US President Donald Trump is to arrive in India on February 24 for a two-day visit. This will be his first state visit to India. According to the White House Press Secretary, “During a phone call President Trump and PM Modi agreed the trip would further strengthen the India-US strategic partnership.” Trump’s visit long in the offing was delayed because of the melodrama of the impeachment trial at home. President Trump will be accompanied by First Lady Melania Trump and they will travel to New Delhi and Ahmedabad during the visit. India had invited President Trump as Chief Guest for Republic Day 2019 but that did not materialize due to what US officials described as the date clashing with Trump’s State of the Union address. Later in November 2019 Trump had said, “He (Modi) wants me to go there. I will be going at some point to India.”
The Indo-Pacific and other global issues will naturally be discussed during Trump’s visit. Mukesh Aghi, President of the US-India Strategic and Partnership Forum referring to Trump’s visit told media, “It’s essential to send a message to the region that India is a significant partner and the president values that. India has a role to play not only in its immediate neighbourhood, but in making sure that the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region is part of the international global order.” A number of deals are likely to be signed during Trump’s visit, including: US exporting Integrated AD Weapon System comprising Sentinel radars and AMRAAM missiles to India costing $1.87 billion; Petronet (India) and Tellurian (US) deal of $2.5 billion for investing in Driftwood LNG project in Louisiana; and deal for importing 24 x MH-60R Seahawk helicopters costing $2.6 billion from Lockheed Martin. The irony is that the contrast in the Modi Government signing away a flurry of defence import deals, the defence allocation for the next fiscal is the lowest ever with Modi in power since 2013. In fact, every defence budget gas been negative in actual terms bringing military modernization to dangerously low levels despite mounting threats.
Trump is expected to interact with a wide section of Indian society during his visit but the two high points of the visit are likely to be the ‘Kem Cho Trump’ event and the Indo-US trade deal. The ‘Kem Cho Trump’ event is a sequel to the ‘Howdy Modi’ event held at Houston’s NRG Stadium in September 2019 where Prime Minister Narendra Modi had quipped the famous line “Abki Bar Trump Sarkar”. On January 24, 2020, news had emerged in media of the US wanting ‘Kem Cho Trump’ to be relocated to Delhi-NCR region but the Indian Government prevailed with the venue as Ahmedabad. The ‘Howdy Modi’ event, an initiative of the India Foundation, was attended by some 50,000 Indo-Americans. India can look forward to ‘Kem Cho Trump’ event at much bigger scale and grandeur than ‘Howdy Modi’ given the Modi-Trump chemistry and the fact that Ahmedabad is capital of Modi’s home state.
During Trump’s visit, it is hoped that India and US will seal a trade deal which has run into rough weather since 2018. The catch is whether Trump will revoke cancellation of India’s Generalized System of Preference (GSP) status, which US applies to all developing nations. In March 2019, Trump announced withdrawal of GSP from India, pressuring India to sacrifice its own interests. US is unhappy with India capping prices of items like stents, knee implants and other medical devices due to concerns of public health and indigenous industry. This denies excessive pricing by US companies. Lobbies in the US are against price control of medical devices. Removing the caps will benefit Trump politically but will make medical items excessively costly for the Indian piblic. Also, America’s medicine-related MNCs have been lobbying for removing public interest safeguards in the Patents Act, which again is not in India’s interest.
There are other unjustified demands by the US, like: India should not curb US e-commerce firms like Walmart-Flipkart and Amazon for their unethical and illegal business practices that impact indigenous industry and employment, and; India should not demand US exporters to certify that milk is from cows, which are fed only vegetarian feed. Now Trump is trying to negotiate GSP to gain access in Indian markets and force India to tweak its price controls and IPR. Trade has obviously been added to everything is fair in love and war, but isn’t this unethical on America’s part? Robert Lighthizer, America’s Trade Representative has been camping in New Delhi since February 11 for arm twisting India before Trump’s final effort during his state visit. Logically, India should not give in to such nonsensical demands especially when US is making enough money from India including from oil and arms supplies and India even stopped oil imports from Iran on America’s behest despite it being the closest and cheapest source with reduced transportation costs. India has imported $17 billion worth of defence equipment from the US since 2007, pivoting away from Russia as its main supplier.
India also needs to review how America is dealing with or ignoring India’s strategic interests. Trump has been bandying Iran as the number one terrorist country in the world while its stance towards Pakistan is perceptibly softening, ignoring the fact that Pakistan is the cancer of South Asian stability. Not only is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) gaining traction with PLA troops deployed in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Pakistan, Western stance on the Rohingya issue has pushed Myanmar firmly into China’s lap, with the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) is evolving on India’s eastern flank. The CMEC too will have PLA deployment even if it is mostly covert. What is the US stance on these Chinese advances other than merely focusing on South China Sea and the Quad?
Though small-scale compared to China’s colossal investments in BRI that impinge on the Indo-Pacific, the Trump Administration has proposed a $1.5 billon budgetary allocation in 2021 fiscal for the Indo-Pacific region to ensure the region remains free, open, and independent of malignant Chinese influence. As per the White House, this funding is to support democracy programs, strengthening security cooperation, improving economic governance and facilitate private-sector led economic growth. While this is a general allocation, it would be in India’s interest to examine how much of this needs its specific national interests, and make suggestions as required.
With news of US troops thinning out from some 15 bases in Iraq, the future US posture in West Asia/Middle East and South Asia with specific reference to Afghanistan must be discussed. There are feelers and sponsored ideas in media suggesting conventional Indian Military deployment in Afghanistan. India must not fall into this trap. On the contrary, closed door discussions are needed for cooperation at the sub-conventional level to bring stability in the region in consonance with India’s national interests. For India, not only the Chabahar Port in Iran is important but equally the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link for India to connect with the Afghanistan and Eurasia through the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC). Ironically, the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link is not free from US sanctions.
Trump needs to curb his periodic announcements for mediating between India and Pakistan. India has repeatedly clarified that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan – Pakistan’s illegal occupation of POK being the only problem. Trump would do well to proclaim American support for ‘One India’ during his visit; acknowledging that POK, Shaksgam and Aksai are part of India since the original State of Jammu and Kashmir had formally ceded to India – a fact recognized by the United Nations. Trump’s visit needs to cover all these issues, not just arm twisting a trade deal, pomp and aura of Kem Cho Trump and signing of deals to import arms and oil from America.