In Prez Trump’s remarks on India visit, a hint about the ‘big trade deal’

Prospects of the announcement of a trade deal during Trump’s visit dimmed considerably last week after Robert Lighthizer, the top US trade negotiator, informed Indian counterpart Piyush Goyal that he was unable to travel to India for the pre-scheduled end-stage discussions.
President Donald Trump(AP file photo)
President Donald Trump(AP file photo)
Updated on Feb 19, 2020 12:13 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Washington | ByYashwant Raj

President Donald Trump downplayed a limited trade deal that was supposed to be announced during his upcoming visit to India but is currently mired in uncertainty and said Tuesday he was “saving the big deal for later on”, possibly after the US election in November when he will be seeking a second term.

Trump did not seem happy about the situation though. Speaking to reporters before leaving town for a string of election rallies, he fell back to his old grievances about India on trade saying the United States is “not treated very well by India”.

But he was letting it slide because, one, he likes Prime Minister Narendra Modi “a lot”; and, two, he is looking forward to seeing millions of people welcome him in Ahmedabad.

Prospects of the announcement of a trade deal during Trump’s visit dimmed considerably last week after Robert Lighthizer, the top US trade negotiator, informed his Indian counterpart Piyush Goyal that he was unable to travel to India for the pre-scheduled end-stage discussions, as first reported by Hindustan Times.

Also read | Ahead of Donald Trump’s India visit, water released into Yamuna to improve its ‘environmental condition’

“Well we can have a trade deal with India but I’m really saving the big deal for later on,” President Trump told reporters, referring perhaps to the longer-term deal that the two sides had planned to tackle at a later date, after getting out of the way a limited and simpler near-term agreement.

“We’re doing a very big trade deal with India. We’ll have it. I don’t know if it will be done before the election, but we’ll have a very big deal with India.”

It could not be immediately ascertained if the President was signaling a change of plans: to negotiate just one agreement now, that would include both the short and long-term deals. The continued uncertainty about the limited agreement is playing poorly in the United States.

“The inability to ink even a modest trade pact would be a setback, dampening hopes for progress until after the presidential elections,” said Atman Trivedi, a former commerce department official, on talks that were underway before Lighthizer’s cancelled visit.

India and the United States were discussing a limited trade deal for now, leaving the more intractable issues to a future date, along with an ambitious Free Trade Agreement. India would buy $6.5 billion worth of US goods under this short-term deal and grant US companies more access to its markets in return for restoration of benefits under a preferential US trade scheme called the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP).

Also read | US not treated well by India but I like PM Modi a lot, says Trump ahead of visit

There was no response from the USTR’s office to questions, sent before President Trump’s remarks, about Lighthizer’s plans to travel to India and the fate of the deal, which in many quarters is being presumed to be dead, because of his cancelled visit. Questions are being asked if the USTR wants to a deal at all now, or later in the year.

Speaking to reporters about the India visit, the president had aired his old grievances.about high tariffs and the lack of level playing field for American business. “We’re not treated very well by India,” he said. “But I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot and he’s hoping we’ll have 7 million people in the airports.”

The president was referring to crowds he expects to see, as assured to him, he has said, by Prime Minister Modi, of millions of people from the airport to the Motera stadium where he will address a rally with the Indian leader, something like the Howdy Modi event in Houston, Texas last September.

In Ahmedabad, the first stop, the president is expected to visit Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram and then address a rally at Motera stadium, which is the world’s largest; the president is expecting an audience of “millions”, and has seemed most excited about addressing such a large crowd.

Indians remain optimistic about a deal, though, and have indicated that the possibility of a trade deal being rustled up in the final dash to the visit cannot be ruled out yet. “It’s 50-50,” one of them said. But the failure to clinch a deal is likely to impact ties..

Trump is reaching Ahmedabad on February 24 to start a two-day visit with First Lady Melania Trump. They will be accompanied by some key members of his cabinet — Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — and possibly his daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump or her husband and senior adviser Jared Kushner, according to people familiar with the plans.

It will be Ivanka Trump’s second visit to India after her father’s election, if she is going — she last visited India in 2017 end, as head of the US delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad. And it will be Kushner’s first, if he is on the trip.

The president will head for New Delhi the same day with a brief stop over in Agra. They will leave for home after a state banquet on August 25, wrapping up a two-day stand alone visit.

The president’s delegation, which will be announced closer to the trip, will not, however, include the senior-most members, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has to stay back for a conference of heads of US missions, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who will be traveling to India in March.

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