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There could be strategic gains for India from Trump’s visit

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Updated on


February 26, 2020


Published on


February 26, 2020

India needs US support to ensure the Indian Ocean isn’t dominated by the fast-growing Chinese Navy

It was a visit long on optics and personal chemistry and short on actual results. But both sides appeared happy with President Donald Trump’s 36-hour whistle-stop visit, and the pomp and pageantry accompanying it. Trump was on his best behaviour from when he descended the Air Force One steps and he made a visible effort to stay on script and impress Indians favourably — even to the extent of struggling with names like Sachin Tendulkar and Swami Vivekananda. He appeared well-pleased with the ‘wall-to-wall’ people he saw in Ahmedabad, even if far fewer than the millions he said Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised him. And if India pandered to Trump’s vanity, he reciprocated with references to our “great” heritage and economic potential. At a more personal level, he made constant references to Modi as being “very strong.” All this, however, begged the question about why the trip seemed to have been organised at short notice and what it achieved. The $3-billion defence deal is already far advanced and didn’t need a Trump sales pitch. A handful of MoUs were signed but they hardly required presidential or prime ministerial attention.

There’s no question India’s stature has risen in the world as our economic clout has grown. All US presidents since Bill Clinton have made an obligatory trip to India — in fact, Barack Obama came twice. The Americans have also now realised they have a global-scale rival in China and are keen to use India as an ally in their new Cold War, along with Japan and Australia, in what’s called the Quad. India, too, needs US backing against an ever-more powerful neighbour which has a $175-billion defence budget, over triple ours. Particularly, India needs US support to ensure the Indian Ocean isn’t dominated by the fast-growing Chinese Navy. China’s also used its huge cash reserves to build the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, wooing our neighbours into its fold. India’s stayed aloof from the BRI but it’s looking lonely. At a more pragmatic level, with the election looming, Trump needed a state visit here to boost his appeal to Indian-Americans back home, 70 per cent of whom voted for the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Still, what will make Trump’s visit unforgettable is the ugly background of burning buildings, men swinging iron bars and a mounting death toll from the Delhi rioting. For New Delhi internationally, it negated a lot of any positive publicity value from Trump’s visit, especially with global investors looking on. Despite the bad optics of a state dinner while riots were taking place in another part of the city, India has benefited in one important way. Ever since Trump came to power it has looked as if India had no influential backers in Washington. That may now have been rectified and the ground laid for a stronger alliance of the future to be built upon.

Published on


February 26, 2020

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