Will the Modi-Trump meeting be a zero-sum game?

The prime minister is headed to a dysfunctional US capital, but it is the divergences on both Pakistan and China – in Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean -- that will define the outcome of his meeting with the US president

Written by Manish Tewari | Published:June 21, 2017 7:57 am
Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Indo-US talks PM Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump

In less than a week from now, prime minister Narendra Modi will travel to the US capital to call on a gentleman who, defying all odds, was sworn in as its 45th President on January 20, 2017.

The fact that prime minister Modi will be the 38th or perhaps 40th head of government/state to be fitted into Donald Trump’s calendar may or may not be a reflection of the priority accorded to the Indian relationship. Even the prime minister of little Montenegro, Milo Đukanović — the latest and 29th member of NATO — as well as Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have beaten Modi to the gates of the White House.

Why the India piece has not been getting any traction in the Washington DC Beltway is not difficult to discern. For a start you have a very distracted President in Mr Trump. His incessant fracas with the US media, it’s Deep State (read, intelligence services), the great Washington swamp of lobbyists, law firms and think tanks that have been around for at least a hundred years — and above all his inability to staff the myriad executive positions that fall vacant with the end of each Presidency — have hobbled Trump’s administration even before it has completed it’s first 150 days.

It is to such a dysfunctional US capital that Modi is headed.

But beyond the skullduggery of domestic US politics there are deeper and more profound policy issues at play, where Indian and US interests deeply diverge — despite the polemical optimism of Modi’s Indo-American supporters. These concern India’s two close neighbors now lip-locked in a passionate economic and strategic embrace called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

If there is one relationship that President Trump is personally invested in, it is the tango with President Xi Jinping. This has nothing to do with India but has, at its core, a headache called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea.

The US has been heavily invested, indeed entrenched, in North Asia and South East Asia, since the end of the Second World War. From Japan to Singapore and beyond into Australia, a network of hub-and-spoke security alliances/military bases underpin the economic prosperity of this dynamic region. It also makes America the most influential hegemon and power balancer here.

This was the underlying reality of Barack Obama’s famous but never-fully-fleshed out “Pivot towards Asia” strategy. Today’s truth is that despite withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the American girdle of economic and political alliances across the Pacific, even a maverick like Trump cannot just throw all these relationships overboard.

Equally an enigmatic nation and its equally unfathomable leadership can upend this entire treaty structure intricately engineered over the past seven decades. North Korea has so far test fired 16 missiles this year alone while the US and allies like South Korea and Japan have helplessly looked on.

Trump understands that the only country that still has influence with North Korea is China. Beijing can make this hermit nation change it’s behavior, which is why he went out of his way to woo President Xi, including sending a representative to the One Belt One Road (OBOR) conference last month in Bejing. Trump has publicly reneged on his commitment to designate China as a currency manipulator, a poll commitment he had repeatedly articulated on the stump.

Perhaps China could have been the one area of convergence between India and the US. After all both the countries have a vested interest in ensuring that the Middle Kingdom doesn’t threaten the power balance in Asia.

There is empirical evidence that buttresses that apprehension. First China’s rise has not been comforting. China has every intent of securing – by all manner fair and foul – the territorial advances it has made since 1949, both on land and at sea. What should worry all the world’s sea-faring nations, who have a stake in ensuring that sea-lanes of communication and commerce remain open, is China’s inexorable southward trek towards the Indian Ocean.

The question prime minister Modi must ask himself on board Air India One is why the Chinese are driving downwards towards the Indian Ocean and not upwards into the North Pacific Ocean.

The answer stares Indian policy wonks in the face. As of now 18 Chinese naval bases circumscribe the Indian Ocean in varying degrees of commissioning. This thrust southward is a track that will be minimally resisted by America, while simultaneously allowing for maximum consolidation of China’s own influence through a creeping policy of strategic naval bases initially hidden as civilian maritime ports.

Remember that the Indian Ocean, as the name demonstrates, is India’s traditional sphere of influence.

China has successfully hedged itself by not entering the regions where the big boys of the erstwhile Cold War play, namely in the Middle East and even the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. Instead, it wants to know why the name of its new eminent domain, the Indian Ocean, is so sacrosanct.

Certainly this encirclement unequivocally threatens India as well as the US, given that the US remains the only country capable of projecting power much beyond its shores.

But the sad truth is that in the current state of courtship between the US and China, Modi will find no takers even if he elects to raise India’s concerns about Beijing.

The other invisible 600-pound gorilla in the Indo-US relationship is Afghanistan. After 16 of continuous US presence, which has cost billions of dollars and hundreds of American lives, the current administration like the previous one, is desperately looking for a way out.

There isn’t one. Except, perhaps, an ignominious exit that may put the country back in the hands of Pakistan-backed terror groups, ranging from the Haqqani Network to the Quetta/Peshawar Shura, and of course the notorious Taliban. This gives Pakistan back the strategic depth it desperately craves for since the beginning of the current phase of US involvement and leaves the US exactly where it was 16 years ago. Meanwhile, Afghanistan threatens to return to instability and become an ungoverned and ungovernable space that can provide safe harbor to Islamists and terrorists groups of every shade and hue.

The US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Nicholson and US Defence secretary James Mattis have told the US Congress that the US is not winning in Afghanistan; that the war is stalemated. There is no clarity either in the Pentagon or National Security Council as to the core US security interest in Afghanistan. Is it defeating the Al Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban or stabilizing the tottering Afghan state? All of them, any of them or none of them?

In the absence of any clear objectives, US policy today is in a splendid state of suspended animation. On the one hand there is the proposal to add another 5000 US troops (euphemistically labelled trainers), although it remains unclear why a multinational force consisting of more than a 100,000 personnel and backed by close air support, drones and other gizmos hasn’t been able to defeat the Afghan bigots these past many years.

The other option currently in vogue in the US capital is to sup with the devil i.e. raise the ghost of ISIS presence in Afghanistan, and use it as a pretext to cut a deal with the Taliban.

In each of these scenarios India does not figure or fit in. An American surge, however limited, only increases US logistical dependence on Pakistan. If the Taliban have to be mollycoddled, then Pakistan’s ISI becomes the interlocutor of compulsion, for they are the ones who have sustained the Taliban over the past two decades, while ingesting billions of American dollars to ostensibly defang them.

India has no grand strategy that underpins its foreign policy nor much resonance left in world capitals. Holy cows, mythical properties of their pungent nectar, the brutal lynching of minorities and ruthless suppression of media freedoms are the only news of India in the Western media these days.

It can be safely wagered that except for grandiloquent pronouncements and more taxpayer’s money squandered on gratuitous defense procurement, nothing will come out of Modi’s visit to America. If at all, India will be reduced to a sponge for the US military-industrial complex rather than become an equal partner or its respected strategic ally.

Manish Tewari is a lawyer, a former Union minister in the Congress-led UPA government and serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Washington-based Atlantic Council. He tweets @manishtewari

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