Trump in India: Goodwill, defence and reciprocity on display, trade deal saved for later

Trump’s maiden India visit had glowing optics but few actuals to boast of

modi-trump-walk-aj Up to the time of the banquet, the two leaders had spent five hours together, discussing everything from bilateral ties to the coronavirus outbreak | Arvind Jain

Incredible is how US president Donald Trump describes his two-day visit to India. He returns to Washington, content in the knowledge that the reception he received in India was the “greatest greeting given to any head of state.” Trump had the best epithets for India, calling it majestic. He praised Indians for their unbelievable energy and said he had great admiration for India and a great respect for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Up to the time of the banquet, the two leaders had spent five hours together, discussing everything from bilateral ties to the coronavirus outbreak.

The two countries redefined their relationship as a “comprehensive global strategic partnership”, which, as foreign secretary Harshvardhan Shringla said, now included collaboration in just about every sphere—defence, security, energy, technology, research and development, industry and joint ventures.

In terms of actuals, there was rather less. Three memoranda of understanding were signed: On homeland security, the safety of medical products and on cooperation between Indian Oil Company and Exxon Mobil. A $3 billion defence deal for MH-60 and Apache helicopters had already been cleared ahead of the meet. The only progress towards a comprehensive trade deal was the decision to agree to begin negotiations towards it.

While a big trade deal would certainly have made the visit a very significant one, both sides knew this was not going to happen in a hurry. Trump twice described Modi as a tough negotiator. For him, India's high tariffs remain the biggest problem; a point he mentioned again at the evening interaction with the media. While taking pride that the US's trade deficit with India has reduced from $30 to $25 billion during his term, he still considers this as not good enough.

“I want reciprocal, it has to be reciprocal. The US has to be treated fairly,” he emphasised.

Reciprocity, however, he got in good measure in a different sphere, that of his welcome. For him, the visit at one level was to match Modi's rockstar appearance in Houston last year. On that front, it was a resounding success. Trump repeatedly mentioned the 125,000 guests at Motera stadium and the thousands who had lined the streets to greet him. He described the visit diplomatically as one of great friendship and respect. Indian ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, too, said that from the US side, there was a very significant messaging with the reception Trump got. It showed that at the people-to-people level, there were a great deal of affection and warmth.

The chemistry between the two leaders was apparent throughout the visit. During the evening banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan, he kept repeating how comfortable he felt in India, and even said he had asked Modi whether he could contest elections here. Given that he will be heading into elections back home, it was a great way to woo the Indian diaspora in the US.

One significant outcome of the visit is the decision of the US to set up a permanent office of the US International Development Financial Cooperation, with a $600 million investment in concessional financing to boost cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Trump was careful about what he uttered. In fact, he himself said that he did not want to “blow the two days” by uttering anything controversial. So, while he said he was aware of the rioting in Delhi taking place during his visit, he refused to be dragged into any discussion regarding the Citizenship Amendment Act, saying, “I leave it to India. They will make the right decision.”

Trump, however, when asked whether India was becoming a religious intolerant nation, cited figures that his friend Modi had provided him with; saying that the Muslim population in India is 200 million now and that it was 40 million only a short while ago.

The US is emerging as a large supplier of crude and LNG for India, with India's growing needs and the US being the largest energy producer in the world. This energy partnership is a new and important aspect of the bilateral relationship, especially since it balances trade towards the US. Trump hinted that there might be sanctions against Venezeula soon. Given that the south American country is a supplier of crude to India, the US move might choke up supply and make the energy partnership with the US even more important.

India will also have to figure out how to deal with the pact that the US and Taliban have come up with. Shringla said that, during the talks, India had taken note of the deal. He noted that peace and stability in Afghanistan are important to both the US and India and that since there was a shared interest, India has been watching developments very carefully.