Media speculation and hype over Modi-Trump meeting
by G B Reddy on 22 Jun 2017 2 Comments
Media speculation and hype over Modi’s forthcoming visit to the USA and his meeting with Donald Trump will be real with experts on both side of the spectrum forecasting on possible outcomes – positive and negative. If Modi’s critics hype idealistic expectations of breakthroughs on key issues in bilateral relations, Modi’s ardent admirers would naturally attempt to trumpet their views of its success.


Let me recount the key issues from the Indian point of view: “Radical Islam” terrorism with particular reference to Pakistan as the epi-center and declaration of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a UN-designated terrorist; non-immigration visas; US-China strategic partnership and its fallout in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region balance of power; UN Security Council and NSG membership; trade, investments and technology transfers; and so on.


From the US point of view the key issue would certainly be India’s strategic partnerships, particularly with Russia, a hangover of Cold War era politics, and Iran, besides mutually beneficial trade relations contributing to Donald Trump’s vision of “America First; Make America Great Again” which is divergent from Modi’s vision of “Make in India”.


The irrefutable fact is the bipartisan support in the US Congress for strengthening relations with India. India is also not associated with any controversy over Trump’s election, what with one part of Indian community lending active support to his election.


Nonetheless, it is quite easy to forecast that there would be no significant breakthroughs on India’s key issues, particularly with regard to the UN Security Council or NSG membership or on dealing with Pakistan’s role as epi-center of global terrorism and Masood Azhar as UN designated terrorist or US-China strategic partnership engagement and its fallout in the Asia-Pacific region.


At the most, there would be few takeaways from the meet to include: establishing rapport or working relationship with each other; partial relief on non-immigrant visa issues; defense partnership including technology transfer; and investment deals.


Since Trump is known for ‘instinctive’ decision making as opposed to calculated strategic decision making, breakthroughs on few takeaways mentioned above are possible only on give and take basis between the two leaders. Otherwise, to hype hopes on significant breakthroughs on key strategic issues is patently absurd.


All international experts alike agree on one issue. That is, a great degree of uncertainty prevails not just within the USA in the aftermath of Trump’s election, but also among other international variables, making forecasting very difficult. The contours of shift or transformation from the post-Cold War era of unipolarity with the US as the sole superpower to multi-polarity have been in the making following the rise of China and resurgence of Russia. Of course, making sense out of uncertainty in today’s hawkish world is vexatious.


Trump articulated the grand strategic threat concerns of the US in his first address to the Congress. His three key concerns include: the existential and “civilisational” threat of “Radical Islam” to the US that must be “eradicated” from the face of the Earth; unfair trade deals and the trade practices of key competitors; and illegal immigration. He argued that the pace and scale of migration has cost American jobs, lowered wages, and put unsustainable strains on housing, schools, tax bills, and general living conditions.


Most important is the strategic issue of countering “Radical Islam” (of late being modified as “Radical Islamists” so as not to offend the religion), particularly actions against the “hub or epicentre” of global terrorism, that is, Pakistan.


It may not be out of context to draw Trump’s attention to the “deep seated hatred” against America at ground level in Pakistan and its strategic alliance with China, particularly its likely fallout will be detrimental to US influence in West Asia in mid- and long-term contexts, besides the Indian Ocean region.


Surely, the USA is in a position to strike at the UN-designated global terrorists operating with impunity from the soil of Pakistan, as it did against Osama bin Laden or other key leaders operating astride the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. There is no alternative but to root out radical Islamist organizations promoting “jihad” the world over through their wide network of madrassas financially supported by Saudi Arabia in the name of “Islam”.


In particular, the US must be urged to pursue its strategy of decapitation not only against “Haqqani leaders” operating along the Pak-Afghan border, but also the leadership of Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahedeen, that operate from safe havens in the interior of Pakistan, if it is earnest about decimating “Radical Islamists” from the globe. However, the Pakistani regime cannot accept any US action in its interior to decimate the ‘snakes’ it is harboring without attracting an ISIS backlash.  


Next, even the US is not in a position to deter China from pursuing its interests either in North Korea, South China Sea, Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan, and Pakistan or in other regions of the world. At the same time, important disagreements remain over divergent relations not only with Pakistan, but also with Russia and Iran.


Modi’s engagement with Trump would provide an opportunity to appreciate and discuss each other’s strategic concerns and interests and identify common areas of convergence to carry forward the strategic partnership on an enduring basis, in various fields. In particular, the  need for continuing strategic dialogue on regular and frank basis on a wide variety of geo-political and strategic issues in the Pak-Af, CAR and Asia-Pacific regions, and cooperate in maritime affairs, homeland security, and intelligence sharing.


Viewed in the above framework of Indo-US strategic partnership dialogue, if the US understands India’s need for alternative strategies to protect its national security interests, particularly diversifying its partnerships with Japan, Australia, Germany, China, Israel, the U.K., France, Canada and Russia, besides other smaller powers that play a vital role in India’s development, such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, it would be an important achievement.


Finally, resolution of “Non-Immigration Visa” is the most important issue. Trump has clarified his position on H-1B Visas. His directive, a push to “buy American, hire American,” does not change the immediate day-to-day working of the H-1B system, which many companies in Silicon Valley support. Instead, at least for the moment, it only opens a formal review of the program. As per latest media reports, the H-1B visa is “unlikely to be a thorny issue and the talks could yield a “win-win formula” for both sides. If so, it may pave the way for strengthening Indo-US relations and favour Modi’s image domestically.


Be that as it may be, there are opportunities or possibilities to promote trade between the two nations for mutual advantage. After all, the US remains an important trade and investment partner with India, and an attractive market. Of course, India enjoys trade surplus. And, the prosperous Indian-American diaspora is a major source of investment, experience, and know-how.


Most important, the US has conferred the first “Major Defense Partner” status in December 2016, giving India access to “a wide range of dual-use technologies” at “a level commensurate with that of [the US’] closest allies and partners”.


Following through, there would be reaffirmation over “Defense Technology and Trade Initiative” partnerships, particularly over the production of F-16s, and the Guardian, a non-lethal variant of the MQ-9 Reaper drone, among others. There is also a possibility of enhancing “Space Technology” partnership initiatives. There are also a wide range of opportunities available for the US to participate in the modernisation of India’s armed forces for mutual benefit. 


At the cost of reiteration, none should expect breakthroughs over the UN Security Council and NSG membership issues. The reason is simple: Trump cannot convince Xi Jinping to change his stance. If India which is a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty is given admission, others like North Korea and Pakistan would demand membership.


On predictable lines, the joint statement issued after the meeting would refer to “Shared Values based on grand old democracy and the largest democracies”. After all, both are market-oriented liberal democracies and do not have competing zones of influence. One can also expect possible breakthroughs on H-1B visas and defense, space and trade partnership deals.


In sum, Modi critics need not dub the meeting as a foreign policy failure. Similarly, Modi admirers need not blow trumpets over its achievements. Since Trump’s decisions are ‘instinctive’ and not strategic, Trump’s jingoistic rhetoric during the issue of joint statement to the media needs to be viewed pragmatically. When it suits America’s interests or Trump’s instincts subsequently, Trump is known to retract on his commitments.  

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