The pandemic has thrown people and leaders into an unprecedented situation across the world. Such never-seen-before crisis should propel people to co-create new ideas to combat the problem and conduct relations within and across the countries. But not Donald Trump, who has been consistently corny on issues like trade deficit, sanctions, and retaliation etc. The witty British Prime Minister Churchill had said, “A fanatic is one who does not change the subject, nor does he change his mind”. We could perhaps call Donald Trump a trade surplus fanatic. He has been advocating reducing American trade deficit for the last 30 years or so even before he held any office.
The foregoing frustration on our “new ally” stems from his uncalled for, impromptu remark to a journalist in a presser, about retaliation on India if the latter did not lift the embargo on export of hydroxychloroquin to the US as requested by him and his senior officials. Quite a few Indian commentators reacted strongly to the threat issued by Trump to an independent, sovereign country like ours. Moreover, they found the Indian Prime Minister kowtowing to Trump instead of perhaps taking him on for such a belligerent position. I was much less concerned; rather saw an opportunity for India to have one up on USA and the rest.
Before I explain my optimism of a new paradigm in international politics in the wake of this pandemic, let us reread what exactly Trump said and the consequences of his pesky posturing. The press conference went like this. A journalist asked him, “Do you think India will lift the sanction on the anti-malaria drug?” He answered, “I will be surprised if he (Modi) would not. I spoke to Modi. He is doing terrific. And you know he would, because India does very well with the US”. Then the journalist provoked as they usually do, “If India does not release the drug, will there be retaliation, Mr. President?” Then Trump did what he normally does, showing hubristic outburst of power mindless of diplomatic faux pas, “of course, there will be retaliation, why would not there be?”
Donald Trump could have dodged the instigating journalist and said, it may not come to that or some such assurance that he will get India to oblige. Trump is not known for his humility or soft speaking. On the contrary, he is accused of often committing diplomatic gaffes and fibbing at home. I have maintained that we should not worry about Trump’s utterances but watch his actions.
Nonetheless, note what he tweeted after HCQ was released, “Extraordinary times require even closer cooperation between friends. Thank you India and the Indian people for the decision on HCQ. Will not be forgotten”. He was as usual effusive in his praise for the Prime Minister, “Thank you Prime Minister, Narendra Modi for your strong leadership in helping not just India, but humanity, in this fight.”
Prime Minister Modi responded warmly, “India-US partnership is stronger than ever. India shall do everything possible to help humanity’s fight against COVID-19”. So far so good! One would like to go beyond these diplomatic niceties and nudge the partnership into a deepened cooperation. The ball is in New Delhi’s court. One is not ruling out confrontation completely from international politics. That will be a moral utopia and geopolitical naiveté. Cooperation between partners and allies is what is advocated.
New Delhi needs to debunk the myths associated with Trump on trade deficit– such as the US must not have deficit with any country; trade deficit means losing jobs and competitiveness and so on. New Delhi is not a competitor with the US, rather an economic collaborator. If the economies of partners are weakened, it may raise security complications, which is again an American obsession or a priority as the biggest power and economy.
Arguably, if Mexico’s economy goes down with American tariffs or other trade restrictions, illegal immigration will spike upending the US national security. If Philippines economy is affected by negative trade terms, it may be swayed by Chinese money. Not to forget Philippines is a defense treaty ally of the US. Similarly, if India is squeezed with trade imbalances in its favour, it will lose its leverage in India-Pacific region, which the US wants India to have in order to counter China’s expansionism. So trade deficit should not be seen in isolation. Donald Trump likes trade wars. He needs to be nudged away from engaging in such wars with friends, partners and allies.
Having made this strategic move, New Delhi must focus on signing the trade deal sooner than later. It has been long overdue, but not happening perhaps for a paradox that needs to be addressed. That is, India and USA have deepening defense relations whilst having continued trade tensions. New Delhi could not afford to live with this dichotomy, mismatch between security and trade.
In particular, the immediate issue is to ask Trump to restore duty free entry of the $6.2 billion of Indian exports under the GSP, a concession which Trump cut off in 2018. Modi has done more than he should have in ‘Howdy Modi’ rally by endorsing Trump’s candidature for his November re-election. About 4 million voters of Indian origin may tilt the electoral scale in Trump’s favour if he would assuage their anxieties about India. To be sure, they will not be persuaded by threats of sanctions, but won over with an amicable deal between India and the US.
The last point one would like to make is about India making its choice of partners. It was good of the government not to be excited by Trump’s occasional outbursts including the latest one, which was not so harmful as his prevarications on Kashmir. But the message must go that it is the US, not China that India wants to make security and trade pacts. Quite a few people worry if India has come out of the non-aligned psyche. As a seek-sorrow, India often likes to run with the hare and hunt with the hound.
It seems there are still China apologists in our foreign policy establishment and intellectual circles. The Left solidarity had shifted from former USSR to China. The Left still has its intellectual influence amongst people in high places. Our China-ambivalence confuses our partners. A clear line on confrontation with some cooperation with others is the need of the hour. The pandemic should give us time for careful reflection. The Coronavirus, which we should call Wuhan virus, gives us a wide window to see things through.
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