In protocol lore, it is said that there is no perfume sweeter than the one that emanates from a departing VVIP aircraft. The truth of this must have been very evident to Indian diplomats when US President Donald Trump’s Air Force 1 took off on Tuesday night and they could unhook their bandgala collars. A US president’s visit, with huge logistic and security demands, is a difficult one at any time; that of a president like Trump, given his penchant for unpredictability and the disruptive tweet, even more so. Added to that was the challenge of a massive outstation public event and the involvement of multiple agencies. Even as the unfortunate violence in Delhi divided global media attention, the visit itself went according to script: Trump stayed exceptionally close to message, consciously eschewing controversy. As one insider remarked, “the only surprise was that there was no surprise”.
Cynics are apt to downplay such visits as “all optics, low on substance”. But high-level visits are not always about big agreements, particularly when relationships have matured and things are generally ticking along. “Optics” also serve their purpose: Leaders are human beings and appreciate a warm welcome, a large turnout, courtesy shown to their family, the effort that goes into a special event. Trump’s personality lends itself eminently to such gestures. As he said during the Namaste Trump rally: “From this day on, India will always hold a very special place in our hearts.”
With a successful visit under the belt, attention must now turn to the substance. At least four priority areas stand out.
First, the divisive issue of trade. We did well to ensure that the absence of even a limited trade deal did not upset the visit. To that extent, trade issues have, at least for now, been boxed into the larger framework. But make no mistake: Trade remains crucial for Trump. In his press conference, he returned to his pet peeves — India’s high tariffs and Harley Davidson. These issues need to be finessed once and for all with a quick limited agreement and initial work should be launched for a more comprehensive deal.
Clarity on our policies on data localisation, e-commerce and digital payment platforms is important. The right balance between protection and global engagement, critical for foreign investment, needs to be arrived at. Indian corporates need not be chary, as is their wont, of talking up their investment and job numbers in the US. This, along with the expanding energy relationship, can become important counters in the trade relationship. An additional caveat on the energy relationship: Recent focus has almost all been on hydrocarbons, and now coal. While this is fine in Trump’s regime, and will please his backers, our focus on renewables needs to be back on the table, both for our commitment to climate change and to hedge against adverse Democratic comment.
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Second, the defence and security relationship. President Trump made a strong pitch for American arms industry, offering to provide the best and most lethal of American weaponry to India; he was clearly satisfied with the $3 billion helicopter deal. While India needs sophisticated defence technology, several aspects need to be ironed out. India as a major defence partner cannot only be a buyer, nor just a junior partner in the Indo-Pacific. Transfer of technology and co-production aspects need to be addressed squarely, including with a view to making India a production hub for South, South-east Asia and Africa. Building on the STA (1) status, further legislative adjustments, including the amendment of The Arms Export Control Act, need to be carried out to give more predictability and reliability to supplies. The Defence Trade and Technology Initiative needs to focus on platforms and systems most relevant to our strategic convergences. It is also a good time to drive home the point that India will continue to have defence relationships with other powers. The US establishment needs to recognise this so that we do not have the somewhat bizarre situation of a major defence partner living under the threat of sanctions for purchasing Russian equipment.
Third, terrorism and Pakistan. The strongly worded Joint Statement condemns cross-border terrorism and calls on Pakistan to ensure that no territory under its control is used to launch terrorist attacks, and to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of such attacks — including 26/11 Mumbai and Pathankot. But though joint statements are issued in the names of the leaders, these are rarely seen by them. Hence, the salience attached to Trump’s own statements on Pakistan, which appear more forgiving.
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In Ahmedabad, Trump called his relationship with Pakistan “a very good one” and said that the US is “working in a very positive way with Pakistan” on terrorism; in his press conference he said “I have a very good relationship with the Prime Minister Khan. Very good.”; at the joint press appearance he said “The US is also productively working with Pakistan to confront terrorists who operate on its soil”. Clearly, President Trump, while condemning radical Islamic terrorism is couching his pressure on Pakistan in positive terms, no doubt with an eye on the forthcoming Afghan deal for which Pakistan’s support is essential. India, while being prepared for some backsliding on Pakistan, would have to guard its interests in Afghanistan during the intra- Afghan talks so that all the democratic gains of the last two decades are not lost in America’s rush to cut a deal with the Taliban and depart.
Finally, after the hype of the Trump spectacle, some grunt work will need to be done with the Democrats, and also with the liberal US media, to ensure that the bipartisan consensus on India is restored and the visit is not perceived as an electoral backing of Trump. From now to November can be a long time in US politics and the Democrats still control the House.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 28, 2020 under the title “Spectacle and substance”. The writer is former Ambassador of India to the US, UK and Israel.
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