May 27, 2018, 11:09 pm IST
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India-US Relations under Trump By K.C. Singh, veteran diplomat and renowned commentator. 

India-US Relations under Trump By K.C. Singh, veteran diplomat and renowned commentator. 

K.C. Singh, Jun 23, 2017


Over the coming week focus will be on India-US relations as PM Narendra Modi heads to Washington on a bilateral visit on June 25-26. This would be the first face-to-face interaction between President Donald Trump and PM Modi. The atmosphere surrounding the visit and public anticipation preceding it is so low key, compared to earlier visits by Indian prime ministers to US, that India appears uncertain about the outcome. Media reports call it a get-to-know each other visit rather than a substantive platform for moving bilateral relations to a higher plane.
This has multiple reasons.

Firstly, unlike previous US presidents who normally made their first trip abroad to Europe, the exception being President George H. Bush in 1989 having had to go to Japan for the funeral of Emperor Hirohito, Trump had begun with a visit to Riyadh for a summit with principal Sunni countries on May 20-21. The professed aim of Saudis was to create an anti Iran and anti ISIS alliance. President Trump in joining the gathering endorsed the Saudi strategic read of the region and upended his predecessor's rebalancing that had led to the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. President Barack Obama had rightly concluded that US having no will to commit troop deployments in a third war in fifteen years, only Iran working with its Shia allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon could roll back the caliphate of the ISIS. Trump was reversing that policy by pillorying Iran, hoping to isolate it from Russia and break the Shia crescent that now runs from borders of Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.

In the process, Trump has ended up unleashing disparate forces of tribal and sectarian hatred in the region. Within a fortnight of Riyadh summit , Saudi Arabia and UAE led a breaking of relations and all contact with Qatar in combination with Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. The six member Gulf Coordination Council (GCC) got divided with Kuwait and Oman remaining neutral.

The charge levelled against Qatar is that it supports terrorism. In reality the grouse is over it giving refuge to Muslim Brotherhood leaders, its experiment with a comparatively more liberal order, its Al Jazeera television channel that speaks truth to authority and its friendly relations with Iran. The last for Qatar is a practical necessity as it shares with Iran the largest gas field in the world. An immediate consequence also was that both Iran and Turkey pledged support to Qatar. Thus in the trail of Trump the region has got more firmly polarised between Shia - Sunni and Arab - non-Arab. A US television channel even claimed that when Trump promptly endorsed the Saudi-UAE actions he was unaware that Qatar hosts the largest US airbase in the region with 11,000 troops and over a hundred planes. This was foreign policy making literally on the fly.

Secondly, Trump has got more deeply enmeshed in the investigation into his links and those of his aides to Russia. This inhibits his reaching out to President Putin, on which Trump hoped to rest his entire West Asia policy. The victory of French President Emmanuel Macron and virtual defeat of British PM Theresa May has turned the anti- globalisation tide in Europe. The next inflexion point is the German chancellor's election in September. A victory for Angela Merkel will further consolidate the Franco-German alliance, which will be the core of rejuvenated Europe advocating free trade and globalisation.

Paradoxically, it would leave both Putin and Trump with weaker hands to play. In fact at the next G 20 meeting, being hosted by Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is preparing to conduct a tutorial for Trump on the virtues of global free trade. Thus the world is beginning to get a measure of the US president even before he has settled down. The Economist magazine in its Lexington column likens Trump administration’s functioning to a medieval court rather than a Shakespearean tragedy. It concludes that “He is more bully than tragic hero”.

Thus the understandable caution about Modi’s US visit. Foreign leaders who have been able to extract anything from Trump have employed personal charm, flattery, golf, superficial concessions that give Trump feeling of negotiating success etc. Modi’s so called equation with Obama was more a factor of marketing than truth. Obama by some accounts was like a bored school boy in the company of non-intellectual kids during his path-breaking second trip to India as Chief guest at the Republic Day celebration. Modi loves theatrical diplomacy; Obama was really “No drama Obama”.

The assumption of last two decades of Indian diplomacy has been that US was committed to strengthen India as counterweight to a rising China. This may no longer hold good as Trump has happily cut deals with China, unmindful of its predatory behaviour in South China Sea or its Belt and Road Initiative that is creating the infrastructure skeleton for its strategic expansion as a global power. Belatedly Trump has bemoaned China not having done enough to save the life of an American detainee in North Korea who died on his return to US in a coma.

The critical issue during the US visit is how to rejig existing agenda items to match priorities of both sides. Trump will seek greater access to Indian market, balancing of trade which is in India’s favour, perhaps more load-carrying by India for safeguarding global commons, safeguards for US intellectual property and sale of US defence equipment.

India should not expend energy on issues linked to electoral promises like H1B visas, on which Trump is unlikely to relent. India will have to assess whether under Trump the US move to start treating India on par with allies for technology transfer still holds. Connected to that is approval of co-manufacturing in India of earlier generation US defence equipment like F-16 planes as that is the only way Trump’s “America First” and Modi’s “Make in India” can have a meeting point.

On geo-political issues Trump has rejected the Paris climate accord, which India stands by. Trump also levelled intemperate and wrong charges against India as seeking billions of US dollars for transitioning to a low carbon economy. He would need to be educated in this regard and that in fact India is a great market for US companies like Tesla for its path-breaking electric car. India is also a potential market for US shale gas, which has broken the back of the oil cartel OPEC.

US is unlikely to show great enthusiasm for helping India join the technology control regimes, particularly Nuclear Suppliers Group, unless India unnecessarily again starts throwing dollars at US nuclear energy proponents, who have been crippled by Westinghouse collapse. Similarly Trump  is unlikely to have interest in reform of UN Security Council, unless India is able to link it to furthering US interests. But a domestically beleaguered Trump with narrowing options abroad, having already caused turbulence in the Gulf and West Asia and antagonism in Europe by espousing kindred right-wingers, needs success elsewhere. To be able to show that and appear useful is the path to a “deal” with, as his twitter handle goes, “therealDonaldTrump”.


The irony is that flattery works with Trump but may not for Modi’s domestic constituency. It remains to be seen how two figures that strut like characters in a play will react when they meet on stage. Can the plots of two plays, written to right-wing populism, be blended? The answer will be known next week.

K. C. Singh, former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, is a veteran diplomat and renowned commentator. 



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