The shared concerns of the two nations on the issue of terrorism will definitely come up during the Trump visit.
By Rajan Kumar and Bappaditya Mukherjee
Namaste Trump: As a follow up to the joint appearance by Prime Minister Modi and President Donald Trump at a massive public gathering of overseas Indians in Houston, a similar mega event called Namaste Trump (Greetings, Trump) is being planned in Ahmedabad on 24 February. Building upon the Houston show, the event in Ahmedabad will also be carried out with a liberal dose of razmataz, mutual appreciation and high-pitch nationalism to advance a narrative that suits the two leaders. The event managers will be hard at work once again to efficiently implement India’s emerging model of diplomacy as a public spectacle. Addressing public rallies and sharing the stage with world leaders have become regular features of Modi’s diplomacy. These events generate striking visuals that pique the interest of Modi’s hosts in foreign lands and garner glowing coverage in India – particularly in sections of electronic media aligned to the establishment. They help in mobilizing the Indian diaspora, a significant segment of which has been a reliable source of funding and support to the Bharatiya Janata Party over several decades.
In terms of scale and grandeur, the event in Ahmedabad will be the home version of mega-event diplomacy that Modi has routinely practised on foreign soil. The two leaders are scheduled to inaugurate Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium, the largest cricket arena in the world. There will be a 22-kilometre long roadshow from Ahmedabad Airport to the Sabarmati Ashram and then to the Stadium. The choice of Sabarmati Ashram for this pompous roadshow by Modi and his event managers is ironical given the miasma of polarization that hangs over both these leaders.
It was also reported that a 4 feet wall stretching half a kilometre was being constructed to hide the slums that dot this route. In a city where 20 per cent of the population is slum-dwellers, this potemkinism may end up revealing more than it hides. Prime Minister Modi believes that personal bonding between leaders can help boost interstate relations. His diplomatic style tries hard to convey personal closeness with leaders, particularly those that head powerful nations. At home, this bolsters his image and status among his constituents, especially those belonging to India’s burgeoning and aspirational middle class. The Indian middle class has a deep-seated desire to acquire notional parity with the West. Hence, the optics and symbolism associated with Namaste Trump event have political salience for Modi.
On a substantive level, developments at India-US defence and security fronts appear promising. The Trump administration is clearly continuing the policy of his predecessors to cooperate with India in the Indo-Pacific region to counter the growing hegemonic ambitions of China. Not surprisingly, India’s growing proximity with the US in the security realm is causing some consternation among India’s traditional partners. For example, the Defence Minister of Russia, Sergei Lavrov publicly dissuaded India from aligning with the US strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific.
Apart from strategic considerations, the US is fully cognizant of the growing commercial prospects of India’s massive defence market in the coming years. On the eve of the Trump visit, the US has approved the sale of Integrated Air Defence Weapon System worth $ 1.87 billion as well as naval helicopters at a cost of $ 2.6 billion with advanced surveillance capabilities. Bilateral trade agreements in the defence sectors have reached roughly $15 billion since 2008, making the US the biggest exporter of weapons to India. The comparable figure for the entire pre-2008 period was a mere $500 million. Under its modernization plan, the Indian Air Force will acquire 114 fighter aircraft costing nearly $18 billion in the near future. Lockheed Martin, the leading American aircraft manufacturing company, is very keenly pursuing this opportunity. The US has signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Industrial Security Annex (ISA) with India that is usually reserved for its closest allies. These agreements are designed to ensure military interoperability, smooth sharing of advanced technology and collaboration in defence production.
The exponential increase in US arms sales to India indicates a growing convergence of interests of the two nations. Expansion of US arms sales to India also fits well with Trump’s “Buy American” agenda to expand employment and business activity in the US defence sector. While these are encouraging trends, they are still insufficient from the Indian perspective. In order to advance PM Modi’s “Make in India” campaign, India’s defence relationship with the US has to evolve so that India becomes an attractive destination for leading American weapons manufacturers to relocate their global production facilities.
Even as the US-India defence relationship is on the upswing, trends in their trade ties are not very promising. Trade relations amounted to roughly $142.6 billion in 2018, with India having a trade surplus of about $25.2 billion. Although publicly both leaders are likely to highlight the advances in US-India trade relations, the reality is far more dire. Like several other countries, India has also been at the receiving end of Trump’s protectionist America First policies. Particularly, the decision of the Trump administration to take India off the list of developing countries in the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) last year has hurt the competitiveness of Indian exporters within the US market. It is estimated that this decision will impose a direct and indirect cost of almost 260 million dollars on the Indian economy. Citing India’s membership in the G-20 group of nations, the Trump administration defended the move saying that India no longer merits special considerations that are reserved for low-income countries. There was a prospect of modest trade deal during Trump’s visit, but fresh sticking points keep emerging. For example, it is almost certain that barriers to the entry of American agricultural and dairy products into the Indian market are likely to persist under pressure from farmers’ groups.
The shared concerns of the two nations on the issue of terrorism will definitely come up during the Trump visit. Here too, there are some seemingly intractable impediments to forging a close partnership. The US has provided general diplomatic support for India’s stance on terrorism in the UN and other agencies. However, from the Indian viewpoint, this support is half-hearted unless the US aligns itself with the Indian position on Pakistan’s alleged support for regional terror networks. The truth is that US compulsions in Afghanistan and Iran make it impossible to confront Pakistan on behalf of India. The US has been negotiating agreements with the Taliban, which will allow withdrawal of its remaining forces from Afghanistan. In an election year, President Trump would be very keen to achieve this outcome. The US is aware that any agreement with the Taliban would be unsustainable without explicit support from Pakistan.
Another source of US-India challenges arise from perennial hostility of the US with Iran that has grown considerably since the killing of General Suleimani. Last year, India lost its privileged access to crude oil in Iran when the US ended the waivers that permitted some countries to import from Iran without facing sanctions. Rising US-Iran tensions are likely to derail further India’s project to develop the Chabahar port in Iran. It was designed to facilitate India’s major strategic goal to gain access to Central Asia while circumventing Pakistan. This project was already under duress due to the complications involved in trading with Iran and developing rail and road networks through the region.
The highlight of Trump’s visit is likely to be the growing proximity between the two countries in the security realm. However, the challenge would be to convert the goodwill arising out of this visit to help resolve intractable impediments to US-India cooperation in trade and counter-terrorism.
(Rajan Kumar teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Bappaditya Mukherjee was a former faculty member in the Department of Political Science at the State University of New York, Geneseo. Views are personal).