Feed his vanity, deepen convergence on China, ensure pressure on terror, point out costs of the US trade policy
This is not just because of his erratic, vain and headline-attracting personality, comments and tweets. Nor is it only because of the US’ global heft or the established importance of the bilateral political, economic, technological and defence cooperation dimensions of the relationship. It is also because the people-to-people linkage is among the strongest elements of the relationship and captures the imagination of aspirational India.
There are now more than 4 million people of Indian origin in the US. President Trump attending the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston, in September last year, before a 50,000-strong crowd of Indian-Americans, was a recognition of the growing importance of this community in US politics, voting and political fundraising. One out of seven patients in the US is seen by an Indian doctor. Around 40 percent of all hotel rooms are said to be owned or managed by Indian-Americans. They now have a growing presence as chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies, and in startups in Silicon Valley. There are 200,000 Indian students, presently in US universities, who are looking at a future in the US or in building US-India economic and technological linkages, whether they are based subsequently there or in India.
The buzz is also on account of the US, as the pre-eminent global power, (although it does now face technological challenges from China and military ones from Russia), having declared itself as supportive of India’s rise and national aspirations.
Under President Trump, the US has clearly recognised the challenge it faces from China, a process that saw spring shoots under George W. Bush, and an Asia “pivot” under Barack Obama after his initial failed exploration of “strategic reassurance”. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in public comments on Oct 30, 2019, said the US “hesitated and did far less than we should have when China threatened its neighbours like Vietnam and Philippines and when they claimed the entire South China Sea”.
The US has raised, significantly, tariffs on imports from China, to address its $350 billion trade deficit. It has strengthened measures to limit access of Chinese companies to high technology, curtailed participation of Chinese scholars and students in research and innovation laboratories in US universities and is mounting a worldwide campaign to block participation of Huawei in 5G infrastructure. The US is now having to deal with a challenge it has itself created. Since its outreach to China in 1971, and enhanced engagement since 1979, there was military and intelligence cooperation, encouragement of technology transfers, grant of preferential trade and investment access, large educational exchange programmes (Chinese students today, at 400,000, are double the number of Indian students), facilitation of multilateral development financing through the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, among others and enabling its entry into the World Trade Organization.
Besides its own measures to deal with the consequences of a “risen” China, the US is seeking to develop other partnerships, “to shape the environment”. Its frequent reiteration of a “Free and Open Indo- Pacific”, bilateral and triangular partnership with Japan and South Korea, the defence policy with Japan and India, the Quad Indo-Pacific strategy (which includes Japan and Australia, besides India and the US) and renaming of its Hawaii-based Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific Command, are among the responses.
In addition to the strengths in the US- India bilateral relationship, it is the challenge from China that will, for now, provide a ballast focusing the thinking of US strategists.
However, given the compulsions of US domestic politics and policy preferences, there will be challenges and pinpricks in the US-India relationship. If the US supports the rise of India, as its leaders say, it does not follow that it has withdrawn the Generalised System of Preferences benefits, removed India from the category of developing countries for countervailing trade measures, imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium imports on national security grounds and kept the envelop expanding in the ongoing trade negotiations.
While defence cooperation has increased significantly since the civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2008, with India now having contracted to buy $18 billion of supplies, there is still no major defence technology collaboration. On Pakistan, US policy vacillates depending on whether the policy of the moment is to pressurise or incentivise it in the context of terrorism and Afghanistan. The US sanctions on Russia and Iran also increase costs and challenge options for India.
During the Trump visit, therefore, India’s strategy suggests itself. Given his evident vain nature, lay out a welcome that will enable him to claim, rightly or wrongly, that he had a reception and crowds bigger than former US presidents Bill Clinton (2000), Bush (2006) or Barack Obama (2010 and 2015). The convergence on dealing with Chinese challenges, while maintaining freedom to build on the spirit of Wuhan and Mamallapuram informal India-China summits, will deepen. US compulsions on Pakistan will be recognised but pressure will be sustained on its support for terrorism, including through the Financial Action Task Force. Trump was lavishly welcomed, but it was kept in mind the need to maintain bipartisan support for India in US Congress, which is fraying a bit at this stage.
And it was pointed out the incongruence in welcoming the rise of India and then taking steps that incur economic costs.
Arun K Singh is a former Indian ambassador to the United States. HINDUSTAN TIMES