Trump’s India visit: Rallies and realpolitik

| Updated on February 13, 2020

The countries will closely examine if a deal could be announced during the US President Donald Trump’s visit scheduled for February istock.com/3dmitry 3dmitry

The optics of Trump’s visit may be all smiles and waves, but India shouldn’t forget that he is a tough negotiator on trade

Unlike other global leaders who enjoy the pomp and circumstance of making state visits, US President Donald Trump is a reluctant traveller. But he seems to be looking forward to his India visit, describing it with typical Trumpian hyperbole and saying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s already pledged to have, “five-million-to-seven-million people between the airport and the stadium” in Ahmedabad. Trump’s also excited about the rally at the new Motera cricket stadium, which has the world’s biggest seating capacity. With the 2020 elections looming and a large Indian-American population at home, he’s seeing this as his “Howdy Trump!” moment that will ‘trump’ all previous US presidential visits. The Ahmedabad rally is tentatively called ‘kem chho Trump’ or ‘how are you, Trump?’, clearly harking back to the “Howdy Modi” rally. But the optics of the rally may not be enough to paper over differences between negotiators with the US last year stripping India of its “developing country” tag, meaning Indian exports can’t have duty-free US entry. The US argues that any country with over 0.5 per cent of global trade and also a G20 member, is “developed.” Talks are also stumbling on US demands for India to grant more access to its farm products. Already, farmers’ bodies are demanding that India not cede an inch to the US on agriculture. The dairy sector is particularly worried about allowing in US produce which they argue is subsidised massively.

On the defence front, though, the US and India appear nearer agreement with reports the navy may buy Seahawk helicopters from Lockheed Martin costing $2.6 billion. Boeing may also offer us the F-15EX Eagle fighters. India is looking at buying up to 114 fighters in a deal that is potentially worth almost $18 billion, but that will take some time to conclude. Also, the US has agreed to allow India to buy an Integrated Air Defence Weapon System which costs $1.9 billion. Bilateral defence business reached $18 billion in 2019 and India’s now designated a ‘Major Defence Partner’. Meanwhile, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has attacked e-commerce giant Amazon yet again, saying its losses don’t “look and feel and smell right.” Goyal said he hoped the government won’t have to “go down the path of finding whether anybody is breaking the law.” This, however, could please Trump as he’s no fan of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos.

But dealing with Trump is a tricky business. He’s sharply focussed on trade deficits, describing India as the “tariff king,” while the Modi government has turned more protectionist. Also, many countries have become wary of a Trump visit because he can lash out unpredictably. The only country which appears to have cracked the formula is Saudi Arabia which has used large dollops of flattery to win him over. But at the end of the day, Indian negotiators will have their job cut out protecting India’s economic interests.

Published on February 13, 2020

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