Trump’s India Visit: Converging Interests?

 By Kanchana Ramanujam
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The United States (US) President-Donald Trump-arrived in India on February 24, 2020, on a 36-hour visit. This first stand-alone visit by a US President came against the backdrop of an election year in the US. It is believed that in the 2016 US elections, more than 80 per cent of Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. Deals aside, it would not be wrong to state that the American President foresaw electoral gains too.

President Trump was cautiously silent over the protests in India and made a statement that it was ‘really up to India’ when asked about the Citizenship Amendment Act, clearly distancing himself from India’s internal matters. On the question of Jammu and Kashmir, the President said that there were ‘two sides to every story…’ making sure nothing affected the personal bonhomie between the President and the Indian Prime Minister which was on display during the trip.

Trump’s visit was accompanied by mentions of a ‘Trade Deal’, the specifics of which are not clear. As was clarified before the visit, there was no ‘Trade Deal’ that was announced during the course of the visit, but it is certainly expected in some weeks as stated by the Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr. S Jaishankar.[i] To live up to its hype, the Trade Deal would have to address, inter alia, the issue of termination of Generalised System of Preferences trade benefits for India by the US.

Trump’s speech at the Motera Stadium was clearly reflective of US’ priorities at the moment – the Indo-Pacific, China, and business deals for American companies.

Energy being a critical pillar of Indo-US strategic partnership, a deal was signed between ExxonMobil India LNG Limited, US’ Chart Industries Inc, and Indian Oil Corporation Ltd for supplying liquefied natural gas (LNG) by road, rail and waterways to areas not connected by physical pipelines in India.

In 2019, the US became a net exporter of oil and petroleum products and India is working towards diversifying the sources of its energy imports. In 2018, the US produced more oil than Iran. Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates combined, and oil imports to the US from the Persian Gulf accounted for only 15.9 per cent. Canada accounted for 43 per cent of the total oil imports to the US.[ii] The US exports of crude oil to India, which began in 2017, jumped 72 per cent in 2019 in light of various developments, most notably, the US sanctions on Iran.[iii]

In fact, decreasing US dependence on West Asia for oil and increasing fatigue with ‘never-ending wars’ is shaping US’ foreign policy. This was also evident in President Trump’s reply to a query on terrorism. While he mentioned that India and the US were ‘united in our ironclad resolve to defend our citizens from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism’, during the interaction with the media, President Trump said that the US was ‘8000 miles away’ in a response to a question on terrorism, hinting that the US expected regional actors to play a more active role.

The Indo-Pacific has emerged as a crucial region of interest for the US where it perceives ‘strategic competition’ with China. During the visit, President Trump talked about a ‘ free and open Indo-Pacific region’, and the allusion was clear when he referred to ‘…a nation that seeks power through coercion, intimidation, and aggression…’ The importance that the US attaches to the Indo-Pacific is evident in the reference to the region in the 2017 National Security Strategy of the US. In fact, in the ‘The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report’ issued by it, the US Department of Defense calls the Indo-Pacific a ‘priority theater’. The region holds great significance for India as well, given the issues of militarisation of the region, piracy, health security, energy security, etc. in it.

A major security challenge in the Indo-Pacific is that of nuclear proliferation where India and the US have been successfully cooperating. Recently, in fact, Indian authorities detained a ship at Kandla carrying dual-use equipment such as autoclaves and a pressure chamber. The ship was believed to have originated in Shanghai, China, and bound for Pakistan. In addition, a proliferation ring was recently busted by the US. The ring involved a Pakistani resident supplying material to Advanced Engineering Research Organisation and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission which are in the Entity List of the US Commerce Department. The proliferation ring, which could be seen  ‘AQ Khan 2.0’,  involved front organisations operating out of Hong Kong, Canada, the UK, and the US, and involved Pakistani citizens, aside from operators from Canada, Hong Kong, and the United kingdom.[iv] Maritime Domain Awareness, hence, is an important element of the partnership between India and the US in the Indo-Pacific. Importantly, President Trump also made a mention of how the US and India are ‘working closely together’ on the ‘future of space exploration’.

This convergence of interests with the US has ramification for the traditional India-Russia bonhomie. At the recently held Raisina Dialogue at New Delhi, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov remarked that the Indo-Pacific initiative was aimed at containing China. Does this, along with India’s increasing defence deals with the US, and Russia’s converging strategic interests with China, point to some fundamental realignment of partnerships?

The situation unfolding in Afghanistan has significant ramifications for both countries. There is a marked change in India’s approach towards the negotiations with the Taliban, beginning with refusing to negotiate with the terrorists to sending “non-official” representatives to the Moscow Format, and now being an Observer at the signing of the deal. The US-Taliban Peace Deal will have a fall-out on India’s Chabahar port project in Iran, as Afghanistan is seen as the route to Central Asia and Europe, bypassing Pakistan. It is pertinent to note that the Chabahar port is exempted from US sanctions.

During the visit, President Trump made a mention of the Blue Dot Network (BDN) – an initiative, widely seen as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Afghanistan joining the BRI and increasing Chinese and Pakistani influence in Afghanistan would not be in the security interests of either India or the US. However, how far  BDN, not being a direct financing initiative, would be able to counter BRI is unclear.

It is no secret that the US is working to provide 5G alternatives by helping Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, and others in the 5G eco-system. The US has also written to the Indian government stating that Indian companies that supply US origin products and equipment to Huawei or its units will face action.[v] With the UK providing restricted access to Huawei, India’s approval of Huawei’s participation in the 5G trials, it would not be wrong to assume that some discussions on the 5G roll-out in India and its impact on the India-US relations would have been discussed during the meeting of the two leaders.

As far as military deals are concerned, it is expected that the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation would be concluded soon. India’s military signed contracts worth USD 3bn with Boeing and Lockheed Martin for military equipment which included 6 Apache and 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters. It is noteworthy that Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited-a joint venture between Tata Advanced Systems Ltd and Boeing-manufactures fuselages for Apache helicopters. So, Make in India would also get a boost with this deal. It is likely that more orders will be placed in the future. This contract notwithstanding, it is also true that the two countries do not have any joint development projects for defence hardware. India and the US, as ‘comprehensive global strategic’ partners, as announced during the visit, should now move to co-designing.

References:

[i] Youtube.com. (2020). S Jaishankar Exclusive Interview; Speaks On Talks With Pakistan,Trump Visit & More. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRD7glPI4Xg  [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020].

[ii] Rapier, R. (2020). How Much Oil Do We Import From The Middle East?. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2020/01/07/how-much-oil-do-we-import-from-the-middle-east/#7067fa1e21c6  [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020].

[iii] Thehindubusinessline.com. (2019). Crude oil imports from US jump 72 per cent, Iraq is top supplier. [online] Available at: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/markets/commodities/oil-imports-from-us-jump-72-per-cent-iraq-is-top-supplier/article29531296.ece  [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020].

[iv] Kartha, T. (2020). Mystery Chinese ship to Karachi, 5 indicted in US show Pakistan’s nuclear racket is alive. [online] ThePrint. Available at: https://theprint.in/opinion/mystery-chinese-ship-to-karachi-5-arrested-in-us-show-pakistans-nuclear-racket-is-alive/368151/  [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020].

[v] Mankotia, A. (2019). Don’t share our goods with Huawei: US to Indian companies. [online] The Economic Times. Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/company/corporate-trends/dont-share-our-goods-with-huawei-us-to-indian-companies/articleshow/69850492.cms  [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020].