Colombo, June 29: Despite holding hands and giving bear hugs three times publicly to show exceptional closeness, India’s pushy Prime Minister Narendra Modi got precious little from US President Donald Trump in his talks with the latter in Washington on Monday, writes P.K.Balachandran in www.southasianmonitor.com
On the contrary, Trump got what he wanted in terms of arms sales to India and secured Modi’s unreserved commitment to his geopolitical objectives vis-à-vis China and Afghanistan.
Predictably, the Modi-Trump strategic understanding on the Indo-Pacific region (including South China Sea) has raised the hackles in Beijing.
On the day Modi was to meet Trump, Chinese troops smashed three Indian army bunkers along the Tibet-Sikkim border, and stopped Hindu pilgrims from going to the Manasarovar Lake in Tibet through the Nathu La pass. The disappointed pilgrims had to trek back 54 km to Gangtok, the Sikkimese capital.
China accused Indian troops of intruding into its territory to obstruct road construction, and the Indian side retorted saying that the road was being laid on Indian territory.
Though this particular issue is likely to be resolved, as many such had been in the past, China has signaled to India that it can raise the long standing border issue at any time through aggressive posturing.
Striking at Critical Point
By its action on Monday, China has also shown that it can strike Indian interests at a most critical point, namely, the tri-junction between Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet and threaten the Siliguri corridor. The Siliguri corridor is the chicken neck linking West Bengal and Assam as Bangladesh juts into the space between West Bengal and Assam.
The Siliguri area in West Bengal is particularly vulnerable now in the context of the violent agitation of the Gorkhas of North Bengal for an autonomous Gorkhaland.
China has been expressing irritation about being needled by India on the Tibet issue. Since Modi came to power in 2014, New Delhi has been allowing the Dalai Lama, the former Tibetan spiritual and temporal leader in exile, to do political work in India. New Delhi also allowed the then US Ambassador, Richard Verma, to visit Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state bordering Tibet which China claims to be part of Tibet.
The threat to the Siliguri corridor and undisguised China’s interest in promoting the traditional Sikkim-Tibet trade have become additional points to ponder in New Delhi.
Few Concrete Gains For India
There has been no concrete short or long term gains for India at the Washington talks, but Trump has walked away with some.
Trump’s was fulsome in praising India for its decision to “Go American” in defense purchases, and asked Modi to buy more arms from the US.
“Thank you very much for ordering equipment from the United States. Always makes us feel very good. There’s nobody [that] makes military equipment like we make military equipment. Nobody even close, so we want to thank you very much,” Trump said.
The total value of Indian arms imports from the US has gone up to US$ 15 billion in terms of contracts since 2008. And the US wants to sell more as India has a huge appetite for it, being the second largest buyer of arms in the world after Saudi Arabia.
Between 2008 and 2014, India had notched up arms purchases worth US$ 34 billion.
By 2014, the US had supplanted Russia as the single largest seller of arms to India. According to The Diplomat the US aircraft maker Boeing alone has won bids to supply the Indian military with ten C-17 Globemaster-III strategic airlift aircraft (worth $4.1 billion), eight P-8I maritime patrol aircraft (worth $2.1. billion), 22 AH-64E Apache, and 15 CH-47F Chinook helicopters (both helicopter deals have a combined worth of $2.5 billion).
The White House has also cleared the sale of 22 unarmed Guardian drones for US$ 2 billion but this has to be sanctioned by Congress because this sophisticated bit of gadgetry is made available only to the closest allies.
India needs the Guardian drones for long range maritime surveillance in view of increased Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean.
Tackling Global Terrorism
There was a strong understanding on cooperation to tackle terrorism which, of course, was to India’s good.
“We will destroy radical Islamic terrorism. Both our nations have been struck by the evils of terrorism, and we are both determined to destroy terrorist organizations and the radical ideology that drives them,” Trump said.
And Modi said: “We discussed the serious challenges of terrorism, extremism, and radicalization, which are the major challenges facing the world today. And we have agreed to enhance our cooperation in fighting against these scourges. Fighting terrorism and doing away with the safe shelters, sanctuaries, and safe havens will be an important part of our cooperation. The top priority for both President Trump and myself is to protect our society from global challenges like terrorism.”
A day before Trump was to meet Modi, the State Department designated the Pakistan-based Hizbul Mujhahideen leader, Syed Salahuddin, as a Global Terrorist. He had threatened to turn Kashmir into a “graveyard of Indian troops”. But security and foreign policy expert, Dr.Manoj Joshi, devalues this declaration by saying that Salahuddin is a “has been” and no longer important factor in Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
Nevertheless, a White House statement said that Trump and Modi called upon Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. Alluding to China, but without naming it, the statement said that all nations should “resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.”
Regional Strategic Cooperation
Despite the fact that the Indo-Pacific maritime dispute does not involve India directly, and is basically an America problem, Modi said that India’s cooperation to deal with the challenges in the Asia-Pacific region would continue.
“The increasing possibilities for enhancing cooperation in order to protect our strategic interests will continue to determine the dimensions of our partnership. We will continue to work with the USA in this region,” he said.
A Joint Statement on the talks made a disapproving allusion to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) global infrastructure building scheme, but without naming the project or the country. It said that India and US are against non-transparent and financially risky projects, by which it meant China-funded projects such as the OBOR.
Key Domestic Issues Unsolved
However, several key domestic issues remain unresolved. While India wanted no significant reduction in US work visas granted to Indian professionals, the US was keen on a pro-American worker visa regime. But to keep friendship with the US going, Modi did not press the issue though it could hurt a good chunk of an estimated 70,000 Indian professionals.
The US wants the Indian market to be opened to American goods and services to cut its US$ 30 billion trade deficit with India. The US also wants drastic changes in the Indian business environment to increase US investment which is only 2% of America’s global FDI.
But in this respect, Modi’s hands are tied, given the fact that there is tremendous resistance in India to any change in the business climate to suit foreigners.
All in all, what is likely to happen is: India will buy more arms from the US to face increased threats from Pakistan and China and will cooperate with the US in promoting American strategic interests in the South China Sea and Afghanistan even at the risk of being drawn into wars with Pakistan, China and possibly even the Taliban in Afghanistan.
There is little likelihood of a favorable US decision on H-IB work visas for Indians or a favorable outcome as regards India’s bid to get more US investments to make Modi’s “Make in India” policy a success.