Ambassador of India to Myanmar & GCTC Advisory Board Member
Months before the dates of President Trump’s visit to India were announced, Trump had already had a taste of Indian political gatherings, at the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Houston, hosted by the Indian diaspora. The 40,000-strong audience was a revelation to Trump, who had never witnessed such a gathering during his political travels across the US. Modi and Trump share a contempt for adherence to ‘conventional wisdom’. Trump was determined to get rid of policies like ‘globalisation’, which he thought had produced unsustainable trade imbalances, detrimental to US interests. He treated European allies with disdain. Modi, on the other hand, reached out to Islamic countries, while seeking friends and allies, to balance growing Chinese power.
During the Houston event, the New York Times, which has been traditionally hostile to India’s nuclear and security policies, noted: ‘Trump and Modi are both forceful, media-savvy politicians. But they are not alike. Modi, a self-made man from a poor family, is measured, ascetic and not driven by impulse. Trump was born on third base. He’s erratic, guided by the devouring needs of his ego.’ Despite these differences in their economic backgrounds, they both rose to the highest political levels in their respective countries.
Unlike virtually all his predecessors, Trump did not share the adversarial hostility of the US political, intelligence and military establishment towards Russia. Moreover, both Trump and Modi made efforts to befriend Chinese President Xi Jinping. They, however, found China uncompromising in its moves against its Pacific neighbours, some of whom are close US allies. Beijing is also determined to set its own rules, violating international law, in redefining its maritime boundaries. Trump has become uncompromising on bringing China to its knees by resorting to harsh trade sanctions.
Modi’s personal interest in the hospitality extended to his American guest and his family paid rich dividends. The Trump family was bowled over by the rapturous reception they received from an over 1 lakh-strong crowd at the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad. They were also dazzled by the majesty of the Taj Mahal.
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his team negotiated a joint declaration that signalled a new momentum to the India-US relationship, while also addressing differences on trade, investment and other economic issues.
Taking umbrage at India’s relatively small trade surplus of $24.3 billion in 2016, Trump had included India in a list of countries on whom he applied enhanced tariffs. He also withdrew tariff concessions for goods, which India was entitled to as a developing country. India retaliated by enhancing tariffs on a range of US agricultural products. India has imaginatively dealt with Trump’s complaints about trade surplus. There are indications that Trump will act soon to end a number of tough measures taken against India’s exports. China, with a huge trade surplus of $345 billion with the US, was confronted by trade sanctions, which compelled it to agree to import a vast range of US products. But a number of sanctions on China’s exports still remain.
Negotiations have also reached an advanced stage for the construction of six nuclear reactors by Westinghouse (US), in Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, following talks that Trump held with Indian business tycoons in New Delhi, JSW Steel has agreed to invest an additional $500 million for upgrading a newly acquired steel plant in Ohio.
The document issued by Trump and Modi reaffirms India’s status as a ‘major strategic partner’. It pledges support to the transfer of advanced military technology and dwells on expanding cooperation in renewable energy projects. Geopolitically, it refers to a ‘close partnership’ for the development of a ‘free, open, peaceful and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region’. Consultations are to be enhanced through trilateral summit meetings of the US, India and Japan and meetings between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US. These meetings are apart from ‘Quad’ consultations. The past policy of avoiding any reference to our growing strategic cooperation to avoid causing offence to China, now stands jettisoned, following China’s enhanced support to Pakistan. Their military cooperation is also taking new dimensions.
The Trump visit has yielded positive results on economic and strategic cooperation. But it would be incorrect to ignore serious differences which would continue as the US approaches its presidential elections on November 3. The recent communal riots in Delhi, which took place when Trump was in New Delhi, have met with scathing criticism in the international media and from members of both Houses of the US Congress in Washington, cutting across party lines. Internal developments in India, including those in J&K, involving the detention of Kashmiri political leaders, accompanied by the periodic cutting off, and partial restoration, of Internet facilities there, remain the focus of international attention and criticism. This will continue as the US heads for elections.
Leaders of friendly Islamic neighbours like Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia found it necessary to voice critical statements on communal violence in India. This is unprecedented. Global attention was diverted from well-merited praise for the grandeur and celebrations of a successful diplomatic effort during Trump’s visit to the ugly communal violence and rioting in the nation’s Capital.