Although expectation about actual deliverables from President Donald Trump’s India visit are low, ASHLEY J TELLIS, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and formerly senior adviser to the US undersecretary of State for political affairs, tells Aditi Phadnis India will not be able to put off crucial trade and other decisions in its dealing with the US much longer.

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT WILL BE THE OUTCOME OF THE US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP’S INDIA VISIT?

Both President Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi want this visit to showcase the strength of the US–Indian strategic partnership. Any state visit by an American president would ordinarily have such an objective, but this one is special because of Trump’s unconventional presidency and the changing attitudes among key US elites toward India. Remember, Trump’s “America First” agenda could have radically undermined India’s traditional hopes for asymmetrical US support. That hasn’t happened to the degree that it could have. So Modi has every reason to be gratified that his persistent engagement of Trump has paid off — at least for now. Despite India not delivering on the one thing he cares about — a trade deal — Trump is headed to India. As he himself admitted, “We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot.”

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
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SO WILL THIS VISIT BE ONLY ABOUT OPTICS THEN?

With Trump, the symbolism often is the substance, but that may not be a bad thing in this case. Given the goal, the two leaders have — showcasing the strategic partnership both for their domestic constituencies and for their foreign rivals — I expect that the visit will be dominated by discussions on strategic issues where there is strong convergence, such as the Indo Pacific, sustainable infrastructure development and terrorism. Because the trade deal has proven to be elusive, closing on defence sales, especially those with big dollar signs, will be important. I suspect India will be looking for ways to show Trump that it intends to be a good economic partner by accelerating the purchase of the US energy and collaborating on development projects in third countries. So there will be tangible outcomes beyond the optics, but the extravaganza Trump is expecting will probably overshadow the substance.

HOW MUCH HAS THE INDIAN GOVERNMENT’S DOMESTIC POLITICAL AGENDA HURT INDO–US RELATIONS?

That’s a complicated question because the Modi government’s agenda has economic and political components. The creeping return toward import substitution and self–reliance that seems to characterise the current Indian attitude toward foreign trade has left the Trump administration quite unhappy. In fact, I’m surprised that Trump proceeded with his India visit despite recognising that the trade deal was slipping — domestic electoral concerns, Modi’s charms and strong advocacy by Ambassador Ken Juster probably explain that outcome. But Trump hasn’t forgotten, and if the modest issues on which the administration is asking for progress are not resolved, the visit’s aftermath may not prove to be as happy as the visit itself. And if Trump is reelected, the Modi government will simply be unable to put off addressing these issues. The recent Indian domestic political developments have raised concerns even within the administration, but senior officials have been careful enough not to make this an issue publicly. This public silence should not be misinterpreted as an absence of anxiety, though the depth of the apprehensions varies depending on the individual. For a president who was elected with strong evangelical support, issues of religious freedom for Christians are obviously important. But for other administration officials, how the Indian state treats all its minorities is of concern. In the Congress, the press and among NGOs, the dismay about the Indian government’s policies has been much more vocal. I don’t view these reactions as fatal to the US–India relationship right now, but the growing cleavages between the executive and the legislative branches and between Republicans and Democrats will, if not repaired, make the task of advancing the relationship more difficult. We don’t need relations with India to become a new subject of controversy within the United States.

WE NOW KNOW THAT FORMER PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN SINGH WAS READY TO FACE ELECTIONS, BUT DID NOT GIVE UP ON THE INDO–US NUCLEAR DEAL. DO YOU THINK INDIA AND THE US HAVE OPTIMIZED RETURNS AFTER THAT HUGE POLITICAL GAMBLE? WHO HAS LET WHOM DOWN?

Completing the deal served the basic purposes that we in the Bush administration had intended: to remove the biggest decades–old impediment that cemented India’s suspicions of the United States; to bring India into the non–proliferation order without it having to give up its nuclear weapons; and, to permit the more liberal sharing of restricted technologies to aid the growth of Indian power in order to better balance China. I would contend that all these objectives have been satisfied.

WAS THE DEAL OVERLY FAVORABLE TO INDIA?

Absolutely — but by design. Where we fell short, at least thus far, was in regard to commercial sales of the US nuclear reactors to India. Many in the administration had hoped that India would buy a substantial number of US reactors. But India’s mismanagement of the nuclear liability legislation and the Fukushima disaster made this much harder. I still believe we will get to reactor sales eventually — what elsewhere takes years requires decades to accomplish in India — but when you look at the deal in terms of its fundamentally transformative impact on the US–Indian relations, there is no doubt in my mind that our core objectives have been achieved. The dramatic deepening of the US–Indian cooperation on critical issues such as balancing China in the Indo–Pacific, the rising defence trade, and the growing willingness of both sides to actively collaborate in the Indian Ocean amply corroborates that judgment.

WE ARE LOOKING, ALMOST CERTAINLY, AT AN ABORTIVE INDO–US TRADE DEAL. INDIA HAS ALREADY WALKED OUT OF RCEP. WHAT ARE THE PROSPECTS OF AN AGREEMENT ON TRADE IN THE FUTURE AND WON’T IT ALWAYS BE IN COLLISION WITH AMERICA FIRST?

The Modi government’s failure to resolve the trade disputes with the US administration is disappointing, could be potentially costly to India, and remains a conspicuous blot on the otherwise unexpectedly successful strategic partnership under Trump. Unlike in other cases where Trump has focused on correcting the US trade balances itself, the issues that Trump has pursued with India are few and could have been addressed without major cost to Modi’s larger objectives. But the economic slowdown, the Modi government’s protectionist instincts, and the return of the ambition of self–reliance all conspired to prevent India from offering satisfactory solutions. Even bigger problems promise to come down the pike: e–commerce policy, data localisation requirements, and the like. India’s curmudgeonly attitude to trade liberalisation remains at stark odds with its expressed desire to participate in net worked manufacturing, to integrate itself into global supply chains, and to consummate its “Act East” policy. India and the US may be able to cobble a ragged truce on trade if they try hard enough in the future, but unless there is a major transformation in India’s attitude to trade, the costs to India’s long–term economic growth will be significant. The truth of the matter is that the US market remains the most lucrative market in the world and all countries that grew at remarkable rates in the post–war period grew in part because of their privileged access to the US market. If India finds itself shut out of this market because of its own regressive trade policies and the growing US inclination to make access to its markets dependent on reciprocal access — an attitude that may outlive Trump — India stands to lose far more than the United States potentially will. This simple fact should force the Modi government to rethink its attitude to trade openness in regard to the US.

THE PEACE PROCESS IN AFGHANISTAN IS TO START NEXT MONTH AND WILL BE REMOTE–CONTROLLED BY THE US. HOW MUCH CHANCE DOES INDIA HAVE OF FINDING A PLACE IN THE NEW EQUATIONS?

India has grudgingly come to terms with the reality of the eventual US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the likelihood of a Taliban integration into the Afghan state. I don’t believe that Washington can stage manage India’s future role in Afghanistan. Much will depend on the choices India itself makes in the context of parallel decisions by others. But India has significant assets here: there is strong support for an Indian presence in Afghanistan across the Afghan political spectrum; Washington welcomes India’s constructive role already; and all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, barring Pakistan, would be willing to collaborate with India to preserve a stable Afghan state. The big question is whether the Afghans themselves can and will collaborate to produce this outcome — at this point, that’s anyone’s guess.

This interview was originally published by the Sunday Business Standard.