Modi in US: chemistry done, politics, economics next

American President Donald Trump’s penchant for throwing interlocutors off-balance with his tweets, words and actions made preparations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US a nervous exercise for Indian officials. In the event, the visit achieved its objectives: creating a positive chemistry between the two leaders, confirming the shared strategic vision that Indian and US leaders have developed since 2000, and sidestepping discordant issues.

Trump passed the Modi hug test with flying colours. He was faithful to his carefully scripted utterances. And, importantly, he did not preface or follow the Modi visit with disconcerting tweets, as he did with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Joint Statement addresses major Indian concerns. It mentions “cross-border terrorist attacks…by Pakistan-based groups” and promises expanded intelligence-sharing and operational-level counterterrorism cooperation. The designation of Hizbul Mujahideen leader Salahuddin as a global terrorist was a welcome US statement on terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.

Trump recognised India’s contribution to democracy, stability and security in Afghanistan and welcomed further contributions. The 2016 India-US joint statement had not mentioned Afghanistan.

The forthright assertions about the Indo-Pacific – a term China does not particularly care for – were designed to counter the suspicion that US engagement with China to pull its North Korea chestnuts out of the fire would lead to soft-pedalling on Chinese expansionism in its neighbourhood.

The joint statement emphasises freedom of navigation and commerce, resolution of territorial and maritime disputes in accordance with international law and – clearly addressing China — calls on nations in the region to adhere to these principles.

India’s concerns about the geopolitical designs of China’s Belt and Road Initiative were endorsed. A further message to China was delivered by Trump’s declaration that the India-US-Japan “Malabar” naval exercises next month would be “the largest maritime exercise ever conducted” in the Indian Ocean.

On bilateral relations, defence and security cooperation were highlighted with the commitment to “working together on advanced defence equipment and technology”. Missing this year was the word, “technology-sharing”, which was in the 2016 statement.

The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, set up in 2012 to promote co-development and co-production of advanced defence technologies, is included in the fact sheet on cooperation put out by the White House. The US confirmed its offer of Sea Guardian predator drones to bolster our maritime deterrence capability. The F-16 aircraft manufacture in India did not find mention; it may still have to pass the requirement, technology and viability tests.

The section on trade predictably reflects Trump’s much-repeated views on this subject, but is more politely phrased. There is an open-ended commitment to undertake a comprehensive review of trade relations, unlike the Chinese commitment to a 100-day plan.

The difference is that the US trade deficit with China is about $350 billion while that with India is less than $25 billion. The goals of rationalising regulatory processes, fostering technology and innovation, and increasing market access are unexceptionable. It is in India’s interest to work in this direction; the US also has to keep its side of the bargain.

The US energy exports to India were discussed. American company Westinghouse may have to restructure its nuclear energy project in India, because of its financial woes. Trump announced that the Indian companies are negotiating long-term contracts of for US Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) supplies. In today’s global hydrocarbons scene, competitive prices will remain a constant issue.

Indian companies have invested over $10 billion in the US LNG and shale sectors. There are, therefore, important convergences. The devil lies in the details of their realisation; Indian diplomats have their work cut out. Recognition of this should temper the euphoria of the Modi-Trump hugs.

The Trump Administration has established a practice of contradictory policy signals emanating from its various departments. We have seen this on China, Russia and Europe. We have to see if the objectives outlined in the joint statement have an all-of-government acceptance. For example, corporate America would like a more accommodative approach to China; will the business-friendly Trump administration succumb to this pressure?

American criticism of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan into India is not new. We heard it in the 2000s. The core American concern, however, is terrorism from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The US has, therefore, pressed Pakistan to cooperate on Afghanistan and, in return, tacitly condoned Pakistani terror export to India (except for periodical statements). Military and civil assistance to Pakistan are linked to cooperation on Afghanistan, not terrorism against India.

There is a recurring temptation in the US establishment to take a “regional approach” to Afghanistan. This predicates that India-Pakistan competition for strategic space is the fundamental problem in Afghanistan and justifies Pakistan’s “existential concerns” about Indian presence in Afghanistan.

Ominous hints

The corollary is that to achieve peace in Afghanistan, the US has to promote peace between India and Pakistan. There are some ominous hints that US Defence Secretary Mattis’ comprehensive review of Afghanistan is looking at such a “regional approach.”

The policy in USA emerges from a dynamic interaction of multiple stakeholders and interest groups. The president may be the final authority, but the National Security Adviser, the State Department, Pentagon, intelligence agencies and the Congress are all influential actors. The final advice to the president emerges through these filters.

Extra-constitutional actors – like former vice president Dick Cheney during the Bush years or Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in the present administration – can sometimes hijack the agenda. Summit-level assurances of high-technology transfers to India have often been nullified by inter-agency processes, Congressional stipulations or industry’s reluctance to transfer technologies to potential competitors.

This explains why advanced military technologies still do not figure in our growing defence cooperation. Then president George Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice describes in her memoirs how the CIA influenced the inter-agency process in favour of Pakistan, overriding more accurate information from other agencies.

These are the challenges our diplomats face in building on the Modi-Trump chemistry to further the bilateral agenda. The chemistry examination has been passed (with an A+); the politics and economics examinations may be tougher.

(The writer, a former diplomat, is Convenor, National Security Advisory Board. Views expressed are personal)

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