An unpredictable voyage

The Prime Minister will be walking on thin ice when he visits the White House

June 20, 2017 12:05 am | Updated 12:05 am IST

No stranger to DC:  PM Narendra Modi at the White House in 2014.

No stranger to DC: PM Narendra Modi at the White House in 2014.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be on the most hazardous journey of his political-diplomatic life towards the end of June for his maiden encounter with U.S. President Donald Trump. Not only is Mr. Modi’s greatest achievement, the new heights India-U.S. relations had scaled in 2016, in jeopardy but also the White House itself is in turmoil with former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate’s invitation to Mr. Trump to testify. The results of Mr. Modi’s visit could be as unpredictable as the personality of Mr. Trump, regardless of the charm offensive that the Prime Minister is capable of.

India had identified several streaks in the personality of Mr. Trump, even in the days of the election campaign, which held out a glimmer of hope for better bilateral relations. Foremost among them was an indication that he would follow a policy of containment against China, in contrast to his predecessor Barack Obama’s policy of calibrated cooperation. Mr. Trump had called China a currency manipulator that had to be countered in the interests of the U.S. economy. But the moment the North Korea crisis became critical, he embraced China.

Targeting terror

Another straw in the wind was Mr. Trump’s extreme antagonism towards the Islamic world, which found expression in the travel ban against designated countries. The stated reason for the ban was terrorism, but the worst exporters of terrorism, like Pakistan, were excluded. Later, Mr. Trump surprised everyone by making his first visit abroad to Saudi Arabia, where he gave many other Muslim-majority countries a sermon on terrorism without uttering a word of criticism on Riyadh’s human rights record. Further, another tranche of reimbursement was made to Pakistan for fighting terror in Afghanistan. Mr. Modi’s concerns over cross-border terrorism are not likely to get a sympathetic hearing in Washington.

Mr. Trump’s business interests in India were another reason for optimism. But his ‘America first’ approach may well contradict Mr. Modi’s ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’ initiatives. Even co-designing and co-production of defence equipment, which formed the basis of the new symphony in India-U.S. relations, may not stand Mr. Trump’s scrutiny by his own standards of what is considered to be in the U.S.’s interests.

The litmus test of Mr. Trump’s goodwill towards India was to be his policy on the information technology (IT) industry, but it has failed because of the restrictions he has imposed on H-1B visas. Replacing Indian IT professionals with American ones will only hurt the U.S.’s business interests. In any case, it will take six to seven years for the U.S. to replace all Indians. This may be on the top of Mr. Modi’s agenda and a setback on this issue may sour bilateral relations.

A reason for India’s likely disillusionment on these issues is that Mr. Modi is expected to seek a reinstatement of Mr. Obama’s architecture on India-U.S. relations, an edifice Mr. Trump is determined to demolish. He did not spare India even while disowning the Paris Agreement on climate change as he said that one reason for his decision was that India was demanding “billions and billions and billions” of dollars to implement the pact. The remarks were unwarranted as India has always been sensitive to the views of developed countries during climate negotiations.

Offering an arms deal

The real test for Mr. Modi lies in whether he has anything in his bag to offer Mr. Trump to overcome these hurdles. His penchant for personal chemistry may be counterproductive with Mr. Trump. The experiences of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Emmanuel Macron in shaking hands with Mr. Trump have been disastrous.

One way to handle the visit is to steer the discussion towards matters of primary interest to Mr. Trump. His visit to Saudi Arabia has shown that huge arms sales agreements are his weakness. Though we may not be able to match the Saudi figures, purchase of arms may help even if it contradicts our efforts to escape our reputation as the biggest importer of weapons. Mr. Modi will do well to collect the shopping lists of our service chiefs before boarding his flight. Since creating jobs in the U.S. is Mr. Trump’s first priority, a few good orders for U.S.-made weapons may gladden his heart.

By the same token, Mr. Modi could look at the nuclear trade with the U.S., though he has embarked on an indigenous programme and also signed up for the next stage in Kudankulam with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Westinghouse has gone bankrupt and cannot build the six reactors we had contracted for with Mr. Obama. The solution to the liability law issue proposed by Mr. Modi, which earned him the reputation of a man of action, has not taken off at all. Of course, Mr. Trump’s views on nuclear trade with India are not known, even though the nuclear deal was the handiwork of fellow Republican George W. Bush.

Trump’s climate-change denial

On climate change, Mr. Modi had a very good chance to be on the same side as Mr. Trump if India had supported a renegotiation of the Paris Agreement. It is no secret that Mr. Modi was not fully satisfied with the Paris Accord and had contemplated not ratifying it unless India got membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The argument was that India would not be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless it enhances its nuclear power generation. But Mr. Modi later vowed his allegiance to the Paris Agreement. An ambiguous line on Paris may have been to our advantage.

With the liabilities outweighing the assets that he is carrying to Washington and the unconventional diplomacy of Mr. Trump, Mr. Modi will be walking on thin ice in the Oval Office.

The first time he entered the Oval Office, its then occupant had begun by congratulating Mr. Modi on the welcome he had earlier received from the Indian community in the Madison Square Garden. Perhaps, Shalabh Kumar and his Hindu constituency may organise a matching performance to impress the current occupant. But for the inward-looking Mr. Trump, who has shown indifference to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and hostility towards the Paris Agreement and other international commitments, a massive gathering of Indian immigrants may well be a provocation.

India should wish its Prime Minister well in his most difficult voyage. At this moment of a thorough reshaping of international relations, conflicting trends in recent elections in France and the U.K. and a decline of the post-Second World War dispensation, India simply cannot afford to lose out. Together with German and Chinese, a mixture of Indian English and Hindi must also prevail on the international stage.

T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and currently Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram

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