India & U.S.

India & U.S.: The Trump show

Print edition : March 27, 2020

President Donald Trump with Prime Minister Narendra Modi after issuing a joint statement in New Delhi on February. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

At the “Namaste Trump” event at Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad on February 24. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

United States President Donald Trump turns a blind eye to the Narendra Modi regime’s handling of the Delhi violence as the two sides seal their military partnership and go ahead with bilateral military purchases.

The Narendra Modi government spared no effort to ensure that United States President Donald Trump’s massive ego was massaged thoroughly during his visit to India. The massive crowds that it had promised at the cricket ground in Motera, Ahmedabad, may not have materialised, but the U.S.President was satisfied with the numbers that showed up. He told his supporters while addressing a political rally back home in the first week of March that he had never seen audiences as humongous as the one arranged by the Modi government in Ahmedabad. “It was a very special visit, unforgettable and extraordinary,” he said.

In New Delhi, the government went overboard in its welcome for the President and his entourage, though the communal conflagration in Delhi took the sheen off Trump’s visit. While there was heavy police deployment in central Delhi to provide security for VVIP visitors, mobs were on the rampage on the capital’s outskirts. On the final day of Trump’s high-profile visit, the international and domestic media were talking of the Indian government’s failure to check the violence. Asked at a press conference in New Delhi about the communal violence, Trump gave Modi a clean chit. He said that the Prime Minister had assured him that he “wants people to have religious freedom” and that the Indian government “had worked really hard at it”. He told the media that he had not discussed cases of individual violence in the capital with Modi.

Bernie Sanders, the Democratic front runner for the U.S. presidency, was quick to criticise both the Indian government’s handling of law and order in Delhi and Trump’s tacit support of the government. Trump’s tepid response to the bloodletting was “a failure of leadership on human rights”, he said. During his last official visit to India, former U.S. President Barack Obama had at least cautioned the Modi government against pursuing the path of divisiveness. Trump, instead, was all praise for Modi. He said that he had raised the contentious issues of Kashmir and the citizenship legislation in talks with the Indian government but gave the impression, in his public utterances, that he was generally supportive of the Indian government’s actions and human rights record.

Mutual endorsements

On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump told a rally of Indian supporters “I love Hindu”, confusing India with Hindu. Modi, for that matter, virtually endorsed Trump for the 2020 election at his “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston, Texas, by saying “Ab ki baar, Trump Sarkar” (A Trump government this time). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has even threatened to play an openly partisan role in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Reacting to Sanders’ comment on Trump’s failure to criticise the Indian government, former Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh functionary and BJP general secretary B.L. Santosh tweeted that his party would be compelled to play a role in the election, though he later deleted the tweet. The BJP had openly supported Boris Johnson and the Conservatives in the election in the United Kingdom. The Indian government was unhappy with the Labour Party’s criticism of its Kashmir policy and human rights record.

However, the Democratic Party establishment, like its Republican counterpart, considers the Modi government a staunch military and strategic ally in the looming confrontation with China. Policymakers in the U.S. consider India a “front-line” state in this struggle. It was President Obama, a Democrat, who first announced the U.S.’ “military pivot to the East”. The Modi government has only built on the groundwork laid by its Congress-led predecessor by signing more military agreements with the U.S. government, including the opening up of its military bases and ports to the U.S. military. It was the United Progressive Alliance government that signed defence and nuclear deals with the U.S. and started downgrading the concept of non-alignment in international politics.

The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement between the current National Democratic Alliance government and the U.S. has enhanced interoperability between the armies of the two countries. During Trump’s visit, the two sides indicated that they would be signing the key Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on geospatial cooperation, too. Once it is signed, India will be able to use U.S. expertise in geospatial intelligence to further improve its cruise and ballistic missile capabilities. India has been openly supportive of the U.S. position on the South China Sea dispute and has revived the Quadrilateral (Quad) military alliance with the U.S., Japan and Australia.

The U.S. now sells to India the kind of sophisticated weapons and technology that was previously made available only to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members. Washington wants to supplant Moscow as New Delhi’s number one defence partner and is well on its way to achieving this goal. In the last decade, India purchased or signed deals worth more than $15 billion to acquire U.S. weaponry. During the Trump visit, a $3.5-billion deal was inked to buy American Apache helicopters for the Indian Navy and Army.

According to reports, the Indian government has indicated its willingness to buy more big-ticket U.S. military hardware worth billions of dollars, including six long-range P-81 maritime aircraft to keep a close eye on Chinese ship and submarine movement in the Indian Ocean region and 30 Sea Guardian armed drones. In early February, in the run-up to the Trump visit, the U.S. Defence Security Cooperation Agency announced that it had received clearance to sell an integrated defence weapon that incorporated advanced radar and missile systems, worth $1.9 billion, to India. (The Indian government has so far managed to withstand U.S. pressure to buy the American Patriot air defence system instead of pursuing its contract to acquire the sophisticated S-400 air defence missile system from Russia.)

Trump in his press conference emphasised that he and Modi had “revitalised” the Quad. It was for the first time that the Indian government agreed to formally use the word “Quadrilateral” in a joint statement. The Quad was kept on the back burner for a long period following apprehensions expressed by China to India about the real motives behind it. The Quad is being visualised as a NATO-like military alliance helmed by Washington and is viewed with suspicion by not only Beijing but also Moscow.

After Trump took over the presidency, the Pentagon renamed the Pacific Command the Indo-Pacific Command. India, which has the fourth biggest standing army and one of the biggest military budgets in the world, is considered an ideal partner by the Pentagon to thwart China’s dream of transitioning peacefully to the status of a superpower. The joint statement referred to the ongoing negotiations between China and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) group of nations on setting up a legal “code of conduct” in the South China Sea, and it said that “it will not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations according to international law”. The proposed code seeks to exclude military activities of countries outside the region.

India’s strategic location will be of great help in letting the U.S. keep control of key shipping lanes through which much of China’s commerce flows. Modi specifically referred to the interoperability between U.S. and Indian forces. The principal aim of the Trump visit, therefore, was to strengthen the “Indo-U.S. global strategic partnership”. The joint statement issued during Trump’s visit has now elevated the relationship to a “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership”.

Trump’s entourage included the U.S. Commerce and Energy Secretaries Wilbur Ross and Dan Brouillette, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. Trump’s influential daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka and Jared Kushner, were also included. Trump depends a lot on Kushner’s advice on matters relating to Iran and oil. Capitulating to threats from the U.S., India has fallen in line with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and completely stopped the import of oil from the country, which used to be India’s third biggest supplier of oil.

Notwithstanding Trump’s constant harping on a “great trade deal” that he had in mind for India, the U.S. did not relax its tough positions. The U.S., which recently overtook China as India’s largest trading partner, is one of the few countries with which India has a trade surplus. The big purchase of American oil in lieu of Iranian oil has slightly bridged the gap. India will be importing oil and gas worth more than $10 billion in 2019-20. There are also plans to buy six U.S. nuclear reactors under the U.S.-India nuclear deal. Yet, during the Trump visit, the two sides failed to agree even on “a limited trade package” for dairy products, medical devices and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

Following the spike in India’s arms and oil purchases from the U.S., Trump does not harp as often as he did on India’s “unfair trade practices”. Still, though he claimed that the two sides had “made tremendous progress on a comprehensive trade agreement” that could materialise by the end of the year, he criticised India for having some of “the highest tariffs in the world”. Trump and his senior officials have been trying to arm-twist the Indian government into not allowing Huawei’s 5G technology into the country. During his joint press conference with Modi, Trump urged the Indian government not to use Huawei’s technology. Even the U.S.’ closest allies like Britain have allowed the Chinese company to operate. The Indian government is still to decide, though there is a consensus among technology experts that Huawei has the best 5G technology on offer at competitive rates.

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