The powerful United States President Donald Trump’s visit to India is finally happening in the fag end of his term. He was to be the Chief Guest at the prestigious, high-powered, and solemn 72nd Republic Day of India but could not make it, apparently, owing to scheduling issues. Just after his acquittal in the impeachment process, Trump decided to visit India, in response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation during the ‘Howdy Modi’ celebration in Houston, Texas last September. Given the “growing strategic partnership” between India and the United States, Trump’s visit was long over-due; his three predecessors Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all been here, in fact, Obama came twice. Trump, more than any other US President before him, is capable of springing surprises, and he is quite popular in India at least amongst a vast majority of right-wingers. So, will this visit be a game changer for India, and India-Pacific region, or will it be like the Shakespearian metaphor ‘Much Ado about Nothing’?
Popularly, India and the US are the two biggest democracies in the world, as Britain is the oldest. Many observers would contend the ‘bigness’ of US and India’s democracies except in terms of their size. Two democracies should have naturally worked in tandem in international politics. But they had not. Both sides now vouch for their strategic partnership, which they say is based on ‘trust, shared values, mutual interest, understanding, warmth and respect’.
These sweet-sounding sounds could be diplomatic platitudes, which, in bilateral relations, are uttered liberally, especially during visits by the top leaders to their respective countries. But discarding cynicism, if we were to believe that US-India relations are indeed picking up fast, this visit should be a game-changer for two reasons; one – Donald Trump is facing a tough re-election coming November, and second, US for the first time since the 2nd World War has a formidable contender for world leadership in China, despite the latter’s present predicament around corona virus.
It is in order that we trace briefly India-US relations since India became an independent country. The relationship has been quite cold and bumpy. Our first Prime Minister was quite sceptical of Western powers, for reasons best known to him. One reason that can be fathomed into Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru’s thinking could be that India had just emerged out of western colonialism and many countries were still colonies and Nehru wanted to be on the side of decolonisation process, which was somewhat aided by the former Soviet Union. That is why, perhaps, Nehru was cold and ambivalent with the European Union, and the United States. He titled towards USSR, and was even called a crypto Communist. His dependence on USSR continued further because of the veto on Kashmir that USSR slapped in our favour. So whilst we were pro-Soviet, the US was compelled to support Pakistan. Soviet action in Afghanistan, and New Delhi’s inability to ‘diffuse’ the Afghan crisis as Indira Gandhi had said, brought Pakistan closer to the US, militarily and otherwise which proved quite hurtful to us.
Nehru’s love for China has been inexplicable. The US and even Soviet Union wanted to build India as a counterweight to China, by even offering a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. But Nehru spurned all those overtures, and worse, passed them on to China, insisting that it should take India’s place in the UN.
However, much water has flown down the Indus river since Soviet Union disintegrated, eliminating the super-power threat to the US. China became an economic power, changing the terms of the game into economy from security. New Delhi also realised that the foreign policy tools have changed. They can no longer count on Soviet Union, the irritants in the form of terrorism were growing from Pakistan, and China is becoming a new hegemony in the neighbourhood, so New Delhi turned to the US. Similarly, the US also realised that they would again need India to counter China. Pakistan infested with terrorism, had become too hot to handle. What is more, Islamabad was going to bed with Beijing having realised the changed attitude of the US, mainly under Donald Trump.
So, here we are now, New Delhi and Washington needing each other once again. But despite this timely need to being closer, is it happening? Certainly not in real terms. The bottleneck is the divergence of approach between New Delhi and Washington. New Delhi wants or should demand greater trade and economic ties with the US, while the latter is thrusting on us loads of defence purchases and denying any preferences like trade surplus and GSP etc. The current visit is to focus on these two areas only – defence and trade. So what is strategic about the so-called growing ‘strategic partnership’ between New Delhi and Washington?
Let us look at defence purchases, which bleed a growing economy like India. Our total defence purchase from the US has touched $17 billion since 2007. In this visit, Trump team will push the $2.6 billion purchase of 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for the Indian Navy from the US defence firm Lockheed Martin. Our Cabinet Committee on Security is most likely to clear this deal. The US nuclear market will push for US products and services. At the same time, New Delhi is buying weaponry from Russia, France, Israel and others.
Is this a good strategy? As some of us have argued, why can’t New Delhi sign a security pact with the US, like perhaps Japan and Israel have done, that US will protect and support India’s territorial integrity and security in an event of an external aggression. So that India can focus on building its economy like Germany and Japan did after the Second World War by disengaging from military activities. Although the contexts are different, India, a hugely populous country, a democracy, should get that assurance from western powers which care for civil and human rights. Such a pact would be indeed the game-changer.
On trade, a mini-trade deal is expected to be struck. A ‘mini-trade’ deal may be a beginning, but not enough if the strategy is to build India vis-a-vis China. India and US bilateral trade is $142.1 billion. India’s exports to US is $52.4 billion, imports from US is $35.5 billion, a trade deficit in India’s favour of mere $21.3 billion or so. FDI is $3.13 billion. Compare this with US-China trade. The total trade is $737.1 billion, China’s exports were $557.9 billion, and imports from US were $179.3 billion. The trade deficit in China’s favour was $378.6 billion in 2018. The FDI to China is $107-6 billion in 2017.
Now, is the strategic partnership working? Is there a strategy deeply thought out by New Delhi and articulated to the US leadership? Does the US appreciate India’s needs vis-a-vis China? Will Modi once again put Pakistan as the main topic on the table or China? The country would closely watch this visit! Keep fingers crossed.