Nickeled & Dimed

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The recently concluded trip of US President Donald Trump to India was demonstrative of the nature of politics that is prevailing in both India and the United States. While facing difficulties at home, both the leaders used this trip to demonstrate their popularity abroad. The grandeur of the trip must have fed into the efforts of both the leaders using public spectacle as a means of garnering popular support for their actions. While a trade agreement couldn’t be reached, there were indications on increasing strategic cooperation in order to curb terrorism in the region and keeping a check on China’s growing economic and military power.    

The visit failed to achieve much talked about the trade deal. Trump had previously referred to India as the ‘tariff king’ and had expressed his disapproval of the trade deficit that the United States has been running with India, which by the end of 2019 amounts to $24.2 billion dollars. Although this is insignificant to the trade deficit of about $300 billion that the US is running with China, it still comes under the radar of Trump’s policy of renegotiating bilateral trade relations and cutting down on trade deficits. Under this policy, the United States has revoked the trade concessions that were made to India under GSP (Generalized System of Preferences). This is estimated to have affected India’s exports worth $5 billion. The United States had also expressed disapproval over high tariff rates on health equipment, pulses, automobiles, engineering goods, almonds and smartwatches. Hence, the trade deal is an essential component of the contemporary Indo-US bilateral relations, yet it remained unresolved during this visit.  

While both the nations could not reach an agreement in the atmosphere of growing economic protectionism, there was an evident deepening of strategic relationship based on dealing with terrorism in the region and concerns over the rising economic power of China. In a gathering of Indian investors, Reliance CEO, Mukesh Ambani, highlighted the fact that Jio is the only company which doesn’t have a single Chinese equipment in its 5G trials. Amidst concerns over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the United States has proposed to open an office of US International Development Finance Corporation. This is aimed at increasing bilateral cooperation in the areas of infrastructure development and energy.  

India also purchased $3 billion worth of US helicopters. This purchase marked the first Indian defense purchase under the Trump administration. India being the second largest arms importer in the world, offers immense opportunity for US arms industries. With a shared goal of containing China’s influence in the region, the US will look to expand arms sales in the near future. 

While both the leaders were heaping praises on each other, the national capital was hit by riots  which further tainted the image of PM Modi and his secular credentials, which are in question since the dilution of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. While President Trump conveniently avoided attacking PM Modi in these areas, he also did not alienate Pakistan by referring to the Kashmir problem as one which has ‘two sides of the story’. Although, the concerns over these matters were raised in private meetings President Trump refrained from making any public comments and referred to the issues pertaining to the citizenship law as ‘India’s internal matter’. He also praised US-Pakistan cooperation in the realm of counter-terrorism operations and hailed Pakistan as a great partner in the war against terror. Not alienating Pakistan while the Afghan Peace deal was underway, was really essential for America’s Afghan policy to succeed. That’s exactly what President Trump did. 

 Thus, riding high on spectacle and low on tangible bilateral agreements, the visit by President Donald Trump has solidified certain key points in Indo-US relationship. Despite disagreeing on trade policy, the United States and India share key security and geopolitical concerns which bind them. The most important among them are: the ascendant Chinese economic and military might and terrorism. While the US and India can disagree on trade policy and raise tariff upon each other’s goods, a partnership to check terrorism and Chinese power is essential. The desire of both the leaders to covet international support was also a deciding factor in the nature of the trip and the spectacle that accompanied it. They provided approval to each other’s actions and ensured that their cooperation sends a strong signal to China.

With Washington negotiating the Afghan peace deal, it is also important for Trump to reassure Pakistan that its interests in the region will be protected. This is precisely what he did by coming to India and lauding its counter-terrorism efforts. Moreover, Washington has always expressed the desire for India to play a larger role in the region’s security. Hence, the deepening military ties with India is important for US interests in the region after the withdrawal of American troops.

But despite all this, what remains to be seen is how India and the US are going to sort their difference on trade policy. The deal, as hinted by President Trump will only be taking place after the US elections have concluded. This deal will hold the key to broadening this relationship between the world’s largest democracies.      

Samarth Gupta is a third year student of Ashoka University studying Political Science and International Relations.



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