New Delhi: As US President Donald Trump awaits a warm welcome to India, foreign policy experts in both the United States and India hope that the historic visit will help India, with the US by its side, to counter the challenges posed by the Russia-China-Pakistan (RCP) axis to a great extent. There is a feeling among Indian policymakers that the RCP axis has become a matter of concern not only for India but for the entire Indo-Pacific region and that there is a stronger need to counter-balance China’s spreading influence across Asia, especially in Pakistan, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
President Trump, accompanied by First Lady Melania Trump, will be in India on 24-25 February on a State visit. During the visit, President Trump will attend official engagements in New Delhi and Ahmedabad and interact with a wide cross-section of Indian society. Trump is expected to get a roaring welcome from lakhs of people when he arrives in Ahmedabad. He, accompanied by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is expected to deliver a historic speech in front of a large gathering at the “Kem Chho, Trump?” event, which will be held at the newly built Motera stadium, the largest cricket stadium in the world.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), however, is yet to share the specific details of his engagements in India. This would be the US President’s first bilateral visit in the third decade of 21st century and also the first after his acquittal by the Senate in the impeachment trial.
According to Kanwal Sibal, a career diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary, President Trump’s impending visit is significant for many reasons. “Partnership with the US serves many of India’s interests—geopolitical, economic, defence, security and technological. The China factor is important. Even as we maintain a high level dialogue with China, we have to recognise the threat that China presents to our security on land and sea, in our neighbourhood and in its efforts to work against us or limit our role in international institutions. We cannot counter China alone. To checkmate it we have to develop understandings with the US and countries in its orbit through flexible diplomacy,” he said, while speaking to The Sunday Guardian.
He said India needs to extract maximum advantage from the growing US-China geopolitical, economic and technological competition. Sibal said: “We need not look for full convergence with the US on Pakistan and Afghanistan, as the US will take decisions in light of its national priorities. Engaging Trump is important for conveying our concerns and deflect him from any initiative that makes things worse for us.”
According to Aparna Pande, Director, Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute (US), President Trump’s visit to India symbolises how far the two countries have come in their relationship. “Prime Minister Modi has the honour of welcoming two US Presidents, one Democrat (Obama) and one Republican (Trump) to India. The two countries have a strong strategic partnership, economic and defence, bolstered by people to people ties based on shared values of democracy, pluralism and tolerance,” she told The Sunday Guardian.
Sibal said the fact that PM Modi got President Barack Obama to India during his first term and now is getting President Trump, shows his diplomatic skills and his ability to establish a personal chemistry with foreign leaders. The Trump visit, he said, is built on political returns for both leaders, apart from international political signalling with geo-political connotations.
Sources said the deliverables for the visit will focus on defence and trade. India has already announced $3.5 billion deal in new defence purchases, which will be signed during the visit. There is also speculation that a deal normalising the trade relationship will also be announced. The trade deal was expected last September when PM Modi visited New York and met President Trump, but those differences could not be worked out in time.
Pande, however, said the visit would be high on symbols, visuals and optics, but low on substantive deliveries. “A genuine trade deal is difficult for two populist and nationalist leaders, each of whom had promised Make in America/Make in India as their goal. So what we will have are a combination of defence deals and minor adjustments from each side on the commercial side,” she said.
Sibal also said: “The US is a difficult partner and it is not surprising that we have not been able to resolve our differences on trade issues that currently trouble the relationship. Any significant breakthrough on this front is unlikely during President Trump’s visit, despite his bullying tactics on trade issues. We are building a stronger energy relationship with the US, which is good as it helps to diversify the sources of our energy imports. There are issues ahead, especially relating to data protection, but these will not weigh on the Trump visit. It seems that the US side is reconciled to lack of any major progress in the economic field during President Trump’s visit.”