Donald Trump winds up India tour: From mixed message on Kashmir to keeping mum on CAA, five biggest takeaways of POTUS' visit

  • This is not for the first time has US president Donald Trump has delivered a mixed message on Kashmir.

  • Both sides predictably played up the $3 billion defence deals for Apache and Romeo choppers and a Letter of Cooperation between Indian Oil Corporation and ExxonMobil India for a deal in the energy sector.

  • The optics of US president referring to the Quad from such a high-profile public platform in India will not be lost on the Chinese who already seem edgy about the ongoing visit.

In many ways, Donald Trump’s maiden visit to India as the US president has been a fascinating experience. On the one hand, it showed the extent to which personal bond and public diplomacy can be used as tools to reinforce bilateral ties, on the other, it showed the limits of such manoeuvres when it comes to delivering concrete agreements.

The US president was clearly bowled over by the reception that he got in India. He frequently burst into flowing rhetoric (unusual for him) and piled on the adjectives while describing the relationship with his “great friend” Narendra Modi. A head of state for whom personal is political, the over-the-top pomp and ostentation accorded by India to him was not just a validation of Trump’s obvious ‘greatness’, but also the starting point for a much deeper engagement between two nations.

Indication of this ‘personal’ blending into ‘political’ came out when Trump spoke at the packed and lusty Motera Stadium on Tuesday, telling the prime minister “You have done a great honor to the American people. Melania and my family, we will always remember this remarkable hospitality. We will remember it forever. From this day on, India will always hold a very special place in our hearts.”

 Donald Trump winds up India tour: From mixed message on Kashmir to keeping mum on CAA, five biggest takeaways of POTUS visit

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and US President Donald Trump exchange greetings after their joint press statement, at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi, Tuesday, PTI

And later on, at the dinner table of the banquet hosted by President Ram Nath Kovind on Wednesday, a visibly moved Trump declared in his impromptu speech that he “loves India” and both nations are “better friends now than we ever were in the history of our countries”. He also promised to be back, “hopefully many more times”.

If that shows the effectiveness of India’s decision to massage Trump’s ego with a ‘bigly’ spectacle for a closer engagement with the US, worth noting that it is one part of the story. Amid all the conviviality, the hard-nosed businessman that refuses to be taken in by flattery did surface when Trump referred to “high tariffs” that he claimed India still has in place, and how that must go for any trade deal to take place.

“We are being charged large amounts of tariffs. They cannot do that,” Trump said during an unscheduled news conference, repeating his charge that “India is probably the highest tariff nation” and mentioning again his pet peeve – “Harley-Davidson has to pay tremendous tariffs when they send motorcycles here and when India sends to us, there is virtually no tariff. That’s unfair and we are working it out.”

This contrast between Trump the showman who is vulnerable to flattery and Trump the businessman who drives a hard bargain remained the consistent motif through the visit. Beyond that, however, five quick takeaways are immediately apparent.

1. Mixed messaging on mediation, Pakistan

Not for the first time has Trump delivered a mixed message on Kashmir. He has previously offered to mediate, only to subsequently back down and utter that both India and Pakistan are capable enough to sort out their differences. The template was repeated again during the unscheduled presser on Wednesday when Trump first dropped the ‘M’ bomb, claiming that he has a very good relationship with Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan and that he will do whatever possible to help. “Anything I can do to mediate.” Within minutes, he contradicted himself.

The inconsistency is likely manifestation of an inside battle within Trump. While he wants to cement his legacy as the ‘mediator’ who can manifestly solve an ‘unsolvable issue’ – in line with his self-projected image of a man who succeeds where others fail – Trump’s enthusiasm frequently bruises itself against the hard realities of realpolitik. On Pakistan, the message was only slightly more consistent. Trump had mentioned his “good relationship with Pakistan” on Tuesday at the Motera, claiming that due to his efforts, “we are beginning to see signs of big progress with Pakistan. And we are hopeful for reduced tensions, greater stability, and the future of harmony for all of the nations of South Asia.”

On Wednesday during the joint briefing after delegation-level talks, however, Trump appeared a little more circumspect. He picked up Pakistan’s reference when Modi, the previous speaker, didn’t. And he made a clear reference to radical Islamic terrorism and Pakistan’s role in it.

“In our discussions, Prime Minister Modi and I affirmed our two countries’ commitment to protecting our citizens from radical Islamic terrorism. In this effort, the United States is also working productively with Pakistan to confront terrorists who operate on its soil.”

2. Don’t expect the US to sort out your terrorism issues

Trump declared that no one has done more to counter ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ than him, but he drew a line on Pakistan sponsored cross-border terrorism and gave a clear indication that while the US will cooperate with India on the menace, it expects India to fight its own fight.

This is in line with Trump’s stated position that the US is tired of playing the global cop and expects regional powers to solve their own problems instead of outsourcing it to Washington. This obviously has repercussions on how the US-led global order is perceived, but Trump has never shown enthusiasm for the long strategic game.

3. Divergence on threat perception posed by China

While Trump never mentioned China by name, it remains the biggest driver of a closer strategic embrace between the US and India – that Prime Minister Modi called the 21st century’s most important partnership. It is one of the chief reasons why Trump flew from halfway across the globe, and the POTUS made at least two oblique references to the challenge posed by the emerging superpower to the post-Cold War world order.

During the joint briefing, it was Trump again who picked up the reference to the Quad, the Indo-Pacific initiative between the democracies of India, US, Japan and Australia – the very mention of which makes China hot under the collar.

“Together, the Prime Minister and I are revitalizing the Quad Initiative with the United States, India, Australia, and Japan. Since I took office, we have held the first Quad ministerial meeting -- I guess you would call it a meeting, but it seems like so much more than that -- and expanded cooperation on counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and maritime security to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The optics of US president referring to the Quad from such a high-profile public platform in India won’t be lost on the Chinese who already seem edgy about the ongoing visit. The symbolic mention assumes a strategic impact given the platform and the context. Trump’s next set of comments on the 5G network and Blue Dot initiative during the joint briefing makes it clear that China remains at the front and centre of India-US strategic partnership.

It is also equally evident that both nations have divergence on the threat perception posed by China.

“During our visit, we discussed the importance of a secure 5G wireless network and the need for this emerging technology to be a tool for freedom, progress, prosperity -- not to do anything where it could be even conceived as a conduit for suppression and censorship,” said Trump.

His comments go at the heart of the issue between 5G network and Huawei, the Chinese network giant that the US accuses of snooping and acting as the conduit of the Chinese government. India has allowed Huawei to participate in trials and the Trump administration would ideally like New Delhi to shun it as a service provider.

The interplay between the US and India on this issue was interesting. Trump reiterated “that the infrastructure of the future is built in a safe, transparent, and accountable manner” and mentioned the Blue Dot Network, “a major initiative to ensure countries around the world to have access to private sector-led, sustainable, and trustworthy options for high-quality infrastructure development” in this context.

India, however, refrained from mentioning the Quad and sounded extremely cautious on the Blue Dot initiative when Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was asked about it at the presser. He merely said that India needs more time to deliberate on it. The hedging strategy is clear.

4. Trade deal remains the albatross around the neck

The elusive trade deal remains the albatross around the neck of both the US and India. Trump and Modi both raised the issue, and both mentioned that a “big, comprehensive trade deal” is around the corner. The language used by both leaders was worth noting, however. As the partner which suffers a trade deficit, Trump was expected to pick up the topic and he did. He called India’s “high tariffs” unacceptable, and vowed that he will make sure India brings those down and does a “reciprocal” deal.

Interestingly, as the partner that enjoys a trade surplus with the US, Modi also referred to as “fair and balanced trade”.

“India and the United States are committed to openness and fair and balanced trade in the economic sector. Over the last three years, our bilateral trade has witnessed double-digit growth and it has also become more balanced,” he said at the joint briefing.

It would seem that while a concrete agreement remained elusive India was careful in its messaging on trade, perhaps Trump’s obsession with numbers. Both sides predictably played up the $3 billion defence deals for Apache and Romeo choppers and a Letter of Cooperation between Indian Oil Corporation and ExxonMobil India for a deal in the energy sector.

5. Trump didn’t take the CAA, Delhi riots baits

The opening remarks of the US president during the unscheduled press conference indicated the distrust that he has towards the media. Trump said that even one “little comment” may blow up a “wonderful visit” and locked horns with a CNN correspondent during the presser. It was evident that he was determined not to say anything even remotely controversial and he doggedly (and uncharacteristically) stuck to the script. He stonewalled questions on CAA, mentioning that though the subject of religious freedom came up during a “long conversation” with Modi on this subject, he was more than satisfied with the prime minister’s response and believes that Modi is working hard to ensure that 200 million Indian Muslims or Christians in India have religious freedom.

On the Delhi riots, Trump had just one line to say: “The subject never came up for discussion” and “it’s up to India”. Quite clearly, the bond between Modi and Trump extends beyond coherence on political views to distrust of the media. Trump showed once again that while the US-led western media remains critical of Modi, the US executive is firmly on his side.

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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2020 11:08:50 IST