Confronting China through India

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Mahrukh A Mughal
THIS is a time of geopolitical disorder. The post-
1945 architecture of global politics stands chal
lenged: America’s partial retrenchment from international commitments, evident in the withdrawal from hard-fought climate change agreements to undoing multilateral trade deals; China’s trillion-dollar gamble through the Belt and Road initiative (BRI); the “come back” of Russia; Brexit; and disunity in Europe in dealing with new technologies such as 5G. This requires the world’s two largest and messiest democracies to return a degree of enthusiasm to wider concerns and challenges. Trump’s visit to India comes in the backdrop of these “disturbing” developments and uncertain situation. The visit comes at an opportune time for Modi, who has been under the spotlight in recent months following controversial decisions by his government. While addressing a rally in his honor with Modi, Trump did not talk about the ongoing protests in India about the controversial Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) or about the plight of Jammu and Kashmir, whose population is still facing human-rights abuses. In December, India passed a contentious new citizenship law granting amnesty to non-Muslim immigrants from certain countries.
This prompted massive protests across the country, with critics accusing the government of marginalising India’s more than 200 million Muslims – a charge the government denies. But protests are still continuing, and clashes are being reported in parts of Delhi on Monday, hours ahead of Trump’s visit. Groups protesting against the citizenship law, and those in favour of it are believed to have pelted stones at each other. Modi’s government is also still struggling to restore normalcy in Indian-administered Kashmir. In August, the region was put under a communication blockade after its partial autonomy was revoked, sparking protests in the Muslim-majority valley. Mobile phone connections and the internet have only been partially restored, and state leaders and hundreds of others are still under house arrest. The two decisions have sharply polarised India, and have been questioned by leaders abroad. Mr Trump’s two-day visit is designed to partially tickle his vanity, but, as importantly, it is to boost his chances of returning to office in the 2020 US general election.
While officials fixate on more granular details around defence pacts and associated contracts, this unique relationship ought to be more than appealing to Mr Trump’s love for pomp and ostentation. This is an unmistakable public diplomacy response to the “Howdy, Modi!” extravaganza in Houston last year, where Modi and Trump addressed an audience of 50,000 Indians living in the US. But these visits are not just about theatrics and atmospherics. They are also about forcing a change in American leaders’ general approach to India. And there is at least one reason to appeal to his ego: stronger, strategic ties. It’s unlikely that a much debated but slim trade agreement between the US and India will be inked during this visit. Disagreements over the price of apples, walnuts and medical devices; the US’s demands for greater access to India’s dairy, poultry and e-commerce market; and ongoing discussions over lowering Indian tariffs on American-made Harley Davidson motorcycles, remain unresolved. Trade between the US and India grew from $66bn in 2008 to $160bn in 2019-2020.
In part, trade grew as a result of strengthening strategic ties at a time when India’s GDP was growing at more than 7-8% every year. But the sharp drop in India’s growth figures (an estimated 5% in 2019-2020), the introduction of increasingly protectionist economic policies, coupled with Trump’s fixation on balancing a trade deficit that currently favours India, has exhausted the scope of the relationship between the two countries. In these circumstances, it will be incumbent on Modi’s government to woo Trump in a manner that will side-step the US President’s fixation with trade deals, focusing his attention on the strategic potential in the US-India relationship. India is, after all, the largest open data market in the universe. Per capita, more data is consumed in India than anywhere else in the world. For American “big tech” firms, India provides a scale for their products unavailable in any other country. Despite current economic woes, this will continue to be the largest growing and relatively open consumer market for American products and business.
There is scope and a need for a serious discussion on establishing and strengthening international alliances to prevent and deal with the outbreak of pandemics, especially on the back of the Coronavirus outbreak. Disputes about the use of emerging technologies and the challenges to the cross-border flow of data will require much thinking about the creation of new international structures (such as a partnership of like-minded countries) or the renewal of older ones (through the G20 for instance) to address these new-age concerns. The US-India bilateral trade stands at $160bn. But hopes of an agreement have been fading for weeks as the US expressed concerns over issues like rising tariffs, price controls and India’s positions in e-commerce. Immigration of skilled workers and the visa regime are other areas of concern. India wants restoration of trade concessions under a tariff system called the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), which provides additional benefits for products from least developed countries.
Trump terminated the GSP benefits for India in 2019. Even a limited deal would be an important signal to industry in both countries that US and India are serious about growing trade, and they can resolve issues. China-US crisis would adversely impact the Indian economy, but too much closeness between the two giants could leave India out of the equation. The American side, in turn, questions whether the Indian quest for strategic autonomy would be a hindrance to a truly strategic partnership with the US. Questions also swirl around whether India can rise as a counterweight to China in Asia or would it be sucked deeper into domestic and sub-regional politics. With hostilities rising between the US and China, Trump may well find a friend in Modi’s India, which has been seen as willing to criticise the Chinese.
— The author, a freelance columnist, is based in Karachi.