is a senior journalist and geopolitical analyst based in India, author of ‘How United States Shot Humanity.’ He runs the NewsBred website. Follow him on Twitter @ashish40411
US President Donald Trump trusts India’s Narendra Modi to handle all manner of contentious issues at home, and hails the PM as his “true friend.” But Trump won’t be pleased until Modi gives him the trade concessions he wants.
Trump and First Lady Melania left India for the US on Tuesday, after a jam-packed itinerary of photo opportunities, meetings with government leaders and business titans, and of course, a thunderous campaign-style rally in front of more than 100,000 adoring spectators.
But with the lights turned off and the cleanup underway, Trump is now looking for India to do its bit to satiate the obsession he is known-for around the world – trade.
President George W Bush was fixated on winning the “war on terror,” Barack Obama on defeating “climate change,” but it’s trade that keeps Trump up at night. The president won’t, for example, be drawn into Hong Kong’s ‘pro-democracy’ protests as long as he can muscle out trade concessions from China. India shouldn’t expect anything different.
Trump didn’t make any definitive statements on trade during his visit, though. The state trip was all about spectacle, and a reception unlike “anyone had received anywhere in the world at any time of history,” as Trump mentioned more than once in his interaction with the press on Tuesday evening.
The press corps looked for that one quote which could cast Modi in a poor light. But it never came. Kashmir was an issue “which has been on for a long time,” according to Trump. India’s contentious new Citizenship Act, the reporters were informed, wasn’t even discussed between the two leaders who had met privately in the afternoon. Trump viewed the ongoing violence in New Delhi as a matter India could handle.
Of course, religious reforms figured in the talk between them, but Trump was assured that Modi’s nationalistic government meant no harm to any religious group. When a specific question on Muslim rights was raised, Trump mentioned Modi and his “powerful statement” that the Muslim population in India has grown from 140 million to 200mn in a very short period of time.
Time to repay the favor
Trump stood by Modi as the press grilled him on these contentious issues. But for a president who often sees international relations as a transactional game of give and take, the time will surely come when Modi must repay the favor.
Trump left for India last week declaring that the country had treated the US “very unfairly” on matters of trade. Though he hinted that a deal might be signed during the visit, he left with no specific agreement, saying that his team was “in the early stages of discussion for an incredible trade agreement.”
The US president noted India had managed to bring down its trade surplus with the US from $23 billion to $14 billion in a short period of time, but he expects more.
India’s trade advantage vis-a-vis US is miniscule, at least 20 times less than what China enjoys against the US at $345 billion. Yet it’s an irritant in Trump’s eyes. In 2018, he imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum. In April of last year, India lost its spot in the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) programme of the United States. This affected India’s exports to the tune of $5.6 billion.
India responded with tariffs of its own on 28 imported items from the United States. Its high tariff on Harley-Davidson motorcycles and retaliatory moves on farm and dairy products also didn’t go down well with Trump. India also seeks to improve its bargaining position in the service industry, and to secure more employment visas for its young and talented. For sure, this is not an exhaustive list of contentious trade issues, just a sample.
While Trump and Modi celebrated their bonhomie during the president’s 36 hours in India, the real work still continues behind the scenes. Trump will likely expect nothing less than a complete removal of tariffs and a closing of the trade gap. He said as much during a press conference on Tuesday, declaring that Washington and New Delhi’s trade relationship “has to be reciprocal.”
“The money you’re talking about is major,” he added. “The United States has to be treated fairly, and India understands that.”
To be fair, Trump has been unambiguous about what he expects from the world on trade matters. His inaugural address as President in 2017 was littered with mentions of America’s “foolish” trade policies, which he said “ripped” wealth away from America’s middle class, to be “redistributed all across the world.”
After delivering Modi a publicity coup de grace, and standing by the Indian PM’s handling of controversial domestic issues, Trump now surely expects some of that wealth to be redistributed back to America. The next question is, how much is Modi willing to give Trump?