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Why US President's India visit may not just be about Modi-Trump optics

The trip will underscore what brings India, US together — wide strategic interests, people-to-people ties & more.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Feb 15, 2020, 08.39 PM IST
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US President Donald Trump’s visit to India on February 24-25 will be a brief and busy one. The personal will blend with the political in colourful ways, while serious business of State gets done on the side.

The trip will be heavy on optics — India can’t be otherwise — but also on substance. It will underscore what brings the two countries together — wide strategic interests, people-to-people ties and everything in between.

"Officials are working hard on a modest trade deal and getting approval for 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for the Indian Navy worth $2.6 billion before the visit. Although India has bought $17 billion worth of US defence equipment since 2007, Trump government officials complain that no deal has been signed during his term, despite offers to sell systems that no past president would. This week, the US approved the sale of an Integrated Air Defence Weapon System (IADWS) to India estimated at $1.8 billion."

Trump Administration was changed to Trump "government." When we talk of Trump Admin -- it is the executive branch alone that we are talking about. The government would mean -- Administration + US Congress which is not what I was saying. Please restore the original Trump "Administration".

Trump’s the Word
That said, the visit will also provide a stage for Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bolster each other in different ways.

Trump’s popularity is at its highest with a 49% approval rating, the Republicans are behind him, the Democrats are in disarray, and the impeachment is yesterday’s news. To top it all, Trump is riding the longest economic expansion in US history. In short, he is in a good place.

Now, if he can steer a significant number of Indian American votes his way by showcasing he has done more with India, he will deliver another blow to the Democratic Party. Politically savvy as Trump is, he has an alarming ability to divide and rule.

"Forget the Democrats. He has done it to his own party."

As for Modi, it helps to have the US president standing beside him in the safe zone of Gujarat at a rally of supporters — ‘…[Modi] thinks we will have 5-7 million people just from the airport to the new stadium,’ Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday — even as protests continue elsewhere in India, and both Republicans and Democrats continue to raise questions about India’s domestic policies, some quietly and others a little more loudly.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s non-binding resolution critical of Modi’s Kashmir policies remains in play, now with 58 co-sponsors, including five Republicans.

Even without the resolution making headlines, Trump may privately raise questions about Kashmir. He wants to have both India and Pakistan in his corner. In his mind, he has solved the Israel-Palestine problem. With the Afghanistan peace process once again showing signs of life, he may plead Pakistan’s case.

Human rights groups and a few Pakistan proxies in Washington have kept a steady drumbeat on Kashmir with briefings, lunches and lobbying.US officials may defend Indian civil society’s ability to sort things out in public, but privately they have begun to wonder about ‘shared values’.

But, in the end, the compulsions for the US and India to cooperate on issues of common interest remain greater than their differences. As a wise practitioner of the art noted, the last four US presidents couldn’t have been more different from each other. Yet, they all found ways to agree that India was strategically important. The same goes for Indian prime ministers.

Dealing With a Better Deal
In just the past three years, the Trump Administration has offered India armed drones and integrated air and missile defence technology, both of which were denied by the Barack Obama regime on grounds they would alter the balance with Pakistan. The Trump Administration also gave India Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 status in 2018 to allow sale of sensitive technology.

The Modi government, in turn, has signed two of the three remaining foundational agreements with the US, which guide the sharing of sensitive military and communications technology and reciprocal use of military facilities. Last year, the two sides conducted the first tri-service military exercise, ‘Tiger Triumph’. These form the sinews behind the optics.

Most importantly, the US and India are synchronising their policies on the Indo-Pacific, and pushing back against the Beijing-Moscow alignment in Asia. US Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger was scathing in his critique of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s attempt to define the Indo-Pacific policy as ‘divisive’ and an effort to ‘contain’ China.

The Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (QSD) of the US, India, Japan and Australia, meanwhile, was raised to the foreign ministers level last year and a ‘hesitation of history’ shed. More load-shedding might be on the way.

Whether India joins the US-led ‘Blue Dot Network’ announced in November remains to be seen. The scheme is designed to certify infrastructure projects as market-driven, financially sustainable and transparent. The idea is to mount a multilateral effort and offer an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

So far, the Blue Dot Network is more a vision statement — it lacks the billions the Chinese have poured into their investment spree. But for Japan and Australia to sign up with the US despite China being their largest trading partner says something.

For all the dysfunction in Washington, important initiatives have been bubbling up. Most importantly, the India file is moving and that is what Trump and Modi will celebrate.

(The views are personal)
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