Updated: February 26, 2020 11:44:55 am
President Donald Trump’s high-voltage visit to India has further cemented the close ties between the world’s oldest and largest democracies. The two sides have agreed to elevate relations to a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. The addition of the word “comprehensive” acquires new salience in a time of flux, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. The two sides have agreed to work together on defence, technology, terrorism and homeland security, energy, trade, checking narco-terrorism and organised crime, connectivity and people-to-people ties.
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This is the eighth time that the two leaders have met since Trump came to power in 2017, of which the last eight months alone account for five meetings. President Trump flew 8,000 miles, or 12,875 km one way, on his first official trip to India. As the visit unfolded, the first images of the ecstatic crowds, both along the route and in the Motera stadium, filled TV screens. The festooning around the city and the gala turnout suggested that vast numbers of people were welcoming the Trump entourage in the best traditions of atithi devo bhava.
Trump came down hard on terrorism, both in Motera and in his press remarks. He spoke of the two countries being firmly united in their ironclad resolve to defend their citizens from the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism”. It balanced his description of US-Pakistan relations as “very good” and the distinction he drew between the deep state in Pakistan and the “terrorist organisations and militants operating on the Pakistani border”. He probably meant both Pakistan’s western and eastern flanks, but the truth is that the Pakistani army plays a direct role in the infiltration of terrorists into Kashmir, even if it has less sway on groups operating along the Afghan border.
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Trump’s public address in Motera was replete with resounding endorsements of Modi and the achievements of his government, interspersed with laudatory remarks about India as a great nation. That he did not utter a single word in Motera about recent political developments in India reflects Trump’s political maturity and the importance attached to a deeper engagement with India.
Trump was mindful of India’s sensitivities. A reference to Kashmir came up only in response to a question during his press briefing, and, in saying that he was willing to help, he was only reiterating his earlier position. The motivated din in certain sections of the international media about the Citizenship Amendment Act notwithstanding, Trump said in response to a question at the press briefing in Delhi that he did not discuss it since it was an internal matter of India. He would have been conscious of the US ban, enacted in 2017 and recently expanded on January 31 to include more countries, restricting travel, immigration and entry of refugees from a number of mostly Muslim-majority countries. The expanded list now also includes Myanmar, which has a Buddhist majority, ostensibly with an eye to restricting the entry of the Rohingya. Though the CAA was enacted by Parliament for entirely different reasons, both are sovereign decisions. When asked about violence in Delhi and religious freedom, he once again termed these as matters best left to India.
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The MoUs concluded during the visit covered health and energy sectors, adding to the vast existing panoply of framework agreements already in place. The decision on purchase by India of over $3 billion worth of state-of-the-art defence equipment including Apache and Romeo MH-60 helicopters comes in the wake of earlier purchases worth $18 billion between 2008 and 2019. These will definitely enhance India’s combat capabilities given that these platforms are the most sophisticated in the world, acquired at a time when vigorous parallel efforts are being made in India to promote jointness in military affairs through the newly created post of Chief of Defence Staff.
The India-US defence partnership is likely to benefit from the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status accorded to defence exports to India but, more fundamentally, by the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) signed in December 2019 during the 2+2 Dialogue.
At the press briefing after the talks, Modi said the India-US relationship was one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. Another key takeaway is the burgeoning energy partnership, which will improve India’s natural gas distribution network. India is already buying large volumes of oil and natural gas from the US, which is expected to rise to nearly $10 billion in value in 2019-2020.
Bugbears in India-US relations are fewer today. There is far greater appreciation of India’s concerns on cross-border terrorism even as the US is once again looking at Pakistan through the prism of its interests in Afghanistan. Too much is being made, though, of the proposed US deal with the Taliban for a pull-out. There is no clarity about the modalities concerning withdrawal, and, going by differences this week over “reduction in violence”, there is every chance of the deal going awry.
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There were unmistakable tongue-in-cheek references to China by Trump during the visit, without directly naming it. In his address at Motera, Trump contrasted India’s democratic ways with “a nation that seeks power through coercion, intimidation, and aggression”. In referring to 5G during the joint press briefing, he emphasised “the need for this emerging technology to be a tool for freedom, progress and prosperity, not to do anything where it could be conceived as the conduct of suppression and censorship”. This was expected, given the growing debate around the world on the relative superiority of the liberal democratic order versus “authoritarian state capitalism”.
All in all, it was a “very special visit, unforgettable and extraordinary” and “very very wonderful” as Trump described it. Here were two of the world’s most charismatic leaders with an unparalleled mass appeal, together so soon, only a few months after a hugely successful “Howdy Modi” show in Houston. Their style questions Adlai Stevenson’s generalisation of diplomacy as a mixture of protocol, alcohol and geritol. With both men given to public display of affection shorn of stiff protocol, and both brimming with youthful energy, India-US relations are set to deepen further to mutual advantage.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 26, 2020 under the title “Trumping the naysayers.” The author, a former Ambassador of India, is currently the director general of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Views are personal.
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