A month into 2020, many significant events are underway that would affect India, the region and beyond. One, the coronavirus pandemic, still coursing mostly through China and with lower intensity in its Asean neighbourhood. Second, US President Donald Trump escaping impeachment and removal due to the Senate Republican majority uniting to acquit him. With his popularity ratings up, he is preparing to make his first visit to India this month. Third, the likely domestic impact of the BJP’s performance in the Delhi election, which the exit polls predict will be a rout.
The new pandemic made China belatedly order a complete lockdown at its epicentre at Wuhan and neighbouring cities, at the crossroads of China’s global supply chains that may soon be impacted. When the SARS pandemic occurred in 2002-03, China’s share of global trade was under five per cent. It’s thrice that now and thus can be more disruptive. The barring of Chinese air connectivity and its citizens by many nations has begun to hit Chinese tourism-dependent countries like Thailand, Singapore, etc. Even Myanmar, which Chinese President Xi Jinping visited in mid-January to sign high-profile infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative project named China Myanmar Economic Corridor, is reacting to the scare. The United Wa State army, a rebel group and de facto buffer between Myanmar and China, shut down the border with China. Anti-Chinese racism has mushroomed across the region.
The pandemic is unlikely to abate till temperatures rise with onset of summer. Till then it threatens Chinese connectivity-based outreach to the world and its export prowess, as trading partners start seeking alternative supply chains, if the disruption persists. Unless quickly controlled, questions will arise over President Xi Jinping’s governance model and centralised power. As The Economist has reported: “While Chinese infrastructure has developed, healthcare has lagged. It has 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people, of whom many are underqualified. That may be exacerbating the health crisis in Hubei province.”
India can’t remain smug as the virus is easily transmitted, though maybe not as lethal as SARS, as even a two per cent fatality rate can be lethal as the deaths in China near 1,000. This is despite China’s deeper pockets and ability to build a 1,000-bed hospital in two weeks. India could face a nightmare scenario with the deficiencies of the medical coverage of its vast population. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a $100 million grant for creating a vaccine. Many nations are rushing to do likewise, but the results may take months as vaccines are created and tested for safety before release.
Pakistan and Nepal have vast land links with China and possibly lax medical scrutiny at their borders. The virus is suspected to be communicable by carriers not yet showing full-blown symptoms. This makes border checks anyway tricky. With the current state of India-Pakistan relations any outbreak there can probably be quickly countered by sealing the border. With Nepal, that would be impossible to replicate as the Nepal-India border is porous and the movement of tourists, workers and pilgrims is huge. How prepared is India to deal with this is unclear.
President Trump, before his proposed India visit, has authorised a number of destabilising decisions for West Asia and the Gulf. On January 3, the US killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, in a drone attack that also eliminated the deputy chairman of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Force. Iraq now has a new Prime Minister, a more assertive Moqtada al Sadr, and more Iranian forces visible in Syria in the Syrian Army’s attack on Idlib. If this wasn’t destabilising enough, President Trump unfurled with much fanfare his new Mideast peace plan in Washington, in the presence of beleaguered Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, on January 28. It is a one-sided proposal conceding most Israeli demands while negating the UN Security Council resolutions dating back to 1976 as indeed the Oslo Accords, on which has traditionally rested the US approach to a two-nation solution. Palestinians and Arab nations, that still have independent voices, rejected the proposal publicly. Certainly, most would have condemned it in private.
With this developing legacy, Mr Trump will visit an India that is divided over the sectarian and divisive agenda of the BJP government. While Mr Trump is unlikely to be troubled over that, he would have his wishlist of a trade deal, to extract a mix of cosmetic and real concessions, defence deals that he can brandish in an election year, etc. He would also want to wean India away from Russian arms deals, Chinese wireless 5G technology (India having allowed Huawei to join 5G trials) and Iran. He would expect an Indian counterpart of the Houston “Howdy Modi” tamasha, hoping to capitalise on Mr Modi’s connect with segments of the Indian diaspora. India in turn wants Mr Trump focussed on joint battle against terror and Pakistani perfidy while seeking clarity on the US endgame in Afghanistan. India would defend its balancing outreach to Russia and Iran. All told, it would be a deft diplomatic dance with subtle trade-offs while each side protects its core interests.
But lingering in the backdrop will be the domestic politics of both nations. In America, it is a presidential election year and any excessive wooing of Mr Trump would be noted by the Democrats, who want to rejig the Trumpian foreign policy excesses. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want “fair”, not “better” trade deals that Mr Trump seeks, introducing elements like labour standards, equity, etc. Joe Biden even supports organising in his presidency’s first year a “Global Summit for Democracy” to renew global democratic ethos. However, Mr Sanders and Ms Warren are both neo-isolationists who would want to lower the US military profile abroad. The Trump hoopla will be a good distraction from the domestic travails of the BJP, but popular resentment over the CAA is unlikely to abate unless the BJP offers a compromise. The Trump itinerary may be conditioned by this worry. Space for pure diplomatic theatre, which Prime Minister Modi covets, is unavailable any longer. Pandemics, Islamic ire, the Shia-Sunni contestation to India’s west, falling popularity at home as economic distress combines with youth and minority ire and continuing absence of normality in Kashmir are a dangerous setting for the BJP’s shortsighted sectarian agenda at home. Mr Trump’s visit won’t change that. Only Mr Modi can do so by reversing gears and getting India back on the track he had marketed in 2014: an inclusive and growing India.