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Narendra Modi’s challenge in Washington

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-06-2017 Harsh V. Pant

At the end of this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will head to the US to meet President Donald Trump. Nothing earth-shattering is likely to happen during the visit but it is conceivable that this might just end up being the defining visit of Modi’s US policy in the age of Trump.

During the campaign, in a first for a US presidential candidate, Trump attended an Indian-American event organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition, termed India as a “key strategic ally” and promised that if voted to power, India and the US would become “best friends”. His hard-line position on Pakistan and Islamist extremism also endeared him to a section of Indians.

But since he became President, Trump has given mixed signals about his priorities, confusing many in India. Though his aides have often delivered tough messages to Pakistan about terror, his approach has been erratic at best. In a phone conversation with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he seems to have told him that he was ready to play any role desired by Pakistan to resolve the country’s outstanding problems. Trump told Sharif that he has a “very good reputation”, is a “terrific guy” and is doing “amazing work which is visible in every way”. In his usual hyperbolic manner, Trump is reported to have said that Pakistan is “amazing, with tremendous opportunities” and “Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people”. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, went so far as to say that the US may play a proactive role in de-escalating tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi, though this was later dialled down by the state department.

Arguing that the Paris climate accord would have imposed a heavy economic burden on America and intruded on its sovereignty, Trump withdrew from this pact. Targeting India specifically, Trump argued that “India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions of dollars in foreign aid” and that it will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020. India was quick to refute these charges, with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj arguing that India’s “signature is not out of greed or fear” as its “commitment to the environment is 5,000 years old”.

Economic and trade ties have also been under stress, with Trump asking federal agencies to review the temporary visa programme for high-skilled foreigners to ensure preference was accorded to the “most-skilled and highest-paid”. Trump has been critical of H-1B visas, suggesting that they were being used by outsourcing firms to bring in low-skilled workers on low wages who displace Americans. His larger approach towards economic globalization has produced a paradoxical situation wherein China is trying, with some success, to project itself as a defender of the extant global order.

On regional security and strategic issues too, muddling along has been the norm so far. The Trump administration is still struggling to finalize how many troops to commit to the fight in Afghanistan. US defence secretary Jim Mattis told the senate armed services committee this week that “we are not winning” in Afghanistan, and the Taliban is surging throughout the country. Pentagon officials and the military leadership in Kabul favour sending several thousand additional troops to the fight. But disagreements between Trump’s military and civilian advisers are plaguing decision-making.

It is Trump’s China policy which will have the most significant long-term impact on India and regional geopolitics. After angering China by questioning Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan under the One China principle, Trump went back on it and endorsed it. Trump hosted the Chinese president at the Mar-a-Lago summit in early April where he tried to win China over to his “maximum pressure and engagement” approach to North Korea. He later expressed his “absolute confidence that (Xi) will be trying very, very hard” to resolve the North Korea issue. Despite this, North Korean behaviour remains provocative and frustration with China is growing in Washington. In the rest of the world, there is growing concern that as Trump turns America inwards, he is ceding the strategic space to China.

Overall, there remains a lot of confusion about the future trajectory of India-US relations under Trump. Bilateral relations have soared after Modi made significant personal investment in boosting ties. He could rightly proclaim that finally India-US ties have “overcome the hesitations of history”, as it was his leadership that salvaged India-US ties from the morass they had sunk into during the last few years of the previous government. Modi galvanized an ossified Indian bureaucracy and gave a new sense of purpose to India’s engagement with the US.

But now he faces the challenge of building a rapport with an administration which seems intent on retreating to the margins of global politics and of pursuing a transactional agenda. The strategic logic that largely drove George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s overtures to India—that India’s rise is in America’s larger interest—can no longer be the basis of India-US engagement under Trump.

There are indeed challenges here as New Delhi has become used to the broader strategic logic and has traditionally been averse to transactional relationships. But there are new opportunities, if only Indian policy mandarins remain open to new possibilities. If Modi could convey this message to Trump effectively during his visit, he would have accomplished a whole lot.

Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and professor of international relations at King’s College London.

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