India & the U.S.

Transactional hug

Print edition : July 21, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with U.S. President Donald Trump after the joint press statement at the White House. Photo: PTI

Modi at a meeting with Trump at the White House on June 26, 2017. Photo: AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump may have enthused about bilateral relations in front of the media, but behind all the brouhaha lies the U.S.’ tough stance on trade and hugely lucrative defence deals.

IF the Indian government's cheerleaders are to be believed, the latest visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington has been an unalloyed triumph. After a meeting at the White House, Modi and the United States President, Donald Trump, had only superlatives to describe the state of bilateral relations as well as one another. After a couple of bear hugs, initiated by Modi, they jointly addressed the media. No questions were allowed after their joint appearance before the media. According to reports, it was on the request of the Indian side that the media were barred from posing the couple of carefully choreographed questions that usually follow after the appearance of visiting leaders on the White House lawns.

Trump was effusive about the bilateral relations, saying that India was a “true friend” and that strategic ties between the “two democracies were incredibly important”. Modi reciprocated his sentiments, describing him as a man whose “vast and successful” business experience would help further galvanise the bilateral relationship. Reading from a prepared statement, Modi said that bilateral relations would reach “new heights” under Trump’s watch.

The Trump administration had announced two important decisions just before Modi’s arrival: sale of the 22 sophisticated “unarmed” Sea Guardian naval surveillance drones and the listing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Syed Salahuddin, on the U.S. terror list. The Kashmir Valley-born Salahuddin has been given the title of “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the Trump administration. Hizbul had anyway long been designated as a terror outfit by Washington.

India will be paying more than $2 billion for the drones. The Americans have sold the drones to India with the specific mandate of keeping a watch on Chinese naval movement in the Andaman Sea region. In his speech, Trump talked about the high priority Washington attached to the trilateral annual “Malabar” naval exercises conducted by the U.S., India and Japan.

Before Modi reached Washington, China had issued a statement warning India not to participate in naval exercises with the U.S. and Japan in the South China Sea. In a speech following his talks with Modi, Trump specifically underlined the importance of the joint military exercises. “Our militaries are working every day to enhance military cooperation, and next month they will join the Japanese Navy to take part in the largest maritime exercise ever conducted in the Indian Ocean,” Trump said. The exercises are scheduled to be held in the Bay of Bengal, far away from the South China Sea. In the joint statement adopted by the two sides this time, unlike the statement issued after the last Obama-Modi talks, there was no specific reference to the South China Sea. The two governments preferred to speak only about the need for the countries of the region “to respect the freedom of navigation” in the entire Asia-Pacific region.

The Indian government’s preference was for combat drones, such as the ones the U.S. uses in war zones to remotely target its enemies. The U.S. is reluctant to sell its Predator combat drones to India as it feels that the balance of power in South Asia will be further tilted in favour of India. “We want to avoid a situation that escalates the tension [between India and Pakistan],” a senior White House official told the media just before Modi arrived on his official visit. If the latest deal comes through, the U.S. will officially be the biggest exporter of arms to India, supplanting Russia, within a couple of years.

It was the first visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Washington after the election of Trump. The Indian political establishment, like most governments, had taken the victory of Hillary Clinton for granted. The “Hindu Republican Coalition” led by a BJP sympathiser, Shalabh Kumar, did however campaign vociferously for Trump. According to reports, many Indians in the U.S. voted for Trump, swayed by his anti-Muslim rhetoric. One of Trump’s key advisers and alt-right ideologue, Stephen Bannon, is said to be an admirer of Modi and his brand of politics. Alt-right, or alternative right, is a group that campaigns to protect “White Identity”. Bannon is also said to be one of the key planners of Trump’s visa ban on Muslims from six countries.

U.S. focus on trade

Though Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric may have been music to the ears of the Hindu supremacist government in Delhi, his tough stance on trade and on the H1B visa issue have made it nervous. Trump’s nationalistic “Make America Great Again” and “America First” slogans meant that the U.S. focus would henceforth be more on trade and economic issues than on security and military alliances. Trump had taken his time to schedule a meeting with Modi. He has already met with most of the major world leaders, including those from China and Japan. He hosted the Prime Minister of Vietnam at the White House in May.

Trump has been regularly bringing up the trade deficit issue with India and has accused New Delhi of unscrupulous practices while negotiating the Paris Climate accord. The Indian side kept a diplomatic distance from the controversy surrounding the historic climate accord and Trump’s decision to walk away from it. Instead, Modi went out of his way in his speech to emphasise that there was no dissonance between Trump’s goal of making America “great again” and his government’s vision of achieving a similar goal for India. But there will be contradictions between the goals of “America First” and “Make in India”. While India wants to export jobs to the U.S., the Trump administration wants Americans to be hired for local jobs, especially in the IT sector. The Trump administration could also be cautious about joint production of American weaponry in India. There is talk of joint production of F-16 fighter planes in India, whereas Trump would like India to buy directly more of the “beautiful” weaponry that America produces.

In his speech at the White House, Trump said that he expected to create a trade deal that would be “fair and reciprocal”. Only two paragraphs of the joint statement released after the Trump-Modi meeting related to security issues. On the other hand, six paragraphs were devoted to trade issues. In his talks with Modi, Trump suggested that lifting of more trade barriers by India would be a helpful step. The U.S. currently has a $30 billion trade deficit against India. The Trump administration considers China a more valued partner in the matter of containing its trade deficits. The huge defence deals India has concluded with the U.S. recently and the promises of more lucrative deals in the offing will no doubt cheer the transactional Trump administration.

The Pakistan factor

The Modi government is claiming credit for getting Trump on board on the issue of cross-border terrorism, India’s favourite theme. The joint statement for the first time named Pakistan as an instigator of terror and called on the latter “to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries”. It pledged that the two countries would fight global terrorism jointly and named some of the groups they would combat. The names include the D Group (led by Dawood Ibrahim), the LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba), the JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammad), Al Qaeda and the Islamic State along with their affiliates. The Pakistan government is angry that the Trump administration has accepted the Indian view on cross-border terrorism. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar, said that the White House “was speaking India’s language”.

The terrorist tag attached to Salahuddin, one of the leaders of the Kashmir separatist movement, has also rankled Islamabad. “Any attempt to equate the peaceful indigenous Kashmiri struggle with terrorism, and to designate individuals supporting the right to self-determination as terrorist, is unacceptable,” said a statement from Pakistan’s Foreign Office. Pakistan regretted the “missed opportunity” of the Trump administration to raise issues relating to the human rights situation in Kashmir and the attacks on the minorities in the rest of the country.

Soon after arriving in Washington, Modi told the media that India’s “surgical strikes” against Pakistan last September showed the international community the country’s “power” and the world “realised that India practises restraint but can show power when needed”. Islamabad should find some solace in the fact the Trump administration still preferred to use the term “Indian-administered Kashmir” in the U.S.-India joint statement despite subscribing to New Delhi’s view that the popular unrest in Kashmir is a result of outside interference.

Yet another sore point with Pakistan is the recognition of India’s role in Afghanistan. Previous U.S. administrations were not very happy with India’s proactive role there, as it complicated efforts to involve Pakistan in meaningful peace negotiations with the Taliban. In his press statement, Modi said that both the U.S. and India have played an important role “in rebuilding Afghanistan and strengthening its security”. He stressed that New Delhi will closely coordinate with Washington over the developments in Afghanistan.

The Trump administration indirectly supported India’s position on China’s “One Belt and One Road (OBOR)” initiative. The joint statement talks about the need to strengthen connectivity “through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law and environment and call on other nations in the region to adhere to this principle”.

New Delhi is still not reconciled to the reality of China’s OBOR initiative. All the countries in the region, barring Bhutan, have signed up with the initiative.

It may not have been a coincidence that the new flare-up along the LAC [Line of Actual Control], on the trijunction of the India-China-Bhutan border, was timed to coincide with the Modi visit. The Indian and Bhutanese sides were objecting to infrastructure projects on the territory claimed by China. The last time a serious incident of this nature happened was when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India.

Modi’s visit to Washington also coincided with a slight downturn in the relations between Washington and Beijing. Trump had openly signalled his disappointment with Beijing’s inability to arm-twist North Korea to give up its WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] unilaterally. China was also named among the worst offenders in human trafficking in the world by the U.S. State Department at the time Modi was visiting Washington. China was put on the list by Washington because thousands of North Koreans work in China and send hard currency back to their homeland, which is under international sanctions.

In the joint India-U.S. statement, India was singled out for praise for faithfully implementing the U.S. sanctions on North Korea. Until recently, India had been North Korea’s second largest trade partner after China.

The statement also implicitly criticised China, noting that “all parties that support these (North Korean) programs” would be held accountable. Washington’s ultimate goal is to isolate China in the Korean peninsula. India under Modi is playing the role of a frontline state to implement Washington’s game plan against China in the Asia-Pacific region and the neighbourhood.

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