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What has India gained from US President Trump’s India visit?

Shealah Craighead / Public domain

When you meet your friend after, say, four months, how many times do you hug him ? Once or twice may be par for the course. But six times ? Well that was the hug count for the Modi-Trump love-fest on day one of the US President’s visit to India.

Of course, in many ways, everything was over-the-top—the crowds lining the streets to the jam-packed Motera Stadium, the walkabout in the Taj Mahal, and effusive remarks Modi and Trump threw at each other.

We know, of course, that Trump has taken great pleasure in the adulation of what he thought were millions of people and the visit to the Taj Mahal. But he also got important brownie points with the Gujarati-American electorate in some key states back home.

Positive Messaging and Trade Boost on Trump’s Second Day in India

Day Two was more sober and business-like, but the positive messaging remained. New Delhi can be happy that Trump behaved impeccably, did not embarrass the government on account of the CAA or the Delhi riots at his solo press conference on Tuesday evening. But India could not have been entirely comfortable with the Kashmir mediation issue coming up and Trump’s comment that “There are two sides to every story” in the context of both Kashmir and terrorism.

In the remarks just after the official-level talks on Tuesday afternoon, Trump spoke of the working together with India for a “free and balanced Indo-Pacific region” and a “comprehensive trade deal.” He referred to the US$3 billion arms deal and noted the tremendous progress made by the two countries on working out a comprehensive trade agreement, noting that US exports to India have gone up 60 per cent since he took office three years ago. He also noted a 500 per cent rise in American energy exports to India. According to Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, India expects to source $ 9 billion on this account in 2020.

US Knows What It Wants, Does India Know It Too?

This is clearly an area targeted for growth, but note that this has been built on a forced embargo on Iran, the closest source of hydrocarbons for India.
 

"Trump is clearly elated by the US business prospects in India, as well as the investments Indian corporates are making in the US."
 

“India is a tremendous market and they really like us,” he exulted at his press conference on Tuesday evening.

But at the end of the day, this was a visit to India by the President of the most powerful and richest country in the world. So the bottom line question would be: We know Prime Minister Modi has basked in the reflected glory of the President of the US, but what did India, the country, gain from it ?

We, of course, needed the arms we purchased and they are undoubtedly of great quality, but they were purchased from the US, not given free. Further, as always, they come with end-user conditions. The US is offering us a range of other systems, but there is a line they do not cross and for that reason India needs to keep its powder dry and maintain good ties with Russia or Israel.

Benefits of Being on the US’s Right Side

One big outcome of the visit was in boosting India’s prestige. Given Trump’s erratic ways and troubled relations with old American friends and allies, his flawless performance in India stands out. It will most certainly up India and Modi’s standing around the world. Considering that the two were not in talking terms before Modi’s re-election, their fifth meeting since is certainly a remarkable development.


"The benefits of being in good standing with the US can often be intangible. For one thing, it certainly influences governments in countries like Japan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Germany, UK as well as the US dominated financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank."
 

As for the trade deal what does seem clear is that the US is not willing to give any quarter on this account to a country the vast majority of whose people are dirt poor. This hardly seems to be the behaviour of a “natural ally” or strategic partner. It is one thing to offer Blue Dot schemes in the Indo-Pacific and another to deny the GSP to one of the poorest countries in the region.

Does India Have the Ability to Capitalise on US Goodwill?

But India remains in a strategic sweet spot with the US. Washington realises that in terms of size, location and economic potential, India is the only country in Asia that can offer heft to its anti-Beijing coalition. That India has a disputed border with China and chafes at Beijing’s friendship with Pakistan makes the choice of India a logical one. The US now seeks to make India as the “premier defence partner”, essentially promoting the use of US equipment at every level of the Indian military making India a key cog in the larger US defence system.


"What New Delhi wants, however, is not clear. It probably wants a partnership of equals."
 

But in the real world where there is a huge asymmetry of resources and capabilities of the two countries this is not on the table. The result is that India lacks any kind of a clear roadmap to exploit the attention that is being paid to it by the world’s premier power. In similar circumstances Pakistan and China would have taken the US to the cleaners, as, indeed they have done in the past.

That India and the US do not have identical geopolitical interests is evident from the issue of India’s ties with Pakistan, Iran and Russia. Trump, to his credit, was forthright in saying in Ahmedabad that “our relations with Pakistan is a very good one.” And that he expected the progress here to yield “greater stability and the future of harmony for all the nations of South Asia.” He repeated the point in New Delhi when he said that India and the US were determined to protect their citizens against “radical Islamic terrorism” even while noting that “the US is also working productively with Pakistan to confront terrorists who operate on its soil.”

Trump Gives Modi the Benefit of Doubt on Delhi Riots

The riots that broke out in Delhi while Trump was in Agra is a warning bell. The government may claim that this was a conspiracy, but the reality is that its own policy of hostility and exclusion set the stage for the conflagration. Trump has clearly been briefed on it and the CAA. But he chose to give Modi the benefit of doubt. But it clearly goes against his own description of India as a country of “astounding progress, a miracle of democracy, [and] extraordinary diversity.” He emphasised this by twice referring to the Muslims and other communities contributing to the vibrancy of Indian culture.

Trump has articulated his vision of India which contrasts with the ways of some countries (read China) “that seeks to claim power through coercion, intimidation, aggression.” He is seeing this through the lens of a businessman seeking stable and profitable markets in the coming decades. But should India succumb to authoritarianism, religious strife, civil unrest and anarchy, Trump is unlikely to be as effusive.

This commentary originally appeared in The Quint.

Manoj Joshi (ORF)
28 February 2020

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