Donald Trump's visit to India may not have resulted in a trade deal, but it wasn't without strategic deliverables
It is being argued that lack of a trade deal between India and the US during Donald Trump’s just-concluded visit indicates both countries gained nothing from it, and that it was merely an expensive ego boosting exercise for Trump and Narendra Modi. The argument is specious. It misses the point of bilateral engagements by a mile.
It can be argued that Donald Trump’s maiden visit to India has resulted in substantive deliverables, though a comprehensive trade deal has remained elusive
Overall, Trump’s visit has resulted in strategic and security deliverables, and insured the strategic partnership from trade wrinkles
This sets the stage for a much deeper engagement in coming years if and when the trade deal is worked out
It is being argued that lack of a trade deal between India and the US during Donald Trump’s just-concluded visit indicates both countries gained nothing from it and that it was merely an expensive ego boosting exercise for Trump and Narendra Modi. The argument is specious. It misses the point of bilateral engagements by a mile.
The first problem with such an argument lies in its assumption that optics are of no value in bilateral engagements. This overlooks the role of populism and public diplomacy in foreign policy, as has previously been argued. High-level bilateral engagements are not bereft of optics, and the very fact that Trump flew in from halfway around the globe for a standalone visit to India leaving his campaign trail in an election year ought to highlight the importance the US attaches to this strategic partnership.
That there wasn’t a trade deal on the cards (Trump was clear on it), reinforces, even more, the significance of the visit. Given his so-called transactional attitude towards bilateral ties, Trump could have cited a lack of progress on trade and opted out of the tour. But he didn’t.
As Harsh V Pant, professor of international relations, King’s College London, wrote in Livemint, “It tells you more about the state of India-US ties than any deal would have.”
The second issue with such an argument is that it focuses too much on trade for a very myopic view of the relationship. Trade is just one of the aspects of bilateral ties that prime minister Modi has aptly called “people-driven”, “people-centric” and “the most important partnership of the 21st Century.”
To make trade negotiations the touchstone of a relationship — that impacts various geopolitical corners of a rapidly changing post-Cold War order and works as a democratic bulwark against the rise of authoritarianism around the world — is a blinkered and self-limiting exercise.
On the contrary, it can be argued that Trump’s maiden visit to India has resulted in substantive “deliverables”, though a comprehensive trade deal has remained elusive.
Deliverable 1: Firewalling strategic cooperation from trade skirmishes
The biggest non-tangible ‘deliverable’ has come by way of firewalling the strategic partnership from the fallout of trade-related skirmishes.
Commentators both in India and abroad had been apprehensive that by focusing too much on trade, Trump was undermining the India-US partnership and larger strategic logic was being sacrificed at the altar of “niggling trade demands”.
Trump’s visit has allayed such fears. The US president did point to India’s “high tariffs” and vowed to ink a comprehensive, “big deal” later in the year, but he appeared overall to be tolerant of India’s compulsions. He played down the differences over trade and highlighted the importance of larger strategic cooperation, a mood that was reflected in the joint statement.
If we parse and compare the text of 2017 joint statement (when Modi visited Washington) and the statement released on Tuesday, the toning down of the rhetoric on trade is evident.
The 2017 document talks of resolving and pursuing “commercial engagement in a manner that advances the principles of free and fair trade. To this end, India and the United States plan to undertake a comprehensive review of trade relations with the goal of expediting regulatory processes; ensuring that technology and innovation are appropriately fostered, valued, and protected; and increasing market access in areas such as agriculture, information technology, and manufactured goods and services.” US apprehension with India’s lack of market access and worry over the protection of intellectual rights is clear.
The 2020 statement is more restrained: “Prime Minister Modi and President Trump recognized the increasing importance of the trade and investment dimension of the India-United States relationship, and the need for long-term trade stability that will benefit both the American and Indian economies. They agreed to promptly conclude the ongoing negotiations, which they hope can become phase one of a comprehensive bilateral trade agreement that reflects the true ambition and full potential of the bilateral commercial relations, advancing prosperity, investment, and job creation in both countries."
It is evident that while the urgency remains on signing a deal, both nations have a better convergence on a vexing topic.
More importantly, it is now clear that trade friction won’t be allowed to spill into other domains and harm the close strategic partnership. The significance of this ‘deliverable’ cannot be overstated given widespread fears that a transaction Trump may evaluate a multifaceted partnership solely through the prism of trade and undermine decades of investment from both sides.
Trump showed that he understands the importance of continuity in bilateral ties, a staggering departure from his usual posture if we consider the way he has treated America’s treaty allies and affected trans-Atlantic partnerships.
Deliverable 2: Comprehensive strategic global partnership
During the joint briefing with Trump, Modi had referred to the elevation of a strategic partnership to the level of “comprehensive strategic global partnership.” That this isn’t a ‘talk shop’ or a rhetorical exercise becomes clear if we look closely at the joint statement. The phrase highlights a closer dovetailing of strategic and security interests and deepening of “defence and security cooperation, especially through greater maritime and space domain awareness and information sharing; joint cooperation; exchange of military liaison personnel; advanced training and expanded exercises between all services and special forces; closer collaboration on co-development and co-production of advanced defence components, equipment and platforms; and partnership between their defence industries.”
Comparing it with the statement of 2017, we find a greater emphasis on defence and security cooperation as expressed through the numerous and complex military exercises involving all three services and upgradation of quadrilateral, trilateral and bilateral dialogues. This paves the way for the third ‘deliverable’.
Deliverable 3: India is more confident about ‘quad’ and China
One of the biggest charges against India was that its commitment on ‘quadrilateral security dialogue’ (or simply quad) was half-hearted, with an eye on not rubbing China the wrong way. India has been called the “weakest link” in the four-nation mechanism of democracies in Indo-Pacific to counter China’s revanchist policies and “maritime expansionism”. There have been suggestions that India’s understanding of the concept is “flawed”.
There were certainly no references to the ‘quad’ in the 2017 joint statement. We find ‘quad’ being formalised in the 2020 document, where both leaders have “decided to strengthen consultation through the India-US-Japan trilateral summits; the 2+2 Ministerial meeting mechanism of the Foreign and Defence Ministers of India and the United States; and the India-US-Australia-Japan Quadrilateral consultations, among others. Prime Minister Modi and President Trump looked forward to enhanced maritime domain awareness sharing among the United States, India, and other partners.”
Standing beside Modi during the joint briefing on Tuesday, Trump said, “The prime minister and I are revitalizing the Quad Initiative with the US, 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.”
That mention and the subsequent formalising of the initiative in joint statement indicates India is no longer feeling coy about being part of the initiative and is perhaps less worried about bruising China’s heightened sensitivities over this issue. Now let’s combine this with the reference in a joint statement to the “meaningful Code of Conduct in the South China Sea” where India and the US “solemnly” urged the parties (read China) not to “prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations according to international law.”
Notably, China is negotiating with some ASEAN nations in developing a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea. It ostensibly is a cooperative exercise aimed at reducing tension in the fraught region of contesting claims, but critics have pointed out that under the garb of a “cooperative mechanism”, China plans to further three of its basic demands.
They are, according to a report in Nikkei Asian Review, “It should not be covered by the UNCLOS treaty; joint military exercises with countries outside the region must have the prior consent of all parties to the agreement, and no resource development should be conducted with countries outside the region.”
In other words, China wants to curtail the influence of the US, India or European powers in the region. In referring to ‘Quad’, South China Sea “code of conduct” and in asking the parties not to violate international law, India is clearly taking a more aggressive posture vis-à-vis China, and the US is firmly behind its strategic partner.
This opens interesting possibilities in the region when we consider that not only are the strategic partners taking a clear position against China, they are moving towards offering the smaller nations in Indo-Pacific more infrastructure options to counter Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The first is through the concept of “the Blue Dot Network, a multi-stakeholder initiative that will bring governments, the private sector, and civil society together to promote high-quality trusted standards for global infrastructure development”.
Also worth noting is the announcement that US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) will open a permanent presence in India this year and delineate $600 million towards renewable energy projects in India, and also in third countries through USAID and India’s Development Partnership Administration for “sustainable, transparent, quality infrastructure development in the region.”
This is a long game and should get more attention than the Apache and Romeo deals that were anyway on the cards. On the downside, there were hardly any progress on nuclear reactor deal, or US position on Pakistan though Islamabad’s relative importance as a disruptor in US-India ties has becomes significantly less.
Overall, Trump’s visit has resulted in strategic and security deliverables and insured the strategic partnership from trade wrinkles. This sets the stage for a much deeper engagement in coming years if and when the trade deal is worked out.
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