But from the time Donald Trump and his delegation set foot in Ahmedabad, there was no doubt that the 45th President of the United States and his family that included the First Lady, Daughter and Son-in-Law were going to have a trip...

Only the politically very naïve would have thought that the American President’s visit to India would have set either the Potomac or the Indian Ocean on fire. But from the time Donald Trump and his delegation set foot in Ahmedabad, there was no doubt that the 45th President of the United States and his family that included the First Lady, Daughter and Son-in-Law were going to have a trip that was going to be both substantive and laced with symbolism and atmospherics.

Looking at Trump’s visit merely in terms of the US$ 3 billion arms deal that was clinched would be simplistic—the President need not have travelled half way around the globe to ink this pact that could have been done by officials in New Delhi and Washington.

At the same time, harping on a notion that Trump came to India just to seal the votes of the Indian Americans for the November elections is also highly exaggerated. Surely, there is some to be gained politically, but the fact also remains that a majority of the 4-million-strong Indian American community are not with the Grand Old Party. Republican-leaning Indian Americans would have voted for Trump anyway this November!

The American President was scheduled to have been the Republic Day Guest in 2019 but that could not materialise because of his domestic scheduling issues. It is a visit that has been pending and one that could be put together at this point of time.

The chemistry between the American President and the Indian Prime Minister is believed to be good or as the captions and headlines go: “The hug is getting tighter!” But beneath the hugs and the handshakes, there is also a growing realisation in the two capitals that irrespective of contentious issues on matters of trade, the leadership can work towards a solution to issues that seem insurmountable at this point of time.

Trump Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and US President Donald Trump during their joint press meet, at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi, on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)

No deal in an election year

Prior to Trump’s landing in India, some were talking about the possibilities of a mini-trade deal in the absence of a mega one. But it soon became apparent that even this mini deal was not going to come about. For one thing, the trade issues—of which tariffs are only one part—require careful negotiation; and for another, Trump would not want a trade deal that will be taken apart by Republicans and Democrats in an election year back home. Today officials are talking about a Free Trade Agreement by the end of the year and if this did not materialise, it will be something else! That is the kind of confidence that the partnership has evolved into.

Already the US$ 3 billion arms deal has come under the scanner of Democrats, with the frontrunner thus far for this 2020 showdown Senator Bernie Sanders tearing into Trump for lining up the pockets of Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed instead of pushing for a climate deal that will benefit millions of people globally.

Sanders’ critique is unlikely to rattle Trump, for the latter would be making the argument, as he always been, that any economic or trade deal means American jobs at home—a favorite election plank. In fact, during an interaction with media persons after his meeting with business tycoons of India, Trump remarked: “I thought it was a great meeting with some of the biggest businessmen in the world that come from India. They are agreeing to invest billions and billions of dollars.”

Melania Trump Delhi school India Happiness
US First Lady Melania Trump is garlanded by two children at Sarvodaya Co-Educational Senior Secondary School in New Delhi on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)

There is a section of Democrats who are extremely uncomfortable with the candidacy of Sanders given his Democratic Socialist credentials. Some Democrats are openly expressing misgivings that with Sanders on the Democratic ticket, it not only means four more years of Trump and the potential of losing majority status in the House of Representatives and making a Democratic comeback in the Senate even more difficult.

Christians discussed, but not CAA

Trump also had a message to his Christian evangelical constituency back home—that he had discussed the issue of religious freedom in Indian with Modi, and the latter insisting that he is indeed working on religious freedom for all.

“He told me that in India they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom,” President Trump said in response to a question, also making the point that issues of both Muslims and Christians were discussed.

But what will be appreciated in Indian official circles is that the American President did not wade into the controversy of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or the rioting that has been taking place in New Delhi in the last several days. “I heard about it, but I didn’t discuss (with Prime Minister Modi). That’s up to India”, Trump said.

Keeping Pak on a tight leash

The Joint Statement issued had a powerful message to both Pakistan and China, on terrorism to the former and freedom of navigation and adherence to international law to the latter.

Ivanka Trump Jared Kushner
US White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner (left) and his wife Ivanka Trump (centre) during the ceremonial welcome of US President Donald Trump at Rashtrapati Bhawan, in New Delhi on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)

Washington may have good relations with Pakistan but Islamabad has not been spared by Trump on cross border terrorism in all its forms against Indian including support and harbouring an assortment of terror and extremist outfits like the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lakshar-e-Taiba.

The fact that Washington and New Delhi specifically wanted Pakistan to ensure that its territory not be used to launch terror activities and also to bring to justice the perpetrators of attack like 26/11 and Pathankot shows the seriousness with which the Trump administration is taking on the subject of terrorism.

The impending American-Taliban deal over Afghanistan may make India extremely uneasy, but Washington would keep a close eye on Islamabad, knowing full its tendency to fish in troubled waters, particularly harming Indian interests in that war-ravaged country.

This is perhaps one reason why the United States and some European countries decided to keep Pakistan on a short leash by retaining its status in the Grey List of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) of the United Nations pertaining to terrorist funding.

Towards stability on Indo-China sea

The significance of President Trump’s visit should be seen beyond the bilateral and in the context of the Indo Pacific that has gained currency in the last several years. The area has not only major players like the United States, Japan, China, India and Australia but also regional powerful organizations like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Mainz carnival Trump Nero burning
A figure depicting US President Donald Trump as Emperor Nero is part of the traditional carnival parade in Mainz, Germany on Monday. (AP/PTI Photo)

Smaller nation-states but with good economic, military and political clout have increasingly found ways to voice concerns and are pushing for solutions to issues confronting the region—strategic, economic and environmental.

Countries like India, China and Japan are heavily dependent on the Indo- Pacific sea lanes for trade and energy supplies; it is said that two-thirds of container trade passes through this area; more than 50 per cent of the global population is accounted by the Indo Pacific; India and China together account for more than 2.5 billion people.

Basically every one of the countries in this Indo-Pacific region is looking for a rules-based order that will preside over issues, especially the contentious ones. And this is where large and old democracies like India and the United States should and will play a pivotal role in shaping the international system for the next decades.

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

Next Story