Trump’s India visit heavy on optics, light on deliverables, experts say

President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the Lima Army Tank Plant in Lima, Ohio, March 20, 2019. (The New York Times)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Donald Trump’s first visit to India as President of the United States, will be heavy on the optics but light on tangible deliverables, according to leading strategic experts and policy analysts.

However, in interviews with India Abroad, these policy wonks acknowledged that it’s a public relations coup for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian government, particularly at a time when there is deep concern in both administration and Congressional circles, especially among Democrats, over the simmering Kashmir situation and the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizenship (NRC), which they predicted is unlikely to be brought up, and if at all would be done scrupulously in private.

On Feb. 10, the White House announced that President Trump would travel to New Delhi and Ahmedabad, on Feb. 24-25, accompanied by First Lady Melania Trump.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said that “The President and The First Lady will travel to New Delhi and Ahmedabad, which is in Prime Minister Modi’s home state of Gujarat and played such an important role in Mahatma Gandhi’s life and leadership of the Indian independence movement.

“During a phone call over the weekend, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi agreed the trip will further strengthen the United States-India strategic partnership and highlight the strong and enduring bonds between the American and Indian people,” Grisham said.

Ashley Tellis, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) and the prestigious think tank’s Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs said, “I believe the visit will be a great success where the optics are concerned — Prime Minister Modi will throw Trump a rousing spectacle he will not forget and it will certainly help to strengthen Trump’s perception of India as a friend of the United States at a time when the executive branch seems to be the best friend India has in the U.S. government.

“I hope that the government of India can close on some of the outstanding defense deals to give Trump some of the wins he seeks because there are so many other obstacles to overcome with no solutions in sight,” he said.

Tellis, considered one of the foremost strategic experts in the country, especially on South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific, pointed out, “Progress on resolving the trade disputes has been dreadfully slow, despite its being the one thing that Trump really cares about.

“And there are other problems, which if unresolved will make sustaining the partnership harder,” he added, and argued, “Feting Trump will buy India time, but it’s not a permanent solution no matter how good the trip turns out to be.”

Retired diplomat Teresita Schaffer, whose diplomatic career has spanned over three decades in and on South Asia, said, “The centerpiece of this visit is ‘Modi's answer to Howdy, Modi’ (held last September in Houston) — the event in Gujarat (slated to be during Trump’s visit to Ahmedabad, which is expected to be even bigger and more enthusiastic that the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ extravaganza).”

She said that it would have “all the symbolism both leaders are looking for — lots of razzle dazzle showmanship, which both are really good at, and a good and very theatrical relationship.”

Schaffer, now a senior advisor at McLarty Associates, said, “I expect a trade deal, but a relatively small one. China will probably be in the background. I don't think Kashmir or CAA will occupy a very large part of the agenda.”

She argued that “the danger from these issues is that they could become the first U.S. partisan divide over India policy. Today's U.S.-India relationship was built by both major political parties in both countries.”

Schaffer, who now writes the popular ‘South Asia Hand’ blog, said, “ Many Americans are uncomfortable with the CAA and India's Kashmir policy, but those who are saying so out loud are mostly Democrats. That dimension will require some careful and quiet work on India's part.”  

Sadanand Dhume, Resident Fellow at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and a columnist on South Asia for the Wall Street Journal, said, “The Trump visit is a major diplomatic coup for Narendra Modi and the Indian government.

He said, “At a time when India has faced withering international criticism for abrogating autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir and passing a controversial citizenship law, a visit by the leader of the free world is a vote of confidence.”

Dhume said, “It’s pretty clear that for Trump, human rights is a very low priority. If he doesn’t bring it up with Saudi Arabia, I see no reason why he will bring it up with India.”

Meanwhile, he too agreed that “I do not expect any major breakthrough on trade, but I would not be surprised if both sides try to dress up the removal of minor irritants as some kind of major trade deal.”

Deepa Ollapally, associate director and Research Professor of International Affairs at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University, said, "There is really not much to cheer about on this trip. Donald Trump will get some favorable foreign press after his bruising impeachment and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government will get an international shot in the arm in the face of the Indian economy slowing down and the domestic political turmoil after the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act.”

She said, “It's clear that much of the two countries' hopes for a boost in relations rest in defense sales, especially naval. This is of course important for India as it bolsters its capability in the Indo-Pacific, keeping China in mind.”

But Ollapally said, “The U.S. and India simply don't see eye to eye on some other important issues that President Trump has put his own personal stamp on. He's ended waivers on Iran sanctions in a blanket manner, so India's exemption has been taken away. He initiated a dramatic Afghan peace process with the Taliban, giving rise to grave misgivings on the Indian side since it effectively shut out Delhi's partner, the Afghan government.

“As for trade,” she said, “Trump calls India ‘tariff king of the world,’ and both countries have slapped tit for tat tariffs on each other. And most recently at Davos, Trump repeated his offer to help resolve the Kashmir conflict — knowing this was anathema to India — at a press interaction ahead of a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.”

Ollapally noted, “These are all core issues for India but there's little reason to expect any change from Donald Trump, trip or no trip."

Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and an erstwhile senior Congressional staffer in the U.S. Senate, agreed that “the president's visit to India is a good sign, and representative of the continued close ties between the United States and India across very different administrations.

“The fact that Trump is leaving the campaign trail to visit India during an election year points to the importance of the relationship,” he said.

But Fontaine said, “I don't know what precisely to expect in the way of deliverables. I can say that I certainly hope there will be a trade deal, both because it would be good to have one and because if there is not such a deal, it's likely that trade frictions will constitute a dominant theme of the trip. We've seen trade frustrations overshadow other visits.”

Milan Vaishnav, director and Senior Fellow, South Asia Program at the CEIP, said, “The Trump visit to India represents a significant public relations win for Prime Minister Modi.”

He said, “At a time when the BJP's controversial domestic policies have prompted street protests at home and diplomatic concern abroad, Trump standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Modi will implicitly provide America's seal of approval on the latter's policies.”

Aparna Pande, director on the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, said she too believes “the visit will be high on symbols, visuals and optics but low on substantive deliveries.

“So, 'Kem cho Trump' will be akin to 'Howdy Modi' where both the populist and nationalist leaders will be able to provide the other with the fervor they like,” she said, and pointed out, “President Trump likes rallies, large gatherings and the one in Ahmedabad will have a large audience that will praise him.”

Meanwhile, “Prime Minister Modi will be able to demonstrate to his domestic audience that he has been able to bring two U.S.presidents to India and that irrespective of any domestic pushback — the loss of Delhi elections and the weak economy — his foreign policy is strong,” Pande said.  

Rick Rossow, Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), acknowledged that “both sides seem committed to securing an agreement to remove trade irritants if possible.

“The seriousness of the talks have been sufficient to create a ‘pause’ in our trade fight — even as India looks to dramatically hike another set of customs duty rates in its recently-announced Union Budget,” he said.

Rossow, who spent several years at the U.S.-India Business Council in an earlier incarnation, and is a much sought after policy wonk on all things involving India’s economy and U.S.-India trade, however agreed, “When heads-of-state want an agreement done, and there is flexibility on the ultimate commitments, we stand a good chance of hearing some type of announcement,” during Trump’s visit, but added, “But with anti-import steps ongoing in both nations, this presents a pause to the fight, not a lasting solution.”

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