A high-optics, low outcome Trump trip to India

It’s unclear what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said to US President Donald Trump when the former called the White House on 11 February. Reportedly what sealed the presidential trip to India was Modi’s promise that some 5–7 million people would be lining the route from Ahmedabad airport to the new stadium in Motera to greet him.

Painting US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a wall along the route that Trump and Modi will take during Trump's upcoming visit, Ahmedabad, India, 17 February 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave).

Ahmedabad is the largest city of Gujarat, the state where Modi ruled as chief minister for over a decade. For a showman like Trump, the prospect of dawn-to-dusk US television coverage rich in colourful imagery featuring millions of Indians attesting his international popularity and exotic locales like the Taj Mahal must have been too intoxicating to turn down, especially in a year in which he is seeking re-election.

Optics is clearly the driver of this visit.

Yet in getting Trump to visit India, Modi may have exaggerated the crowds that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be able to muster. What may transpire is a repeat of Trump crowing that his 2017 presidential inauguration attracted ‘the largest crowd ever’, despite cameras showing otherwise. The President may claim ’millions’ welcomed him in India, when evidence might only reveal a few thousand waving flags held by school children and public employees instructed to line the roads negotiated by the Trump motorcade.

Before Modi’s phone call, Trump had publicly made the India trip conditional on a ‘real trade deal’. But Trump relented despite the lack of any substantial trade agreement.

The Modi government stuck to its stand that exports of US dairy goods to India require the US government to certify that these products were not sourced from animals fed with feeds produced from ‘internal organs, blood meal or tissues of ruminants’. This rules out most US dairy items. This deliberate complication of the certification process is another way of ‘protecting’ the 80 million Indian rural households involved in the dairy industry whose interests no government in Delhi can ignore.

Still, India is expected to agree to a face-saving deal in return for its retaining beneficiary status in the US Generalized System of Preferences. India may reduce tariffs on certain niche agricultural products such as cherries and blueberries and on other items like Harley Davidson motorcycles that Trump is so hung up on. But only a small dent will likely be made in the US trade deficit with India (running at US$16.9 billion in 2018–2019) as a result of the Trump trip.

The US failure to pressure India on dairy exports shows the limits of US coercive policies on trade. But it also mirrors the closing down of the US H1B visa channel that Modi pleaded with Trump to keep open. It may convince Trump to further twist Modi’s arm to buy vintage military hardware that the Indian armed forces are unwilling to acquire, such as the venerable F-16 fighter aircraft in service with the Pakistan Air Force for the past 40 years but refurbished with new avionics and numeral designation (F-21).

Washington’s case is that manufacturing the 1970s vintage combat plane in India under license would be open sesame to more advanced military technology deals in the future. But it has failed to convince India because modern combat aircraft and other military technologies are readily available from Russia, France and Sweden. A consolation contract is in the works for the sale of 24 SH-60 Seahawk helicopters worth nearly US$2 billion from the United States to India.

The F-16 symbolises US reluctance to transfer high-value technology. Its reluctance was also highlighted by the 2012 Defence Technology and Trade Initiative that was meant to facilitate collaboration in cutting-edge military technology development but has not resulted in a single project to date.

For Modi to throw Trump a bone and consent to F-16 production as a flagship venture in his stillborn ‘Make in India’ program would risk ridicule and weaken his political standing. It would further fuel an opposition drive against his government that is already buoyed by the BJP’s successive electoral defeats in Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Delhi. It may prompt Modi to move slowly on Trump’s request to remove the case-by-case approval for US forces to use Indian military facilities under the 2018 Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). Another reason is that Modi is simultaneously cultivating relations with China.

In lieu of invigorating LEMOA, Modi may agree to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) to share geospatial information via digitised maps for accurate terminal guidance of projectiles. BECA will complete the set of three ‘foundational accords’ that the United States has been hankering for, the other two being LEMOA and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement.

Modi and Trump are alike in that they are both narcissistic, autocratic and hate to lose. Trump’s India trip may put both of them to the test. Neither will want to be seen as backing down or accepting accords contrary to India First and America First rhetoric for fear of domestic backlash. Personal bonhomie between Modi and Trump is real but it cannot plaster over the deep India–US differences in trade and technology or in geostrategic interests and calculations.

[Published in East Asia Forum, February 22, 2020, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/02/22/a-high-optics-low-outcome-trump-trip-to-india/ ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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22 Responses to A high-optics, low outcome Trump trip to India

  1. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir, according to some reports Indian Navy is again pushing for third aircraft carrier, despite CDS Bipin Rawat not going for it. I don’t know how much it is true. But if it is, then it definitely raises questions about powers given to CDS. Don’t you think CDS is somewhat like a toothless tiger???

    Also the money invested in third carrier, can be used to acquiring indigenously developed conventional and nuclear subs and other assets like warships and destroyers to block choke points in Indian Ocean region..

    Further the navy is saying that shore based fighters don’t have strategic reach so they need third carrier. But if they go for long range bombers like Tu 160, I think they can have strategic reach even from shores….

    What do you say sir????

    • True, CDS, Rawat, is only as strong as the PM(O) wants him to be. Because, in institutional terms, he has a limited ambit as I pointed out in an earlier CDS-related post. Re: landbased air Vs carriers. This is not the prioritization exchange but what is whether sea denial which can, as I have long argued in my books and writings, can trump sea control.

  2. Bharat kumar says:

    Why didn’t NSA doval acquire GPS codes for Balakot strikes . Could we not have used ISRO for such codes??
    Do we have any satellites providing such codes that can used for cross border strikes?

    • IAF had the target coordinates Why the strike sortie missed doing any real damage — as I reacted in my post — is because, well, the target was missed. May be we had no satellite coverage at the mission time.

  3. dxrickss says:

    What are some signs that Modi is cultivating relations with China? Were there some secret visits by top officers or things media failed to report?

  4. Bharat kumar says:

    Thank you for the answer..
    Could we have conducted the strikes without US providing coordinates and relied on coordinates provided by ISRO?

  5. Bharat kumar says:

    With MH-60 Sikorsky and NASMAS being signed tomorrow. is this done to avoid sanctions for buying S400 triumph? Would President Putin add more conditions other than T-14 armata , P-75i submarine for leasing the Akula-2 nuclear submarine?

  6. V.Ganesh says:

    Sir, apart from the MH-60 Romeo and AH-64E Apache Longbow, when did India agree to buy the SH-60 Sea Hawk? When you describe the F-16 as venerable what’s the harm in buying the F-21 using which we can beat the PAF F-16s at their own game?

  7. V.Ganesh says:

    Sir, why doesn’t India ask for offensive weapons from America? If India had to ask, what would be the offensive weapons it’s ask from America?

  8. V.Ganesh says:

    Sir, what do you think about the Su-57 Felon DIRCM with regard to https://theaviationgeekclub.com/did-you-know-the-su-57-felon-is-the-only-fighter-jet-equipped-with-dircm/? Will Russia sell it to India? Will India be interested after exiting PAK/FA? Will it help the IAF?

  9. V.Ganesh says:

    Sir, when Gen. Rawat was the COAS we were interested in the Armata. Now that he’s the CDS, will the IA buy it? What do you think about the Abrams for the IA?

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