Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has met US President Donald Trump, the first meeting after the latter won the presidential election in 2016. Modi was on a two-day visit (26 and 27 June this year) to the US.
Perceivably, the White House prefers that Trump spend more time of the first year of his presidency at home, as Trump has yet to calm down the voters he failed to woo during his election campaign (or learn to be meticulous about his words). Nevertheless, the outcome of the meeting expressed in short speeches two different languages (in English by Trump and in Hindi by Modi) before the media divulges at least two points. First, Trump has been careful with his words. Second, Trump fathoms the risks extant in South Asia.
To extract maximum concessions for India, Modi knew there were two routes to reach Trump. First, signpost the opening of India’s market for the US industrial products. Second, exploit the anti-terrorism (as Islamic terrorism) sentiment of Trump. Modi achieved the first objective by pledging to buy one hundred US airplanes (from Boeing). This was the give part of the objectives rendered by Modi before his meeting with Trump. Modi achieved the second objective by securing the formal US abhorrence for the Hizbul Mujahideen, functional in Indian occupied Kashmir. This was the take part of the objectives obtained by Modi.
The outcome of the meeting gave three snubs to India. Pertaining to the take part of the objectives, Modi’s original scheme was to prey upon Trump’s anti-terrorism sentiments to the extent that he allows the sale of missile-laden jet-powered Predator C Avenger drones. This could not happen – the first snub. India was allowed to buy only 22 surveillance or Guardian (unarmed) drones worth more than two billion dollars, which India would use for sea navigation. Similarly, Modi reiterated India’s services for Afghanistan. However, Trump asked India to focus on the crisis building around North Korea – the second snub. Modi also tried to convince Trump that India wanted to be pro-US but not anti-China, as China was ready to invest about 22 billion dollars in India, as China announced in May 2015. However, Trump emphasized unequivocally that the US needed India in the South China Sea as a strategic partner to construct Asian Pivot to check the activities of China – the third snub. Taken together, these three snubs indicate India’s foreign policy failure.
India might have thought that with the dissolution of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by Trump in January 2017, the idea of pivot had also become obsolete. However, this was not the case. Trump’s speech indicated that the US differentiated between the TPP and the pivot and that the US was still obsessed with the idea of pivot. Interestingly, India’s soft corner for China militates against India’s demand for surveillance drones for naval purposes. This is the major contradiction bearing which Modi met Trump. This point also means that Modi visited the White House with all sorts of overconfidence and hence the justifications for snubs.
At the economic level, the primary focus of Trump was to revive the local manufacturing industry and offer more job opportunities to the middle class Americans. That is, discourage manufacturing moving out of the US and consequently rendering US citizens jobless. Trump had called it the “America first” policy. On the other hand, Modi had announced his Make in India policy which called for manufacturing in India. Though during the speech, Modi demanded the transfer of technology to India, besides offering equal manufacturing opportunities for both Indians and Americans, the buying of one hundred airplanes belies Modi’s stance. Though one can say that such a pledge for buying was just a gambit, the bilateral stretch was visible on the economic front where both wanted to secure maximum for the workforce of their respective countries: Both wanted to be the manufacturer and not the buyer.
Interestingly, a diplomatic blunder Trump (or his policymakers) committed was that, on the one hand, Trump envied India’s economic growth and showed his resolve to replicate the same for the US while, on the other hand, Trump failed to appreciate India’s preference for its economy and India’s corresponding reluctance to get involved in North Korea or the South China Sea. In fact, Trump needlessly tried to push India into a new matter. India might have thought that the cost of forging friendly ties with the US would be smooth sailing. India must now be awakening to the reality that the cost of friendship is readying for a conflict by participating in efforts to meet the strategic objectives of the US.
The act of prudence for which the Trump administration deserve appreciation is that it did not give its consent to the sale of any kind of missile-laden (armed) strike drones. In the Indo-Pak context, India is already trying to impose a pre-emptive strike doctrine on Pakistan especially along the Line of Control (LoC) which divides Kashmir. India dreams of crossing the LoC and attacking certain locations, which India thinks, are fanning uprising in its part of Kashmir. Any sale of armed drones would have automatically meant giving a green signal to India to use them across the LoC – an act impregnated with serious repercussions. However, the Trump administration has given something to India to rejoice by declaring the chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Syed Salahuddin a global terrorist. Salahuddin is based in Pakistan’s part of Kashmir. India can cash in on this fiat. India can now take this point to the United Nations (UN) to get the same done at the Security Council. The stance of the US on Salahuddin can be considered the single major diplomatic feat of India, as the PM of Pakistan had mentioned the name of Burhan Wani, a commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2016 and hailed Wani as young leader. Wani was shot dead by Indian forces in July 2016 and his funeral was attended by more than 50,000 Kashmiris followed by mass protests in the Kashmir valley. Interestingly, this aspect of Modi-Trump meeting was less about India-US relations and more about India-Pakistan relations.
Although nothing concrete came out on the nuclear energy issue, one unequivocal demand made by Trump was that India reduce tariff (and forgo protectionism) and open its economy to US goods to allow US reduce its trade deficit with India. Acceding to this request or not is going to be the test case for the strength of India-US relations.