President Donald Trump says he is “excited” about his visit to India and he should be, trade deal or not. Where else would he get hundreds of thousands of people to welcome him?
As a wise man quipped, just try going to Pakistan and do a “Salaam, Trump” to see what transpires. But “Namaste, Trump” is happening in the world’s largest cricket stadium, walls around slums and all, with an expected 125,000 capacity crowd.
American policy makers well understand that their president triggers strong emotions across Western Europe, Latin America and large parts of Asia. Three in four Germans, French, Spanish and the Dutch lack confidence in him. Mexicans are off the charts with an 89% disapproval rating and with some reason. Trump’s opening salvo against Mexicans back in 2016 destroyed that balloon.
Both Trump and Modi Are Focusing on the Positives
India, on the other hand, is a bright spot for Trump with 56% of the people expressing confidence in him. Indians are not in love like the Filipinos (77%) or the Israelis (71%), but fond they are of the man with a baffling personality and an untiring ability to hurl stuff at domestic rivals, foreign leaders, former aides and anyone else who crosses his path or Twitter timeline.
However, Trump happens “to like Prime Minister Modi a lot” as he said on Tuesday. The Trump-Modi “bhai-bhai” thing could translate into a slice of Indian American votes come Nov. 3 when Americans will decide whether to re-elect the man or go Democrat. That would be return enough for the long flight over.
For Modi, to have the world’s most powerful man pay a visit when all he is getting these days is criticism from western capitals for the tangled web of divisive policies he has woven since his own reelection, is good dividend.
Trump seems to be amenable to accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative at least for now. Holding forth on the Feb. 24-25 visit, he underplayed the absence of a trade deal – the one “deliverable” that would have warmed his heart given his obsession with trade, deficits and money. For him not to focus on the elusive deal was significant.
The Deal About the ‘Trade Deal’
Instead, he threw this one: “I’m saving the big deal for later. We are doing a very big trade deal with India.” He hinted it would be done after the US presidential election and swept the whole cloud away in one stroke.
But he did add, “We’re not treated very well by India.” Translation: Take more time for a real deal but he won’t forget the “tariff king” side of things. US insiders say the lack of even a modest trade deal will make the visit less exuberant.
Why a trade deal didn’t materialize has got lost in the blame game and only the two negotiators know the real story.
Both Indian and US officials have heaped blame on each other and accused the other side of shifting the goal posts or demanding the impossible. There’s gamesmanship, brinkmanship and all other kinds of ships in the way of hammering out a deal.
The Trump Administration has pushed other countries successfully for trade deals – Canada, Japan, South Korea and even China to a degree. You decide who is being difficult, the Americans ask innocently.
Except nothing is innocent in trade negotiations and domestic constituencies are the blood and sweat of democratic politics. Both Trump and Modi want to protect their “vote banks” whether the economics of those decisions are justified or not.
Will Trade Tit-for-Tat Impact Strategic Ties?
The difference between Trump and other US presidents is that he will go for the jugular to push friends and enemies alike. Trump’s tough guy, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer first took away duty free privileges from India and then last week declared India a “developed” country making it impossible to argue for the restoration of the lost benefits.
If things go further south with more tit-for-tat retaliation, guess which side will lose the tariff war? The Indian government knows the answer full well but it has little leverage, especially with a slowing economy and unrest among the masses.
Such is life in the Trump era. Modi and co. have to live with it and find ways to make it all work. The big question is whether the disappointment and fatigue over trade issues will begin to bleed into the strategic aspects, which have been the lifeblood of the relationship since former President George W. Bush decided to change the old game of “India-Pakistan” to “India-India.”
Once India and US Could Not Stand Each Other, But Now...
India and the US have a come a long way since the days of old when neither could stomach the other’s arrogance, condescension or swag – Americans with their superpower-ed attitude and Indians with their freshly independent “wokeness” about stuff. Today they actually talk to each other.
In fact, it could be argued that the India relationship has taught American diplomats new skills in how to deal with a large, important and independent-minded country that is a friend but not an ally that can be directed to a mutually agreed upon rule-book.
A couple of important points to note in this context: Trump’s is a “stand-alone” visit, meaning he is not going to any neighbouring country just as former president Barack Obama did not. Pakistan was not on the map for this maiden voyage.
The visit is also part of what has now become tradition – every US president since Bill Clinton has made a trip to India to highlight the growing strategic understanding and the partnership. The importance of Indian Americans in this evolution cannot be denied.
The ‘C’ Word in India-US Relationship
India and US are not allies in the sense of a military alliance but they have shared interests and convergence on the most important geo-political issue of the day: China.
To manage and deal with the rise of China so the current world order is not disrupted beyond reason is a common headache, rather migraine, for both India and the US. And Australia, Japan, France and others.
No country really loves the China model, only its endless ability to pay cash and deliver. Even Boris Johnson’s Britain found the ultimate penny-wise explanation to let China’s Huawei in.
The Trump Administration, to its credit, has come out in the open about what it sees as China’s deep designs to penetrate US labs, schools, universities, community centers, think tanks and intelligence agencies and steal what it can and influence the rest. There is a daily roster of indictments and frequent arrests.
India’s ultimate future decision on whether to allow Huawei equipment will have a bearing on relations with the US whether it’s Trump or a different president in the White House because the American establishment is convinced Huawei is a Trojan horse.
A Perfect Visit?
On the brighter side, India and the US have aligned their respective Indo-Pacific policies to a greater degree, India has become more open about the Quad and met the US, Japan and Australia at the ministerial level and India has signed all but one foundational agreement with the US to increase inter-operability and sharing of communication technology.
During Trump’s short visit, India is expected to sign a $2.6 billion deal with the US for 24 Seahawk helicopters from Lockheed Martin. It should take some of the edge off the disappointment from the absence of a trade deal.
The helicopters and the crowds could make it almost a “perfect” visit.
(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)