Politics, World, Asia - Pacific

China looms large over Trump's first India visit

US desire to keep India in its corner against China will factor heavily in what Trump and Modi accomplish: analysts

Michael Hernandez   | 20.02.2020
China looms large over Trump's first India visit


As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares for his first official trip to India since assuming office, a third country will loom large over the visit even if its name is never uttered: China.

Trump’s two-day visit starting Feb. 24 will make him the fourth consecutive American president to visit India, a sign of the South Asian country’s increasing importance for Washington amid Beijing’s growing global influence. 

The visit comes on the heels of a meeting of U.S. and Indian defense and foreign ministers last December, which concluded with an agreement to “work together in support of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”.

The top officials also spoke about cooperation to counter "regional and global threats" -- both less than subtle digs at Beijing.

Plans for a 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in India were also announced, yet another sign of increasing cooperation between the world's two largest democracies.

Expectations and realities 

For political analyst Ajit Sahi, India has truly become a "linchpin" of America’s "anti-China policy".

"India is the only country in the region standing with the U.S. in its push to contain China’s global influence," Sahi, who is based in Washington, said in an interview with Anadolu Agency.

On the agenda for Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during next week's visit will be new weapons sales and making progress on a possible trade deal. 

The latter would limit the U.S. trade imbalance with India, a key goal for Trump as he seeks to narrow Washington’s international trade deficits. 

"Some of the progress on security cooperation and economic cooperation is certainly made with China in mind," said Richard Rossow, who holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

"It drives a lot of what’s happening, but a lot of times it’s not so visible above the water; more so behind the scenes."

The U.S. president threw cold water on the idea that a trade deal would be struck during his trip, but left the door open to reaching consensus on a piecemeal pact. 

"Well, we can have a trade deal with India, but I’m really saving the big deal for later on," Trump told reporters on Tuesday. "We’re doing a very big trade deal with India. We’ll have it. I don’t know if it’ll be done before the election, but we’ll have a very big deal with India."

Among the items that the sides could agree to within a limited trade agreement are concessions on pulling back agricultural tariffs and curbing India's price controls on medical devices.

"I think there’s a modest package of things that India could put on the table, which I don’t think would hurt the government’s domestic base so dramatically," Rossow told reporters on a conference call. 

"But at least at the leader level, announcing that they’ve got an in-principal agreement to remove some of the impediments … lacks some substance sometimes. But I think as long as they get to that level, where they’re comfortable using that language and those words on stage … they’ll look at that as a victory," he added. 

Costly criticism

Beijing’s rising global influence will play as much a role in what is addressed as what is left on the sidelines.

While trade and defense contracts are likely to receive top billing, the U.S. president is highly unlikely to press New Delhi in public on its human rights record, including a controversial new citizenship law that has drawn concern from some American officials, and India’s ongoing clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir.

Trump's reluctance to bring up the issues is due to U.S. concerns not to upset its South Asian partner as it seeks to maintain a key regional counterweight to China, according to Sahi.

"China is the only reason why American politicians and the U.S. government are absolutely reluctant to call India out on its violations of human rights, civil liberties, and religious freedoms," he said.

India's citizenship law allows for persecuted religious minorities in the region -- Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, and Parsis, but not Muslims -- to be fast-tracked for Indian citizenship.

And Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has been under a near-complete lockdown since New Delhi scrapped the region's special status last August, ending previously codified constitutional regulations for the Muslim-majority region.

Several rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have repeatedly called on India to lift the restrictions and release political detainees.

Attempts to stifle access to the contested region have also resulted in the U.S. State Department being unable to send in a delegation to see the conditions first-hand.

And while China plays a considerable role in determining the U.S. administration's reluctance to address these issues, so too does Trump's desire to hammer out a large trade deal that he can march out to the American public as he seeks re-election.

"With the U.S. administration so far they have managed to maintain, you know, these clear-lined boundaries, work on areas that are going relatively well," said Rossow.

"Ever since the trade talks really began to pick up steam about eight months ago, you’ve actually seen a little less aggressive tone by the U.S."

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