On February 24-25, U.S. President Donald Trump will visit India. He will travel to New Delhi and then Ahmedabad in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mahatma Gandhi. In Ahmedabad he is expected to visit the Sabarmati Ashram, a residence of Mahatma Gandhi’s where he began the famous Salt March in 1930, as a protest against the salt tax imposed by the British rulers and as part of the Satyagraha movement. Ever conscious of his image, President Trump recognises that paying homage to Gandhi is a solemn tribute to the Mahatma’s remarkable place in Indian history.
This presidential visit to India bodes well for relations between the two countries, a success story in U.S. foreign policy, extending through four U.S. administrations and three Indian ones. President Trump had declined an invitation to the 2019 Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi, where national pageantry and military prowess are on display, and this is his first presidential visit to India.
Of special note, President Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have certain traits in common. Both are fundamentally anti-elitist in their outlook, and both are nationalists. Trump is a real estate developer from Queens, New York whose career has been outside the so-called East Coast establishment of politicians, academicians, and media – sectors that have been so unable to accept his presidency. ‘America First’ is the nationalist slogan of Trump, who is a breaker of icons, trying to drain the metaphorical swamp of entrenched elites.
Prime Minister Modi has leveraged his image as a former chaiwala or tea-seller to maximise his appeal. Modi is trying to reshape India as a nationalist Asian leviathan. Like Trump, he is trying to eliminate a culture of entitlement, a perception that the Congress Party projected through the so-called Nehru dynasty. ‘Make in India’ is Modi’s slogan, aimed at increasing employment in the manufacturing sector.
Both political leaders are exceptionally skilled at cultivating their personas. Trump is the unorthodox, brash, and pugnacious street fighter, while Modi wishes to be the meticulous keeper of the Indian brand and traditional values. Both are dependent upon Twitter to disseminate their messages: Trump has an estimated 64 million followers, while Modi has 50 million. And both are larger than life.
Much has been written about issues that divide the U.S. and India: this makes for good press and negativity usually sells well. The two countries have trade disputes, with the U.S. filing a lawsuit against India at the WTO in 2018 for subsidising exports. Trump has also named India as a source of the U.S. trade deficit, although, at $25 billion, it is relatively small in relation to the country’s total trade deficit of almost $620 billion. China, Mexico, Japan, and Germany represent substantially larger deficits. Another current subject of difference relates to restriction of H-1B visas, about 70% of which go to Indians.
Of late, India’s decision to acquire the sophisticated S-400 Russian air defense system has also not gone over well in Washington. However, this should not be a complete surprise: with 62% of India’s armaments sourced from Russia in the past five years, the Kremlin can exert much dependency, extending from the 1960s when India was a major client state of the Soviet Union. In recent years, the U.S. has become India’s second largest supplier of military hardware, providing naval guns, Apache attack helicopters, Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, and P-8I Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft, for example. Lockheed Martin has also offered to manufacture the Javelin anti-tank system in India.
Indeed, the defense partnership between the U.S. and India is probably the highest-visibility success story. However, India is looking to balance its sources of military imports, and is also acquiring multirole aircraft from Dassault Rafale of France.
Other differences between the U.S. and India, past and present, relate to drug adulteration, airline safety, calculation of emissions, protection of intellectual property, and retrospective corporate taxation.
These differences, however, are fundamentally operational in nature, and both leaders should work diligently to prevent them from casting a cloud over the strategic focus of the bilateral relationship. High on the agenda will be ways to curtail the political and military assertiveness of China, the world’s second largest economy. A principal fear of both nations continues to be the Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea. With shared borders in Ladakh as well as Arunachal, and with both India and China dependent upon the oil sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and the deployment of their navies there, China remains a potential adversary of India’s. Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative supporting infrastructure development in more than 60 countries, China is seeking to write the rules of trade and investment for much of the world, and India will not accede to this protocol.
A second strategic challenge for the U.S. and India is the ongoing threat of Islamist jihad. With almost 190 million Muslim citizens, India is vulnerable to disruption by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. While India’s Muslims are principally secular, it is well known that flashpoints arise that cause communal strife and affect national security. The agenda may include the sharing of intelligence, particularly in view of India’s depth of friendship and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.
The third strategic issue for the Modi-Trump meeting is trade and direct investment. India is the ninth largest trading partner of the U.S. It received $49 billion of FDI in 2019. U.S. FDI in India was reported at $2.1 billion for 2018. However, while India is now the fifth largest economy in the world by nominal GDP, it is ranked 14th in FDI and there is scope for improvement as India eliminates red tape, offers more control, and encourages FDI in key sectors such as aviation, media, insurance, and single brand retail.
What the U.S. needs from India is easier to identify than what India needs from the U.S. President Trump may encourage India to further modernise its armed forces, particularly the navy, which is acknowledged to have been under-funded for decades. He may also stress further efforts to liberalise FDI and streamline the decision process. However, these issues are nothing new, and recognising Trump’s emphasis of personal diplomacy, one could expect a more dramatic announcement. Possibilities seem to be enhanced collaboration in space technology for defense purposes, as well as a joint effort in Artificial Intelligence (AI), particularly countering China’s commitment to space-based systems and AI.
With foreign currency reserves currently over $460 billion, India does not need money from the West. But the single most important thing that India needs from the U.S. could be support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This requires agreement by Britain, France, Russia, and China, and much U.S. diplomatic effort will be necessary, particularly with China. After that, some relaxation of H-1B restrictions will do much to promote goodwill, possibly woven into a bilateral trade and investment agreement.
Much has been said and written about what the U.S. and India have in common: the English language, democracy, a belief in capitalism, and a western legal framework. However, these are largely symbols that may be subordinated to how India defines its national interest.
The Trump presidential visit may well be dramatic, showing the world a tapestry of images of India: the heroic legacy of the Mahatma; the love story of the Taj Mahal and Shah Jahan’s consort, Mumtaz; the imposing architecture of Lutyens’ Delhi; and India’s military, economic, and technological might.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago on South Asian affairs, and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.
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