Donald Trump's India visit: Never mind naysayers, New Delhi is right to be in no rush to sign US trade deal

  • Now that Donald Trump is on the verge of his maiden tour of India as US president, commentators are of the opinion that this visit is inconsequential in absence of a trade deal

  • The significance of this standalone trip shouldn’t be lost in the din of an announcement that a limited scope deal may not materialize yet

  • The Indian side seems to have got the strategy right. Officials have told the media that they are in no rush to sign a deal.

When it comes to a bilateral relationship with the United States, Indian foreign policy commentary suffers from an odd schizophrenia. When US president Donald Trump turned down coming to India for Republic Day celebrations citing prior engagements, we are told New Delhi has fallen off Washington’s radar.

Now that Trump is on the verge of his maiden tour of India as US president, suddenly commentators are of the opinion that this visit is inconsequential in absence of a trade deal.

In part this schizophrenia is the result of unnatural burden of expectations that 21st Century’s most important geopolitical relationship has had to bear ever since it took off. It was not until 2000 that India and the US finally got over Cold War’s long chill following Bill Clinton’s epochal visit when India’s status as a nuclear power was normalised.Soaring ties since then have been accompanied by mounting expectations that both sides have struggled to manage.

Expectations are not a bad thing.

They arise from the fact that both nations have convergence in number of areas, from shared values to common strategic interests. The shifting geopolitical and geo-economic sands provided the context for greater dovetailing. Yet India’s colonial past, its unique civilisational mooring, vastness, complexity and regional realities make it a very different kind of democracy than the western kind, and an understanding of this dynamic makes it easier for both nations to work with each other.

 Donald Trumps India visit: Never mind naysayers, New Delhi is right to be in no rush to sign US trade deal

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

While the US strategic community, foreign policy and security establishment have gradually accepted this reality, the incumbent US president has introduced his own set of challenges. In upending US foreign policy axioms, he has fundamentally changed American approach to the world and all nations — allies or foes — are scrambling to adjust to the new reality. Trump has not only put trade and commerce at the front and center of US foreign policy, he has introduced key changes in implementing his ‘America First’ theorem: rationalising America’s role as global security provider and keeper of international law, “rejection of free trade and open borders” , and “resetting the terms of economic engagement with the rest of the world.”

These changes came at the cost of multilateralism or strategic logic and inevitably, put the US at odds with many of its allies, not to speak of its competitors. When even American allies are struggling to come to terms with a “transactional president” who puts a price tag to every relationship, it is but natural that US-India ties, too, would be subjected to the same dynamic. To argue — as some commentators have — that Trump’s focus on trade and an inability of both nations to thrash out even a limited a trade deal has been detrimental to US-India partnership is therefore misleading.

It takes away from the very consequential and significant progress in overall relationship and dismisses the milestones that have already been achieved. Notably, Trump is only the eighth serving US President to visit India after Dwight Eisenhower (1959), Richard Nixon (1969), Jimmy Carter (1978), William Clinton (2000), George W Bush (2006) and Barack Obama (2010 and 2015). The significance of this standalone trip shouldn’t be lost in the din of an announcement that a limited scope deal may not materialize yet. It has caused some to dismiss Trump’s engagement as superficial.

Aside from the fact that Trump’s arrival is an opportunity for both nations to reinforce the vibrant strategic and defence cooperation and tighten collaboration in a number of new areas, the visit also gives both countries the chance to not let trade become the sole determinant of ties. There are reasons to suggest that India and the US would be better off not remaining fixated on that elusive deal (mini or major) right now just so that Trump’s long flight to India produces a “deliverable”.

Why a trade deal now may not be a great idea

With the US going full steam ahead for the 2020 presidential elections, Trump’s every move will be guided by domestic politics. This queers the pitch for a “fair and reciprocal” trade deal because Trump will remain vulnerable to interest groups within the US that he judges to be vital to his political interests.

For instance, US negotiators have been pushing India hard to get market access for — among other things — cranberries and pecan nuts, causing perplexity in some parts of US strategic community.

It is only when we look at the larger context that the picture becomes clearer. Farmers keen to export pecan nuts and pork to India belong to the ‘swing states’ such as Georgia and New Mexico. Being part of a swing state that may vote either Democrat or Republican, this is too important a constituency for Trump to ignore. It is not surprising to note, therefore, that nuts became part of the table during trade negotiations.

As an Economic Times article points out, senators from these areas are unhappy with the tariff that India slaps on tree nuts. Their voices are important since “the pecan industry contributes more than $3.5 billion to the 15 pecan-producing states, including Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi. In the last 10 years, exports have pumped an extra $1.25 billion into the economy of 15 American states.”

These realities impose two challenges in bilateral ties. One, it imposes enormous power in the hands of US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, a trade hawk who is at the sharpest end of Trump’s trade spear. Two, trade assumes the role of a sole metric for bilateral ties that remain multifaceted, deep and enduring.

Writing in Business Standard, Carnegie India director Rudra Chaudhuri posits that “increasing centrality of economics is partially the result of Lighthizer’s fascination with tariffs and duties”. Chaudhuri mentions Lighthizer’s obsession with “Japanese made semiconductors and personal laptops” during the presidency of Ronald Reagan that has now come to rest on “India’s tariff walls and standards on dairy, healthcare products, pharmaceuticals and two dozen other such items.”

Lack of a ‘deal’ doesn’t mean India and the US aren’t trading with each other. The reality is, as author and former deputy assistant secretary of state Alyssa Ayres points out is that “from 1999 to 2018, trade in goods and services between the two countries surged from $16 billion to $142 billion. India is now the US’s eighth-largest trading partner in goods and services” and bilateral trade “now resembles, in terms of volume, US trade with South Korea ($167 billion in 2018) or France ($129 billion).”

Rise in trade will inevitably accompany rise in tension. Under a US president who fancies himself as “world’s best deal maker”, that metric has grabbed outsized attention. All the more reason for India, therefore, to use Trump’s visit to refocus the attention on strategic partnership that continues to be the lodestar of bilateral ties. The Indian side seems to have got the strategy right. Officials have told the media that they are in “no rush” to sign a deal. Time for Indian commentators to read the memo.

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Updated Date: Feb 21, 2020 19:37:47 IST