The visit of US President Donald Trump to India has been a resounding success. Whether it was the “rock star” moment at the Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad, the formal bilateral meeting at Hyderabad House, or the interaction with Indian business leaders, and even the press conference, the US President struck all the right notes. He was effusive in his praise for the Indian prime minister and of India’s successful rise under his dynamic leadership. He reiterated his love and respect for India, its people, the ideals of democracy and non-violence during his brief but packed visit. He referred to Indians as “strong and noble… a hope for all humanity” who had found a “faithful and loyal friend” in the United States.
President Trump cut an extremely statesmanlike figure, especially in his mature handling of the media, which tried to provoke him by raising questions about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and religious freedom in India.
He did not rise to the bait, remained calm and patiently answered all questions. He was clear that he wanted to carry happy memories of his visit and that he would be back again. It was obvious that Trump saw value in coming all the way to India just before getting into re-election mode and he has not gone back disappointed. Both leaders want to cement the India-US relationship further and have invested a great deal in forging close personal links. The US president was obviously prepped right on a range of issues and did not strike any discordant note, but before leaving he did dwell at length on a “Big Trade Deal” that India and the US would work out soon. He also did not mince words when he said that he would be looking at Indian investment coming into America. As Trump hits the campaign trail for re-election, this matter could once again come to the forefront.
We must keep in mind that when Narendra Modi began his second term as prime minister, the unilateralist impulses of the Trump administration were high. Trump’s campaign for the US presidential election this year is likely to be more muscular and nationalistic than PM Modi’s campaign, thereby necessitating an active policy by India. Our relationship with the US is at an interesting juncture. Despite plenty of positive momentum, many sticky issues in trade cast a shadow on Indo-US relations. Trade relations between the two democracies have been turbulent in the past as well but got exacerbated in 2018 when Washington imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium exported from India under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 on the grounds of national security.
A series of protective measures against India led to a tit-for-tat response from New Delhi, which imposed tariffs of $235 million on US goods worth $1.4 billion, prompting speculation about growing Indo-US tensions with trade as the focal point. India had unfortunately failed to anticipate the adverse outcome of a protectionist Trump who ran his 2016 election campaign on the two main planks of ‘making America great again’ and to ‘bring back the jobs’. Acting on his election promise to reform the H-1B visa system, Trump signed an executive order for tightening the programme and granting visas only to “the most skilled and highest-paid applicants”, and not to replace Americans. India and the US have had differences on WTO issues and bilateral trade, investment and IPR issues under previous administrations. With Trump’s emphasis
on America First, US trade, investment and IPR policy under him have become more contentious. USTRs have always been negative towards India, and the present incumbent, Robert Lighthizer, has long argued in favour of protectionism and is a proponent of hard trade policies. He can be relentless.
Can India work out a strategy to deal with potential pressures like the GSP review or India’s designation as a developed nation, which seem to have adversarial connotations for India since the US is India’s biggest export destination? From India, a bit of marketing, a bit of positioning, and a lot of strategic thinking is required. A way out could be to move forward on further strengthening the strategic aspect of relations where there is greater harmony.
The positive momentum of the visit should be looked at as an opportunity for pursuing broader strategic and political objectives by both the countries. Considering geopolitical challenges to their strategic interests in the region, both India and the US should focus on areas of strategic convergence and this should continue to remain at the centre of discussions at the highest levels. It is time that the two countries also move beyond trade issues with a microscopic focus on agriculture, dairy and poultry, and build upon mutual strengths in other economic domains for a reliable and substantial partnership. The need of the hour is to look at the big picture.
The two countries should move beyond trade issues with a microscopic focus on agriculture, dairy and poultry, and build upon mutual strengths in other economic domains for a reliable and substantial partnership. The need of the hour is to look at the big picture
Consultant, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi and an expert on Indo-US relations Email: firstname.lastname@example.org