Summit safeguards Indo-US ties from Trump the tweeter
The fact that the US President endorsed the India line of his predecessors has made the Narendra Modi–Donald Trump summit a success.Updated: Jun 29, 2017, 13:24 IST
India has used Trump the president to buffer relations with the United States against Trump the reality TV star.
Indian and US officials privately express relief that the Narendra Modi–Donald Trump summit went off smoothly. Fears of the unpredictable can be projected to the entire Indo-US relationship.With Trump broadly endorsing the India line of his predecessors, the room for policy randomness was suitably reduced. That alone made the summit a success as far as Indian officials were concerned.
In the months before the summit, Indian diplomats and officials met almost everyone in the new US administration. They met the foreign policy quadrangle of defence secretary James Mattis, foreign secretary Rex Tillerson, homeland security secretary John Kelly and national security adviser HR McMaster..
They also touched base with Trump’s ideologue Steve Bannon and even son-in-law Jared Kushner. At this level, New Delhi was “strategically reassured” about the administration’s views on India.
That left the President. Trump’s public statements about India had alternated between fulsome praise and wholly alt-fact accusations.
More worrying was his lack of any sense of grand strategy and, therefore, any long-term view of how India benefitted US interests. Trump was derisive about democracy and unconcerned about policy continuity. “We are yet to get traction with this man,” said a senior Indian official a few months after the election. Indo-US relations were neither good nor bad, they were simply in limbo.
Unlike earlier presidents, there was no talk in Trump circles about the importance of helping India become a great power. A White House staffer privately said only Bannon talked up India and largely because of his admiration for Modi.
The President also blew hot and cold about China. The sole reassurance was that Trump even befuddled the Chinese. Indian diplomats say that in their interactions with the Chinese, the latter now ask the Indians if they know Trump’s views about the issue under discussion.
Another question mark lay over the US view on Afghanistan-Pakistan. Trump was only consistent about his unhappiness with India’s protectionist trade policies.
New Delhi went into the summit with a minimalist goal: Get Trump to endorse the various security agreements that had been negotiated with the Bush and Obama administrations. “We have accomplished a lot in the relationship. We have to preserve that,” said an Indian diplomat before the summit.
For example, a Trump green signal would allow the Pentagon to go ahead with the bilateral defence trade and technology initiative without having to worry about stray Oval Office tweets.
The Indian Prime Minister was primed to make two strategic points to Trump during their one-to-one. One was the common maritime challenge the two countries faced from China in the Indo-Pacific arena.
The other to remind him of Pakistan’s central role in global Islamic terror. There was no certainty as to how the US President would react.
Fortunately, the Trump administration began souring on both Pakistan and China just in time for Modi’s arrival.
Last week, Trump tweeted that Chinese leader Xi Jinping had tried but failed to hold back North Korea’s rogue actions. This paves the way for the US to resume plans for an open confrontation with China on the trade front.
Trump had put a lid on advocates, mainly economic nationalists like Bannon, for the imposition of tariffs on Chinese steel imports because Xi had promised action against North Korea.
The shift in the mood against Beijing made it easier for India to insert Beijing-bashing lines in the joint statement like a demand that “regional connectivity” be based on “responsible debt financing” – a critique of the One Belt, One Road initiative. t also made it easier for the US to agree to provide defence technology equal to what it gives its “closest allies and partners”.
A similar hardening was taking place regarding AfPak. Trump had already snubbed Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Riyadh. But India’s main interest was to know whether Trump would continue the Obama administration’s disastrous policy of “Afghan withdrawal at any cost”.
While Trump is known to have similar views, he has subcontracted Afghan policy to Mattis. An Afghan veteran, Mattis plans to send more US troops to fight the Taliban. This puts the US on a direct collision course with the Pakistan military.
Reuters, citing administration officials, reported that the US was planning a tougher Pakistan policy, including upping drone strikes. With Modi warning in Virginia of more “surgical strikes” against Pakistan, Rawalpindi must now contemplate the possibility of cross-border military action into Pakistan along both its borders.
Modi, with Trump by his side, spoke of how “doing away with the safe shelters, sanctuaries, and safe havens will be an important part” of Indo-US cooperation in fighting terrorism.
Trump has said he will be India’s “true friend” in the White House. The summit has ensured the President and his senior cabinet members are in sync regarding India – and both are in sync with India over Pakistan and halfway there on China.
In a Trumpian world, that should mean about two years of stable bilateral relations.
The views expressed are personal