04.03.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Donald Trump’s Visit to India

At the current stage of the global Chess Game, U.S. President Donald Trump’s official visit to India from 24 to 25 February was certainly noteworthy. During this trip, he engaged in negotiations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

There was also a link between the aforementioned event and important aspects of the two countries’ domestic political landscapes, in which tensions tend to flare up, both in the United States and India. There was no doubt ahead of the visit that both leaders would try to derive maximum benefit for their domestic agendas from the massive show for the public that was put on during Donald Trump’s trip to India.

The arrival of the President of a leading nation in India, just as Narendra Modi’s most recent visit to the United States, was again used to project the power of the current leadership, and by extension the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the global stage.

Such a public show was especially timely considering India’s troubled domestic political landscape stemming from the adoption of several legislative measures in the second half of 2019, which were met with hostility by the nation’s Muslim and “secular” communities.

On the very day Donald Trump arrived in Ahmedabad (a key city in the state of Gujarat where Narendra Modi had served as the Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014), there were clashes between proponents and opponents of the aforementioned legislative acts in one of the districts of capital New Delhi. By the time he departed India, 13 people had died and 150 more had been injured (plus numerous cars had been torched) as a result of the violence.

Nowadays, there are good reasons to talk about the fall in popularity of the BJP and the current Prime Minister, who people, seemingly, put their faith in (for the second time since 2014) during the Indian general election as recently as spring 2019. But in February 2020, the Bharatiya Janata Party suffered a crushing defeat in the Delhi Legislative Assembly elections.

Similarly, during this presidential election year, Donald Trump is facing as many domestic political problems as his Indian counterpart, which are in no way connected to the impeachment proceedings that were doomed to fail from the start. As the current U.S. President continues to battle his numerous opponents at home, even his key competitive advantage, stemming from the nation’s economic growth, may dissipate under pressure this year.

As recently as 7 February, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin stated that he expected “2020 U.S. GDP growth to be less than 3%”. He attributed the lower forecast to problems Boeing (USA’s largest exporter) is facing on account of “halted production of its 737 MAX planes over safety issues”. If Steven Mnuchin’s predictions turn out to be accurate, the U.S. GDP growth rate this year will be the lowest since Donald Trump became President.

It is also worth noting that aside from the “Boeing effect”, pessimistic forecasts for the global economy in the upcoming year cannot but have a negative impact on the U.S. economy. In fact, this negative effect is already apparent as yields on U.S. long-bonds have already fallen and “U.S. manufacturing and services sectors activity stalled”.

Donald Trump’s, seemingly strange at first glance, statement that the United States was not treated very well by India with regards to trade was probably prompted by these far from optimistic economic forecasts. Usually heads of state do not say such things about a country they are about to pay a visit to, especially if the nation in question is as important for the United States from the political and strategic perspectives as India is today.

It is quite likely that the aforementioned statement made by the U.S. President also reflected his biggest foreign policy concern, i.e. the trade imbalances between the United States and practically all of its main partners.

The United States is India’s biggest trading partner, with the bilateral trade of goods and services between the two countries amounting to $142 billion in 2018 and the U.S. trade deficit to $26 billion. The amount is, of course, not as substantial as $400 billion (i.e. the U.S. trade deficit with China), but $26 billion is no pocket change either.

Shortly before Donald Trump’s visit to India, monitors of violations of “human rights” and “democratic norms”, who are primarily centered in the U.S. Congress, made their presence known. American policy makers had, in the past, also caused problems for the U.S administration in its attempts to pursue policies oriented towards India.

This time around, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed its concern about the negative consequences of the aforementioned legislative acts on Muslim refugees who resided in India’s territory. And its actions did not go unnoticed in India.

Certain members of U.S. Congress have also expressed similar views. For instance, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham made a careless comment about “two democracies” (probably, in the Kashmir region and the rest of India) during a panel discussion at the most recent Munich Security Conference. India’s Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar immediately “corrected” the American, who was sitting next to him.

In all likelihood, thorns in the side, such as the U.S. congress and some of its (especially active) members, play a functional role in the U.S. system that determines the nation’s foreign policy direction.

Still, someone in the USA should be saying the following: “Guys! Whatever is happening in a country with a population that’s four times that of ours, which is situated on the other side of the world is really none of our business, is it? The only thing that matters is that this nation is important for us”.

Only “experts”, such as the author of this article, who are not truly responsible for dealing with any of these issues can afford to publicly discuss the wide-reaching Kashmir conflict, or whether or not the decisions made by the Indian leadership last year were the right ones or not.

So where were we? Yes, of course, we were discussing Donald Trump’s visit to India.

The actual outcomes of this trip, which had very little to do with the accompanying mass protests or the usual hype created by media outlets about movements of the U.S. President’s family members, were described in the India-US joint statement.

Such documents are very carefully worded and do not contain any extraneous phrases or even words. It would be sheer blasphemy to comment on only certain sections of this statement meant to be viewed in its entirety, which you can find on the following website.

Still, the author has chosen to take the liberty to express his overall impression about the outcomes of the trip and the very fact that the President of a world power paid a visit to a country that is becoming one of the key participants not only in the global Chess Game but also in its crucial “offshoot” in the Indo-Pacific region. Here are a number of points to describe it.

Firstly, despite the far from unimportant issues that still plague the India–United States relations, they are continuing to develop in all directions, as envisioned 20 years ago when the then President Bill Clinton paid a visit to New Delhi. And strengthening cooperation (both on the bilateral basis and with involvement of Japan as well as Australia) in the sphere that can be best described as political, strategic and security-related is becoming a key element to the aforementioned process.

The motivation behind this trend remains the same: China is turning into the second super power. And this process of transformation has only intensified in the past 20 years. It is worth noting that the visit to India by the leader of China’s key geopolitical opponent was attentively followed in Beijing.

Secondly, there are absolutely no signs that Donald Trump’s trip to India has had a positive effect on the key issue for South Asia, i.e. the Kashmir conflict, which was referred to in an indirect (vs. a direct) manner in the document. At the final press conference during the visit, the U.S. President practically avoided any questions that concerned this dispute or any of the aforementioned legislative acts.

Thirdly, the United States is not simply faced with the option of choosing the best course of action for both parties involved in the Kashmir conflict. Washington will have to take into account interests of Pakistan too, as without its help it will not be able to more or less “respectably” exit the extremely costly war in Afghanistan, which had long become pointless. In fact, shortly before Donald Trump’s visit to India, Pakistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that without Islamabad, Washington would be unable to bring its long-lasting negotiations with leaders of the Taliban (banned in the Russian Federation) to a successful conclusion. That is why Donald Trump spoke of good relations between the United States and Pakistan at the welcoming ceremony in Ahmedabad.

Finally, despite concluding a number of trade agreements (also on the purchase of U.S. weapons), India and the United States did not sign the long-talked-about trade deal. The two sides only expressed their willingness to continue the negotiation process. Hence, according to Chinese media, New Delhi should not pin its “hopes on a trade pact with the US” and instead forge closer economic ties with China.

Overall, U.S. President’s visit to India ought to be viewed as an important move in the global Chess Game, which is unfolding in the Indo-Pacific region and the entire world.

Still, the author remains a proponent of the idea that the main motivation for the trip lies primarily in domestic political environments in both India and the United States.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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