As government prepares a grand reception for US President Donald Trump, the big question still remains whether the two countries can work out a trade deal. On the eve of his visit Trump complained – at risk of sounding risible at least to Indian ears – that the US is “not treated very well by India”, but nonetheless he likes Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is not dissimilar to Trump’s take on China – that China stiffs the US on trade, but nevertheless he shares a personal bond with President Xi Jinping.
Trump’s propensity to bracket India with China is, of course, unfair. India and the US have multiple points of strategic complementarity, whereas China is challenging the US in the Indo-Pacific region and across the world. Moreover China’s economy is five times bigger than India, ferociously competitive, and willing to use any means to gain leverage. India, by contrast, is committed to a rules based international order and its per capita income is a mere $2,000 (perhaps veiling Gujarat’s slums from Trump’s eyes isn’t a great idea). The irony is that China became rich on the back of the market access it enjoyed to the US and other Western nations, while Trump seems intent on denying that to India.
While all this is likely a hard bargaining tactic on Trump’s part it nevertheless underlines how far apart the two countries are on trade – when ideally Washington should cut India some slack given alignment of interests and values, while New Delhi too should be more receptive to American concerns. But even if India and the US aren’t on the same page on trade, efforts must be made to boost the security relationship. In recent years, India has been consistently buying substantial defence platforms from the US and even during Trump’s visit is slated to purchase expensive kit. This should assuage Trump’s mercantilist concerns even as New Delhi throws a big party for him to demonstrate the strength of the people-to-people relationship between the two countries.
The importance of the security relationship is underlined by developments in Afghanistan, where Washington appears to have thrown in the towel and a ‘peace’ deal could see Taliban regain power and influence in Kabul. Islamabad could then use that opportunity to redirect the extremists towards India, and is likely to have ‘all weather’ ally Beijing in its corner. New Delhi and Washington have to ensure this doesn’t happen, and must coordinate their long-term strategy towards this end.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.