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5 March 2020, Gateway House

Hype & substance in Trump’s visit

President Trump enjoyed every moment of the hype that attended his February 2020 visit to India, says Ambassador Neelam Deo, Director and Co-founder of Gateway House, in this podcast, even as the focus was on concrete outcomes, such as defence purchases and oil procurement deals. She discusses the geopolitical implications of a closer India-U.S. strategic relationship and the weaknesses of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal

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Alexander Webb (AW): Welcome to the Gateway House podcast. We have with us Ambassador Neelam Deo, Director and Co-founder of Gateway House, who will be discussing President Trump’s visit to India and the recently signed U.S.-Taliban peace deal.

A week after President Trump’s visit to India – and with the hype behind us – do you think it was successful?

Neelam Deo (ND): We shouldn’t engage too much in the binaries that the media tends to introduce. ‘Was the visit high on hype?’ ‘Was there no substance?’ I think you can have both – and this visit certainly did. We know that the whole drive from Ahmedabad airport to the largest cricket stadium in the world was something President Trump clearly enjoyed. He continues to talk about how welcome, how loved he felt and how much he loves India. He has been saying at his own campaign meetings back in the U.S. that he’s been spoilt and that nothing is going to be able to match up to the 127,000 people who welcomed him in India. So, it was really good on the hype side of it.

As for substance, there have been signals since then that greater strategic convergence was achieved  on issues of immense importance on which there had been divergence between India and the U.S. in the past. The first of these was that when President Trump was asked questions at a press conference on the outbreak of violence in Delhi – while he was still in Delhi – his reaction was cool. He said it was an internal affair and that he was leaving it to Prime Minister Modi, who, he said was a religious person, calm and firm in the way he would deal with it. He had greatly praised the plural nature of Indian society earlier.

India responded, in turn, by participating in the signing of an agreement between the U.S., and the Taliban, an issue on which it has been at odds with the U.S. all these years.

At the same press conference, when asked about whether he was going to mediate on the Kashmir issue, President Trump conveyed that while he has offered his good offices, it depends on the response from India and Pakistan – and left it at that.

On Pakistan, he was both harsh and soft. He said that Prime Minister Imran Khan is his friend.  But every leader in the world is referred to as a friend by President Trump. He also said that they are working hard with Pakistan on trying to reduce terrorist activities, the reference being to terrorist activities emanating from Pakistan-based groups. These signals, following immediately upon the visit, and afterwards as well,  show a maturing and a conceding of long held positions by both sides.

AW: Thank you, Neelam, for summarising your general thoughts about the visit: next, what were the  concrete outcomes and how do you judge them?

ND: There was no trade agreement. But in the joint statement issued at the end of the visit, the two countries stressed their belief in the need for long-term trade stability. They will continue negotiations and hope to conclude an agreement soon – although President Trump has been saying that this may only come after the U.S. presidential elections. I think that this may be a more prescient timetable (than earlier) because India has found it hard to negotiate trade agreements – with the U.S. certainly, but also with others, such as the European Union, Canada, Australia, and the ASEAN.

The Indian government feels that trade agreements have not yielded an increase in exports for India. In fact, the trade imbalance with almost all countries with which bilateral trade agreements were signed  has grown. So an agreement with the United States is desirable, but I think this will take some doing and will not happen soon.

As for the other concrete outcomes of the visit, the defence purchases announced are, of course, important. Trump welcomed India’s purchase of the MH-60R Naval and AH-64 E Apache helicopters. The deal is worth close to $3 billion; other defence procurement deals are also under discussion. The acquisition of these helicopters is important by itself, but it also signalled that high-tech defence equipment from the U.S. is now readily available to India. Furthermore, the sophistication of the equipment that India is able to access is increasing all the time. It’s a step-up process.

There was discussion of the third of the foundational agreements, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). India clearly has a timetable of five to 10 years within which to sign each of these agreements: so, this may come in the term of the next president, be it Trump or a Democrat.

Another important outcome was the understanding that India will be procuring more oil from the U.S. This is very important because India needs to diversify its import base. The availability of oil, as a whole, is not a problem, but the source is important.  Gateway House has been recommending through its research that Indian oil companies, all of which are from the public sector, should actually invest in oil in politically stable countries, such as the U.S., Australia, and Canada, all of which are growing sources of the commodity.

There was a reference in the Joint Statement to encouraging the Nuclear Power Corporation of India and Westinghouse to finalise the techno-commercial offer for the construction of six nuclear reactors in India. I doubt that this will happen because the assurances that India offered during President Obama’s term – regarding limiting the liability on the supplier of equipment in the event of an accident – are not the sort of terms that American companies have accepted from anywhere else. Also, in India, local communities have been putting up great resistance to the location of nuclear power plants. I do not see either of the two problems being overcome in the near term.

Also to be welcomed is the greater level of cooperation indicated between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), considering the growing importance of space for commercial satellite operations, and even more so, in the defence and security areas.

AW: What does a closer strategic relationship between the two countries and more collaboration in defence mean for relations between India and Russia? And also for India and Iran?

ND: The most consistent feature of India’s relationship with Russia is the continuing dependence on Soviet-era, and thereafter, Russian defence systems. Even today, somewhere between 60-70% of the defence equipment in India is of Russian origin. We will continue to need that equipment to be maintained, and spare parts and ammunition to be supplied through continued cooperation with Russia. The Indian government has worked hard to sustain the relationship with Russia, and most recently, the benefits of that effort are becoming visible. Apparently, the Russian government has just passed legislation, enabling workers from India to go into the Russian far East. This could be related to the $1-billion line of credit that was announced when Prime Minister Modi was in Vladivostok for the Eastern Economic Forum. It’s a very good sign because we have had an interest in labour and professionals from India working in Russia.

That relationship may become a bit more complicated if the Russia-China relationship continues to converge even more than it has already. One fallout of that has been closer relations between Russia and Pakistan, which have included both joint military exercises and the supply of some basic military equipment.

A complicating element is U.S. sanctions – and it will have to be seen how it plays out because India has contracted to buy the S-400 missile defence system from Russia and those supplier entities are listed for sanctions by the Americans. These are extraterritorial. India is opposed to the extraterritoriality of sanctions; the only sanctions it observes are the UN-mandated ones. But in the end, commercial and business interests prevail, and none of our entities, public- or private-sector, want to fall foul of American sanctions, because the dollar remains the most important currency of trade and at the crux of every international exchange.

A similar problem afflicts the India-Iran relationship. We have historical connections with Iran and Iran is a very important supplier of oil and gas to India. We have invested in oil fields in Iran. We are trying to collaborate on building up the Chabahar port to have a trade route with Afghanistan since Pakistan will not allow overland exports from India, although it does permit Afghan exports to India to come over land.

The U.S.-Iran relationship is going to remain troubled for quite a long time and Indian imports of oil from Iran have fallen to zero. The irony is that imports from the U.S. have filled the shortfall for India. Although the U.S. gave a waiver for the development of the Chabahar port, I don’t see much progress taking place there: nobody will go in depending upon a waiver that needs to be renewed every six months. So, this is a problem between India and the U.S. because both Russia and Iran are of strategic importance to India.

AW: After Trump’s visit to India, the U.S. and Taliban signed a deal in Afghanistan for prolonged peace. Will Pakistan try to take advantage of it to further its interests on the Eastern border? How do you think this will affect India in the long term?

ND: Afghanistan, India, and the U.S. have had very different positions, partly because of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship that flowed out of their operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. has recognised that the reason no positive outcome came of the 19-year-long fight in Afghanistan, their longest war – notwithstanding the money poured in and the loss of lives – was because of the sanctuary provided by Pakistan to the Taliban and its terrorist activities. This sanctuary included training, funding, every kind of assistance, in short. The best example of this was that the leader of the al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was eventually found to be living a few miles away from one of Pakistan’s biggest military cantonments and training centres.

Even though the joint statement issued by India and the U.S. after Trump’s visit claimed that both countries were committed to “an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process”,  within days, the U.S. signed an agreement with the Taliban with no participation from the Afghan government. The Indian ambassador in Doha was present at that signing ceremony.

An element of opportunism exists here. Three years ago, President Trump had promised during his election campaign that he would end all these endless wars and bring the American troops back. Part of the agreement with the Taliban is that American troops will be drawn down to 8,600. But the element that’s of most interest to both the U.S. and Taliban is their continued presence because the Taliban has called repeatedly for all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan. Almost all the troops from other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries have already left.

President Trump’s commitment to his last election promise, and now, in the lead-up to the next election campaign, is to bring American soldiers home. That part of the agreement will probably be achieved, but in every other sense, the agreement with the Taliban will probably unravel. It has already shown some signs of that within two days (of it being signed) when Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan, said that he was not party to the agreement to release 5,000 Taliban fighters. He said that their release cannot be a precondition to the Afghan government and Taliban talks, but a part of those negotiations. Several other questions arise. Whereas the United States has said that it will continue to fund Afghan government forces, it’s not clear who will fund the Afghan government, which has really been living on subventions from the United States.

This agreement is, therefore, tenuous, but it is in the interest of both parties to achieve its objective. The Afghan government is itself riven by the rivalry between Ghani, who has been declared president, and Abdullah Abdullah, the challenger, who has threatened to set up a separate government. Whether they will be able to work together to negotiate anything with the Taliban, remains to be seen.

Also, one of the more troubling aspects is the kind of regime that the Taliban will set up in Afghanistan. Whether it comes in on its own or even if it brings in some elements of the existing Ghani government, it has horrific implications for Afghan women – as the world was witness to the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

Will Pakistan try and take advantage of this? Of course. Just as it did the last time when the Americans withdrew from Afghanistan after the Soviet Union had been pushed out. Some of the concepts which Pakistan had spoken about earlier and appears to adhere to even now – such as Afghanistan providing strategic depth to Pakistan, etc. – seem terribly outdated. Some artillery exchanges go on, but it is unlikely that there will be any crossing over of the armed forces of India and Pakistan into each other’s territory.

War-making is now cyber, it’s drones, all kinds of other weaponry. So, we hope that Pakistan will recognise that, that it will not again support a regime that subscribes to the way the Taliban had behaved earlier, and not continue to engage in terrorist activities.

Produced by Alexander Webb, Sukhmani Sharma
Theme by Rohan Dalal


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