US-India ties: One step forward, two steps back
Kashish Parpiani
The following article originally appeared in on March 2, 2020

Trump's visit symbolised heightened partisanship and a return to chemistry between leaders defining bilateral ties, notes Kashish Parpiani.

US President Donald Trump's 36-hour visit was originally set to witness a limited US-India trade deal, amidst the crescendoing (external link) of tensions on the trade front.

Ahead of the visit however, negotiations hit a stalemate due to both sides alleging either party of 'changing goalposts', such as the last-minute American insistence of India increasing import of products like pecan nuts. Hence, the Modi government began to tout the 'Namaste Trump' event as the 'key deliverable' of the visit.

Although the relevance of the event stood accentuated by the wall-to-wall coverage it received in the media -- albeit mainly from the standpoint of optics -- it signified an untoward trend.

Over the past year, there have been rising concerns (external link) over US bipartisan support on India fraying.

Certainly, in large parts, that has been so due to the rabid polarisation now seeping into the once iron-clad US bipartisan consensus on most aspects of American international relations.

However, on India specifically, that schism has emerged also due to the apparent partisan fervour of the 'Howdy, Modi!' rally and the Democrats's rising apprehensions (external link) on the communications lockdown in Kashmir.

With this visit, it was apparent that the Trump administration also has a partisan approach to India.

At the 'Namaste Trump' event, for instance, President Trump built on his September 2019 praise of Prime Minster Modi as the 'Father of India'.

In Ahmedabad, Trump began his address by describing his host as 'an exceptional leader, a great champion of India, a man who works night and day for his country, and a man I am proud to call my true friend'.

Trump didn't stop there, and went on to echo many points that may generally be heard at a BJP election rally.

He added, 'Under Prime Minister Modi, for the first time in history, every village in India now has access to electricity. Three hundred and twenty million people -- more Indians -- are right now connected to the Internet. The pace of highway construction has more than doubled.'

He went on to also cite figures on households having access to cooking fuel and basic sanitation.

At a follow-up press conference, Trump refused to comment on the controversial citizenship law: 'I don't want to discuss that, I want to leave that to India.'

All was not lost to partisanship as the second day of the visit saw some policy gains.

In exchange for the limited trade deal, India's expectation had been to oversee its GSP beneficiary status reinstated.

To recap: In the recent past, trade tensions escalated owing to the US adopting punitive measures.

Beginning with levying steel and aluminum tariffs on India in mid-2019, the Trump administration revoked India's beneficiary status under the Generalised System of Preferences programme under which exports worth $5.7 billion to the US enjoyed duty-free status in 2017.

However, ahead of the visit, the US pre-emptively closed the door to restoration of India's GSP benefits.

A few days after Trump's visit was announced, the US trade representative released a federal notice on removing countries like India from its list of developing countries that 'are exempt from investigations into whether they harm American industry with unfairly subsidised exports.'

This effectively rendered India to be classified as a developed country, and thus no longer eligible for benefits under the GSP, which is a preferential arrangement for developing countries alone.

With a limited trade deal off the table, the visit's policy gains seemed restricted to impending defence deals.

The two sides announced the finalisation of a defence package worth over $3 billion for 24 multi-role MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters and six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters.

However, there was no word on India finalising the recently cleared $1.867 billion Integrated Air Defence Weapon System, which would possibly help in tempering US apprehensions on India also purchasing the Russian S-400 missile system (external link).

The fact that the two sides managed to formalise cooperation on latent avenues like clean energy signified a certain sense of compartmentalisation to have been instituted, unarguably a rare feat under Trump's conduct of US foreign policy, in the US-India bilateral dynamic.

However, despite the emergence of this mature understanding, the visit bore another untoward development -- potentially reversing the trend on the gradual institutionalisation of US-India ties.

Ahead of Trump's visit, an unnamed high-level source in the Indian government characterised the visit as: "Forget about mathematics or trade or defence. Talk chemistry! Chemistry ab badhega!" (Essentially translating to, an increase in chemistry between the leaders will be a key outcome.)

Aside from any increase in that unquantifiable facet of bilateral ties, 'chemistry' between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi was, however, deemed to be a key catalyst of an expected resolution to the current impasse on trade.

At their joint appearance in Ahmedabad, Trump expressed his optimism over 'the Prime Minister and I working together towards reaching a fantastic deal that's good and even great for both of our countries.'

He jokingly even added a caveat: 'Except that he's (Modi) a very tough negotiator.'

Whereas, over the past couple of years, the effort has been to move away from the traditional top-heavy approach of relying on chemistry between the heads of State to inform the US-India bilateral trajectory.

In the past, that approach was particularly efficacious in wading through 'conflictual points such as the US opposition to India's nuclear programme' (external link).

However, as US-India ties have assumed a multi-dimensional character -- bereft of a comprehensive trade arrangement or a formal security treaty underpinning the partnership, the trajectory has warranted champions (external link) of greater ties on multiple levels of either nation's political, bureaucratic and military leadership.

Nascent examples of such institutionalised channels include the US-India 2+2 annual consultative platform (external link) between foreign and defense portfolio chiefs, the India-US Strategic Energy Partnership working group between India's petroleum minister and the US energy secretary, and the hotline instituted between Indian and American national Sscurity advisors.

With the recent visit once again according chemistry between the two leaders's central relevance -- this time in context of the stalled trade negotiations, it seems the bilateral trajectory is returning to the era of seeking high-level interventions.

Thus, despite some gains on the policy level, Trump's visit to India symbolised heightened partisanship and a return to chemistry between leaders defining bilateral ties. India must call Trump's bluff
Kashish Parpiani
The following article originally appeared in on February 22, 2020

The US seems to be engaging in a game of brinkmanship where President Trump's visit has been used as 'leverage' to pressure India into agreeing to a trade deal, notes Kashish Parpiani.

On Monday, US President Donald J Trump will make his maiden visit to India.

The visit comes amidst trade frictions nearing a crescendo and negotiations concurrently stalling on multiple occasions under the Trump era.

Over the past three years, trade tensions between India and the US have escalated.

Interestingly, even as the US's trade deficit with India has begun to narrow (external link) and stands at less than a tenth (external link) of the US's trade deficit with China, tensions have escalated -- signifying American apprehensions to have stemmed from factors beyond trade imbalances (external link).

As a result, the Trump administration levied steel and aluminium tariffs on India, revoked India's status under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme, momentarily contemplated limiting Indians's H1-B visas quota to 15 percent due to differences over e-commerce regulations, and raised the prospect of a Section 301 investigation into India's tariff/non-tariff trade barriers.

On a limited trade deal that is expected to be signed during the visit, reports have been mixed -- with some suggesting that officials are 'considering taking even a modest trade deal off the table'.

The impending trade package reportedly could include gains for the US worth nearly $10 billion, with greater market access for agricultural and dairy products.

This would be in addition to India also finalising a defence package worth $3.5 billion for 24 multi-role MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters and 6 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters.

However, talks have reportedly reached a stalemate as both sides have alleged the either party of 'changing goalposts'.

For instance, with the limited trade deal, India's expectation has been to have its GSP benefits reinstated -- under which Indian exports worth $5.7 billion to the US enjoyed duty-free status in 2017.

However, regardless of the deal materialising, it seems the US has already foreclosed the possibility of India having its GSP benefits reinstated.

Within days of the Trump administration announcing the dates of President Trump's visit to India, the United States trade representative released a federal notice on announcing the removal of a group of countries from its methodology for countervailing duty investigations.

As a result, India was removed from the list of developing countries that 'are exempt from investigations into whether they harm American industry with unfairly subsidised exports'.

With this move, the US essentially has now classified India as a developed country.

This effectively renders India to no longer be eligible for benefits under the GSP, which is an American preferential arrangement solely for developing countries.

Without GSP, the Indian economy is expected bear a direct and indirect cost of nearly $260 million.

With this development -- possibly reflective of Trump's 'Art of the Deal' of gaining competitive leverage by pursuing zero-sum negotiations, the American president's visit may be reduced to mere pomp and galore.

Beyond the possibility of the two sides inking a limited trade deal, Trump has expressed his exhilaration over 'millions and millions of people' that are expected to attend the 'Namaste, Trump' event in Ahmedabad.

However, with public appearances like the 'Namaste, Trump' event in Ahmedabad, much like the 'Howdy, Modi!' rally in Houston last year, Trump's political arithmetic on the Indian-American voter is writ large.

In case of the latter, there was a singular-attempt to court the 270,000-strong Indian-American community (external link) in the emerging battleground state of Texas.

With the event in Gujarat, reports underscore Trump's attempt to consolidate the votes of the Gujarati Diaspora in the United States which already tends to lean towards Trump's pro-business policies like eliminating regulations.

Moreover, by visiting Prime Minister Narendra Damnodardas Modi's home turf, Trump would also attempt to court the three million-strong Indian-American community (external link) at-large via underscoring his proximity to Modi's India.

With the possible limited trade deal as well, Trump's 2020 re-election campaign stands to gain.

The US senate acquitted Trump over the impeachment proceedings into his alleged quid pro quo over offering Ukraine military aid in exchange for political dirt against former US vice-president and now Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Given the partisan nature of the impeachment proceedings, Democrats are expected to continue to underscore the Ukraine affair during the 2020 US presidential elections.

By that extension, Trump's values-bereft, transactional, conduct at-large on the world stage will also accrue considerable attention.

In response, the Trump campaign would possibly double-down by highlighting the supposed efficacy of the 'America First' worldview.

Thus, the US-India limited trade deal would be listed amongst other renewed partial/complete trade deals -- such as the USMCA deal with Canada and Mexico; renegotiated trade terms with South Korea and Japan; and finally the Phase One deal with China, as instances of vindication.

Days before the Democrats's Iowa caucus, Trump addressed a rally in Des Moines, Iowa.

Referencing his renegotiated trade deals and the Democrats's opposition to his administration exacting renewed deals, Trump sought to galvanise American farmers that make up for a considerable share of his vote base even though some are adversely affected by Trump's trade wars.

Similarly, with the US-India deal, reports suggest American negotiators have been pushing for India to lower tariffs on pecan nuts.

The same also holds relevance from the 2020 elections standpoint.

The pecan industry contributes more than $3.5 billion to the 15 pecan-producing states, including Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi -- many of them being the 'flyover states' which were instrumental in Trump's victory in 2016 and would surely be so once again in 2020.

Given these apparent political considerations behind Trump's visit to India -- and the intent to explore a limited trade deal, it would be prudent for India to steer clear of according Trump a political endorsement ahead of the 2020 elections.

The 'Howdy, Modi!' event's partisan fervour in favor of Trump may have only accentuated the recent rise in the Democrats's apprehensions on India's prolonged communications lockdown in Kashmir.

Thus, amidst rising partisanship in American politics, the 'Namaste, Trump' event too must refrain from being a celebration of the incumbent US president.

A welcomed step in this regard was the recent decision to rename the event in Ahmedabad from 'Kem Chho Trump' to 'Namaste, Trump' in order to give it a pan-India appeal, rather than reflecting Trump's need to court Gujaratis.

Similarly, on the trade deal, India must pursue a politically neutral trade package -- bereft of latent asks -- on pecan nuts, for instance.

Recent reports suggest, the US to be testing India's anxiety level -- how desperately does New Delhi want the deal? Essentially, in raising the spectre of not finalising the deal ahead of Trump's visit, the US seems to be engaging in a game of brinkmanship, where President Trump's visit has been used as 'leverage' to pressure the other side into agreeing to a deal in time.

Therefore, in insisting the purview of the suggested limited deal to remain as it were, India must be prepared to call the 'deal-maker' American president's bluff.