Prime Minister Narendra Modi will no doubt be reflecting on aspects of President Trump’s personality, political thinking, electoral well-springs and conduct of foreign affairs while preparing himself for his visit to Washington on June 25-26. He would have concluded that if Donald Trump is a disruptive president at home, he is equally unsettling in his external policies. A president who takes on the power centres at home, as Trump has done with the intelligence and security agencies, the mainstream media and elements of the judiciary, will not hesitate to be assertive with foreign powers. One cannot assume that in dealing with India he would put primacy on stronger understandings based on longer term shared interests. His bullying of NATO allies on May 25 at Brussels, his general belittling of the EU and censure of Germany on its NATO contributions and trade policies indicates his mindset. If traditional allies are being treated so insensitively, India cannot assume a more finely judged treatment of some of its concerns. A clearer understanding of Trump’s world view, how he looks at the present and future challenges to U.S. power and interests, which countries can be US partners in meeting them and how much give and take can be there between his country and them would be important insights to gain during Modi’s visit.
Trump’s combative posture on domestic affairs, linked to his rather insular, anti-globalisation electoral base, expresses itself externally in his unabashed self-centred, ‘America First’ appr-oach. In foreign affairs, he is catering to the concerns of that stratum which has propelled him to power. The more he is contested within and is threatened by probes and investigations to thwart him personally and his policies, the more he has to secure his political base by promising to bring jobs back home, negotiate more forcefully with trading partners, oppose multilateral agreements, rely on bilateralism to extract the maximum advantage for the U.S., curb imports, address the trade deficit, and so on. Having championed free trade and globalisation since the collapse of the Soviet Union, America under Trump is on a course reversal with a protectionist agenda. At the G7 summit in Italy on May 27, the U.S. was persuaded after considerable effort by others to agree to the inclusion in the final communique a reference to fighting protectionism. Trump nonetheless resisted efforts to have him endorse the Paris Agreement, from which he anno-unced US withdrawal on June 1.
All this has implications for India. India-U.S. two-way trade in goods in 2016 amounted to about $67.7 billion and that in services was $47.2 billion, for a total economic engagement of $115 billion. The US goods and services trade deficit with India was a modest $30.8 billion in 2016 (compared to $347 billion with China, about half the total US trade deficit), but India was included in Trump’s order in March to review in 90 days, country by country, product by product, the causes of the U.S trade deficit with a view to opening up markets abroad for more American goods and services. The USTR has threatened to use both WTO and bilateral mechanisms as well as U.S. laws to achieve this objective. Trump has publicly referred to a minor matter such as India restricting the import of Harley-Davidson motorbikes. Even under Obama, India’s trade, investment and IPR practices have been subject to scrutiny by the U.S. International Trade Commiss-ion at the behest of the U.S. Congress prodded by sections of the U.S. corporate sector. India’s domestic content requirements for solar energy production have been challenged; India has been listed as a Priority Watch country under Special 301. On H-IB visas, Trump is pursuing more stridently the restrictions India was grappling with under the the Obama administration. Trump and key members of his team are committed to HIB visa restrictions, an issue that will no doubt figure on Modi’s agenda in Washington.
One can expect more difficulties in negotiating a balanced Bilateral Investment Treaty with the U.S. under Trump. On Climate Change issues India had been subjected to intensive pressure by the Obama administration to work with it to conclude a climate accord in Paris. Trump citing India along with China as an excuse for walking out of the Paris compact and misrepresenting India’s position was remarkably self-serving and showed the poor quality of the briefings he gets.
Amongst the other complications facing India-U.S. relations under Trump is the absence of diplomatic guidance to him and his team both from the State Department where the South Asia Bureau is headless and the US embassy in New Delhi which remains without an ambassador. This will inevitably stall the numerous dialogues (almost 50 in all) that India and the U.S. have established in recent years on a wide range of subjects. With Trump radically changing his stance on China — from threatening a trade war with it, confronting it in the South China Sea and courting Taiwan to vaunting his personal relationship with president Xi, lauding the latter’s cooperative attitude on North Korea and backtracking on trade issues with China — Modi will need to assess the degree of U.S. commitment to the joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions defined under Obama. The purpose of this was for India and the U.S. to work together to counter Chinese maritime challenges in both regions.
On the issue of radical Islam and terrorism, on which Trump’s robustness suggested that he might be more receptive to India’s enduring problem with Pakistan, the outlook is unclear. The U.S. is retaining last years’s levels of its military and economic assistance to Pakistan. Its CENTCOM chief’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March was soft on Pakistan and was negative on India’s bid to isolate it diplomatically for the risk it carried of igniting a nuclear conflict in the sub-continent. Trump has in the past spoken of his willingness to mediate between India and Pakistan. His trip to Saudi Arabia in May suggests that Trump, too, is willing to play geopolitics with radical Islam and terrorism if it suits U.S. strategy. We should not expect him to share our concerns about the China-Pakistan relationship. While Defence Secretary Mattis has acknowledged that the U.S. is not winning the war in Afghanistan, it is not clear what the U.S. intends to do about this. Perhaps Modi will get an insight into Trump’s thinking. On Iran, Indian and U.S. are interests are not convergent, and this problem could become more acute for India under Trump who is bent on demonising Iran. In announcing Modi’s visit, Trump’s press secretary struck the right note by stating that “The President looks forward to discussing ways to strengthen ties between the United States and India and to advance our common priorities: fighting terrorism, promoting economic growth and reforms, and expanding security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.” While on paper this sounds good, the challenge will be to achieve all this with strategic and not transactional aims in mind. In view of Trump’s personality and the way policy making is structured under him, much would be achieved if Modi succeeds in building a personal relationship with Trump, an exercise for which Modi has considerable talent. Not surprisingly, even on our side the objective of building a personal rapport with Trump is being stressed in background briefings.