The two-step Trump dance

It seems India-US ties will primarily be a two-track exercise: with one track chugging along smoothly and the other full of bumps and speed breakers


US president-elect Donald Trump. Photo: AP
US president-elect Donald Trump. Photo: AP

India has witnessed 16 years of progressively intensifying partnership with the US under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies. With Donald Trump moving into the White House soon, predictions about future India-US ties swing between hope and trepidation. Indeed, both sides may have to reset many existing markers in ongoing negotiations.

Everybody is trying to figure out Donald Trump the president versus Donald Trump the candidate. On the campaign trail he confused observers with his wildly oscillating undertakings. The scope for speculation is greater in his ramblings about India; he waxed effusive about India’s business opportunities but issued grim warnings about Indian software engineers in the next breath.

The question uppermost then is: Where does India figure in his plans? For one, Trump’s campaign arc has seen many flip-flops and this may well continue till he finds his feet in the Oval Office in January 2017; the post-victory phase has seen policy reversals, such as second thoughts on completely discarding Obamacare and scrapping the nuclear deal with Iran.

The clue to Trump’s India policy may lie in the document ‘Republican Platform 2016’: “India is our geopolitical ally and a strategic trading partner… We encourage the Indian government to permit expanded foreign investment and trade, the key to rising living standards for those left out of their country’s energetic economy. For all of India’s religious communities, we urge protection against violence and discrimination.”

Parsing the paragraph, it seems the India-US relationship will primarily be a two-track exercise, with one track chugging along smoothly and the other full of bumps and speed breakers. For instance, as the first sentence suggests, security and strategic ties will remain cordial. The second sentence points to the craters: unfulfilled trade and investment demands. In short, it’s business as usual.

The first reset button, though, will have to be pressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He assiduously built a close working relationship with Obama: They had three bilateral meetings and numerous one-on-one engagements in the past 30 months. Modi will now have to figure out the unknown quantity called Trump and see if they can share a working relationship.

So, while there are no safe bets, hopefully the institutional architecture of the current bilateral framework—especially ministerial negotiations under the Strategic and Commercial Dialogue (S&CD)—will hold under the new leadership.

For instance, the civil nuclear partnership and defence acquisitions will be pursued as aggressively by the incoming administration as the outgoing one. Security, strategic affairs, defence cooperation are likely to be smooth sailing because both countries have some convergence of interest here.

To be sure, there’s still uncertainty about Trump’s outlook towards Pakistan, Russia and China and their knock-on effects on India, but it is clear that the India-US geo-strategic alliance will persevere in some form.

The problem area, as in the past, will be trade and investment. Both sides have painted themselves into intractable corners with numerous trade barriers. While Trump’s trade-related campaign tirade was largely restricted to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and US-China trade relations, the new administration might train the arc lights on India’s $30 billion trade surplus with the US. India-US trade in goods and services touched $108 billion during the 2015 calendar year.

Interestingly, during Modi’s first state visit to the US, the joint statement set a $500 billion trade target without mentioning any end date. And while under the S&CD and its predecessor, the India-US Trade Policy Forum has held 10 ministerials so far, progress has been at a glacial pace.

Large parts of each year’s communiqué read like the one from the previous year. There are many pain points developing. For instance, in agriculture market access, India wants to export grapes, rice and honey while the US wants market access for cherries, alfalfa hay and pork.

The US has issues with subsidies in the Indian textile sector. India and the US have dithered over signing a bilateral investment deal, the main trip-wire being the contentious investor-state dispute settlement mechanism.

The other sensitive area is intellectual property rights; both sides have been gingerly circling each other with communiqué politesse masking the underlying stress. There are serious differences of opinion in services trade.

There is one redeeming feature though. Under the Obama regime, India was left out of the three large trade arrangements being shepherded by the US: the TPP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trade in Services Agreement (Tisa). While Trump has publicly expressed his distaste for TPP (with TTIP presumably falling in the same category), Tisa remains the odd one out.

This is one area where India will have to be vigilant, given India’s strategic advantage in services. India should also use this opportunity and leverage its relationship with the US to prise open the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation for a membership. This is a grouping that works well for India, given its flexibility, advantages and non-binding commitments.

It is unlikely that the Trump administration will roll over on trade any time soon; neither should India, because strategic autonomy will continue to be an asset. While the love-hate relationship can continue, both sides must endeavour to find some middle ground in the meantime.

The author is a consultant and the former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal

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