By Bhaskar Roy*
The Prime Minister Modi-President Donald Trump summit meeting is finally happening on June 26, in Washington, D.C.
Some Indian commentators opined that this meeting should have happened earlier. On the other hand, time has given Mr. Modi and his team a chance to study Mr. Trump’s views and agenda, if any, before taking this step forward. The Indian External Affairs ministry was wise to counsel that it will be a “no frills” meeting, cautioning against high expectations. This says a lot. There are serious questions over Mr. Trump’s evolving policies, not only on India, but the region as a whole and New Delhi’s core interest, and the distance that India-US travelled in constructing a refurbished relationship between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy. Much rides on this summit meeting. But no one, including Mr. Trump’s highest cabinet members like Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson know the direction their president will take in his early morning tweets the next day.
In President Trump, Mr. Modi will not meet a politician or a statesman. He will meet a businessman of a kind who is known for his real estate, deal-making where profit is the only motive. Mr. Trump jumped on the Saudi Arabian bandwagon with the Saudis agreeing to purchase $ three billion worth of arms and equipment and on a common platform cornering Iran. He is out to favour his big business friends at the cost of common Americans.
Another lurking problem is that Donald Trump is bent upon rolling back as much as possible his predecessor, President Barack Obama’s policies and work. In this endeavour most of his focus is on the domestic front and some policies suffered serious setbacks, especially on health care and tax reforms.
On the foreign policy front, Trump promptly withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP), pulled back from the climatic change front, calling it a “hoax”, “spoilt” its relations with the European Union and NATO and is threatening to unravel the nuclear agreement with Iran which Mr. Obama so assiduously crafted. The Obama administrations’ Cuba policy has been derailed to a significant extent. Mr. Trump has also buckled down to China and his campaign promise to punish Beijing vanished into thin air. President Obama’s Asia Pivot also appears to be in question, though the Pentagon will fight tooth and nail to preserve it.
Except for the campaign period when he was wooing Indian Americans for votes and contributions, Mr. Trump has done precious little in India’s direction. He bad-mouthed India, saying New Delhi had received “billions and billions of dollars” to remain in the Paris Climate Accord. Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj rejected the charge, a little too politely some would say. Of course, she did not want to queer the pitch before Prime Minister Modi’s visit.
Since the end of the cold war successive Indian governments slowly rearranged the US relationship despite the hiccup over India’s 1998 nuclear tests. President Bill Clinton realised India’s importance and potential and soon repaired the relationship. President George W, Bush took the relationship further with the 123 nuclear deal and President Obama continued on the road. There is still a bipartisan support for India relations in the US. How will Donald Trump drive the relationship?
Mr. Modi would expectedly probe the American President’s mind. There is a lot riding on this relationship and any withdrawal will upset the balance of power in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Curtailing of visas for Indian information Technology workers may hurt a little as will reducing business processing overseas. This is Mr. Trump’s mantra and campaign promise of bringing jobs back to America. This may work for sometime but not for very long. Businessmen are clever people and they would ultimately do what worked best for them. Mr. Modi must remind Mr. Trump that Indian companies like TCS, Wipro, Infosys and others are creating jobs in America and hiring Americans. Mr. Trump may be told that the globalized world is here to stay and an isolationist policy would ultimately hurt the US. Basically, his ego needs to be fanned a little. If he wants to build a Trump Tower in Mumbai- most welcome!
Defence relationship in all its aspects has to be reviewed very carefully. Defence Sales to India would be welcomed by Mr. Trump as it will bring in money and create jobs. But India wants technology transfer which the Americans have hedged for long. Such deals have to be tied up with the “Make in India” mission and there will be some hard bargaining to be done.
There are other politico-military issues such as India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which China has been blocking. Can and will Mr. Trump increase pressure on China to stand away and more importantly, does he have the wherewithal to do it? Unlikely. India will still remain in limbo unless Pakistan is given the same privilege. And if Pakistan is cleared, the world can say good bye to non proliferation!
There are a host of topics and issues that can come up in the summit and delegation level meetings. Apart from a number of bilateral topics on cooperation in different areas from trade to defence cooperation and security, clarity is also required on regional and international issues. Mr. Trump is focussed on fighting terrorism which can see both India and America on the same page. But his approach to this is American policy-centric and suggestive of a partial approach. Pakistan is accepted as the fountainhead of terrorism in the region, the main targets being India and Afghanistan. There is bipartisan agreement in the US Congress on slamming Pakistan, yet the administration has done very little to effectively clamp down on Pakistan, especially its military-intelligence complex. Certainly, the US has geo political interest in Pakistan and believes that too much pressure will only push Pakistan more firmly into China’s lap and reduce Washington’s influence. Whatever the arguments, Mr. Modi must frankly present this threat to Mr. Trump. And Mr. Modi is quite capable of doing that.
If the issue of Iran comes up, it can be tricky for India. Mr. Trump has demonstrated a visceral dislike for Iran, revealing the extent of Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East. India expectedly will stick to its time-tested policy of keeping Iran out of the India-US equation.
President Trump is somewhat distracted at the moment, especially with charges of Trump team-Russia collusion. His moves to destabilise the FBI, dismissing FBI Director James Comey and administration leaks suggesting Mr. Trump may be contemplating dismissing Special Counsel Robert Mueller appointed to investigate the Russian collusion case, has harmed him politically. Mr. Mueller a former Director of FBI enjoys high repute and attacking him will cause Mr. Trump to lose more support.
Reports in the US media suggest that President Trump may face a Richard Nixon’s Watergate-like investigation for obstruction of justice. Mr. Trump, however, is not backing down. He, his Vice President Mike Pence and son-in-law Jared Kushner have hired a battery of lawyers suggesting that they are bracing for a tough fight. India, of course has nothing to do with this. At the same time, fore knowledge is very important for points of emphasis in bilateral interactions.
A point of note is that Mr. Trump trusts only his family. Mr. Kushner, who has no foreign policy experience is the White House pointsman for foreign policy. He may clash with Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. For the moment, however, Mr. Kushner calls the shots from behind the curtains.
What India has to do now is to engage intensively with various American departments and agencies, as well as with the US Congress. Indian diplomats in Washington have to engage with Congressional aides and think tanks which is part of their job.
Prime Minister Modi would have to get reiteration from the wide US administration trend that the relationship built in nearly two decades is not retracted.
* The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e mail [email protected]