So If No Trade Deal, Is Trump Coming All The Way To Put Afghanistan And PoK On The Table?

So If No Trade Deal, Is Trump Coming All The Way To Put Afghanistan And PoK On The Table?

by Rajeev Srinivasan - Feb 23, 2020 01:57 PM +05:30 IST
So If No Trade Deal, Is Trump Coming All The Way To Put Afghanistan And PoK On The Table? US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
  • Why is Donald Trump coming to India?

    Is it for business? Most likely no, as his hard-nosed trade czar Robert Lighthizer isn’t part of the entourage.

    Is it to impress NRIs? No, because most of them are Democrat supporters.

    Afghanistan may be the secret reason.

President Donald Trump is preparing for a bruising battle later this year to be re-elected. So why is he wasting time on a trip to India?

Given Trump’s transactional nature, his principal agenda is re-election; for which he will make any deals. What might that deal be with India?

First, what it will not be. Given that Trump has blown hot and cold with friend and foe to create a trade surplus for America, it is startling that there is no trade deal on the anvil. In fact, his hard-nosed trade czar Robert Lighthizer isn’t even coming.

Yes, there is the relatively wealthy Indian-American electorate, but at about 4 million, it is too small and too fragmented to make a difference. And by past indicators, 70 per cent of them are hard-core Democrat voters anyway.

So that’s not the attraction. Nor is it any particular need to get some brownie points with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters. Given the easily-mollified Indian psyche, the spectacle of “Howdy Modi” was quite enough for that.

What, then, could be the rationale? What we have seen in the past is that Indian PMs on US visits sign a bunch of deals buying American stuff (it’s like a peace offering by a vassal to a Ming emperor). US Presidents on India visits bring a bunch of CEOs, also selling.

It’s not clear there’s any buying of Indian goods on the agenda. The ‘Make in India’ effort seems to have faded into obscurity, although India does have a small trade surplus with the US.

We also have to be careful about Americans bearing gifts. In 2005, there was a flurry of activity with sundry snake-oil salesmen flying in, glad-handing everyone, and waxing eloquent about how the proposed ‘nuclear deal’ was going to solve half of India’s problems.

In the event, not a single Westinghouse nuclear reactor ended up in India. Which, by the way, is just as well. The clean-up costs (and the fear of terrorists gaining access) make nuclear power unappealing. And then, there was Fukushima and the slow-motion collapse of the industry.

So, there’s nothing large in the offing in this Trump visit, except for a bunch of a few billion-dollar purchases of helicopters and similar equipment.

And the Americans are no longer screaming loudly about India’s plans to purchase an S-400 anti-missile system from Russia, especially after formal NATO ally Turkey bought the same.

There is also some progress on the Quad, with the recalcitrant Australians apparently being invited to join Indians, Japanese and Americans in the next Malabar exercise.[1]

The Quad, of course, is aimed at containing China, regardless of everybody’s disclaimers. Given Hong Kong, the trade war, and now the coronavirus, China is beginning to look a little vulnerable, and admittedly, this may well be the time to ram home the advantage in Asia.

But India needs the Quad just as much as the US, so there’s no need for the dog-and-pony show that the US President’s visit normally becomes. Especially, his first trip after the impeachment circus.

Let us note with relief that Trump is also not making a hyphenated visit to Pakistan. Those with long memories remember that Bill Clinton, a charming rogue who hoodwinked us en masse into thinking he was our friend, made a hyphenated visit.

To give the Trump administration credit where it’s due, they have been generally helpful in international matters. They did help India in the UN Security Council when China and Pakistan were crying bloody murder about Article 370.

So, where’s the quid pro quo? There’s no free lunch.

Let us also not delude ourselves with all those fine, flowery words about ‘largest democracy’ and ‘oldest democracy’ and all that good stuff. That’s strictly for the birds. Americans look after their national interests, period, and will sup with the devil, or any dictator, as need be.

Given the animosity towards India from the US Deep State, its media (NYT, WaPo, even the MIT Tech Review), and much of its Democratic political base (Exhibits A, B, C: Senator Lindsey Graham, Rep Pramila Jayapal, Rep Ilhan Omar), there will be no Indo-US love-fest.

Being a cynic, I can only think of one over-riding geopolitical objective.


Why? The Democrats will get their act together. They are not going to be as hapless as McGovern-Shriver (1972) or Mondale/Ferraro (1984). A Bloomberg or a Warren or a Sanders will be no walkover, and Trump will have to work hard to defeat them. What will work?

The one thing that will be a big hit with the voters is an exit from Afghanistan, after a fruitless 19 years there, and countless lives and trillions of dollars spent. That can be the October Surprise. And what better than to get India to send the boots on the ground?

Let us note that Trump is going to sign a peace agreement with the Taliban on 29 February, immediately after the India trip.

Thus, I suspect, there is a deal that will play out, and not in public.

Donald Trump wants to declare victory and run like hell from Afghanistan. But they cannot leave a vacuum there with the Taliban (a proxy for Pakistan’s ISI) quickly filling it, and the Chinese moving in.

India has firmly rejected proposals by the US that India should get involved in Afghanistan, although the ‘strategic depth’ Pakistan has craved in that country is a concern, especially as it continues to destabilize India through its astroturfed low-level insurgencies.

But what if there’s a sweetener on the table now? Despite posturing by insurgents, the situation in the Indian Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir is far more peaceful than it was before special privileges under Article 370 were removed.

The discourse on the Indian side, I have noticed under current Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar, is no longer about accommodating Pakistan’s demands about the Indian territory of J&K, but about when the Pakistan-occupied part will be absorbed into India. This is a quantum leap from the earlier, diffident Indian position.

India has always claimed the entirety of Jammu & Kashmir, based on its formal accession to India, and on the UN Security Council’s resolution that invading Pakistani troops must withdraw.

What if the quid pro quo for Indian involvement in Afghanistan is that the US helps India eject the Pakistanis from the part they are occupying? Among other things, that opens up a land border for India to Afghanistan.

More interestingly, this would be a big blow to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship Belt and Road Initiative, because that passes through Pakistan-occupied parts of Jammu & Kashmir (PoK), over India’s strenuous objections about its sovereignty being affected.

That is not going to be easy[2], but if Trump really needs to extricate himself from Afghanistan, there is a price to pay. India should drive a hard bargain. He needs India more than India needs him now.

This is Trump’s best chance to trounce China, and he needs India and others to do it. We remember how America’s best and brightest fended off the Japanese challenge some 30 to 40 years ago by weaponizing finance. Maybe in China’s case, it is a virus.

Or maybe, Trump has just lucked out.

China looks more vulnerable now than it has for some time. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d wonder, cui bono?, given all the problems they are facing.

There is a forced decoupling of supply chains. US manufacturers such as Apple[3] are likely to reduce dependence on Chinese suppliers. Chinese tourists are being treated with suspicion. Their GDP will take a direct hit, probably shrinking, as Japan’s has.[4]

Under the circumstances, I would not be surprised if, away from the pomp and the parades, a secret pact were to be signed linking an Indian role in Afghanistan (the US’ interest) and US support for the recapture of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the subsequent dissolution of Pakistan into three-four statelets (India’s interest).

This would mean there’s more than meets the eye in Trump’s first visit to India.

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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