Dubai: As Donald Trump heads to India on his first visit to the world’s largest democracy next week, frenzied preparations are under way on both the complex logistics of hosting a fourth consecutive US President and to find common ground for critical bilateral agreements.
Trump and US First Lady Melania are due to hold meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the high-profile two-day trip from February 24, for which India is pulling out all stops.
What will happen during the visit?
Trump is expected to be welcomed by some 110,000 people in Modi’s home state of Gujarat when he inaugurates the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stadium — the world’s biggest cricket venue — in a massive ‘Namaste Trump’ rally reminiscent of the Howdy Modi event in Houston that greeted the Indian Prime Minister last year. Modi has also vowed that a record seven million people will line up to greet Trump between Ahmedabad airport and the cricket stadium. Besides Ahmedabad, Trump will also visit the Taj Mahal in Agra before settling down for talks and an official reception in the Indian capital.
How has Trump reacted to the visit?
The US President’s visible excitement about the trip has been tempered with the past history of acrimonious trade between the two countries. “We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot. And he told me we’ll have 7 million people between the airport and the event [in Ahmedabad],” Trump told US reporters on Tuesday. “The stadium I understand is sort of semi under construction, but it’s going to be the largest stadium in the world, so it’s going to be very exciting,” he said.
Why is the US President visiting India?
Trump’s White House has described India as “a democracy seen as a rising economic partner in Asia and an important counterweight to China” — and the strategic reasons for the visit are not too hard to get. But the visit is also timely for both leaders as Trump gets out of Washington following the impeachment saga, while closer ties with the US will boost Modi’s domestic approval following a raft of nationwide protests. “India is preparing for Trump’s visit in an unprecedented way and the visit will work as beneficial for the public image of both Trump and Modi, and as a major show of support,” BS Prakash, former Indian Ambassador to Brazil who was the Indian Consul-General to San Francisco during the George W. Bush presidency, told Gulf News. “The pomp and pageantry of the event is also a political signal by the leaders to their own constituencies and to the wider world,” he said.
What are the expectations from Trump’s visit?
While Trump has clearly de-hyphenated his India visit from any other balancing stopovers, including Pakistan, what will be the exact outcome of the trip is yet unclear. “President Trump’s personality is very different. He likes a spectacle. If there is one certainty in this visit, it’s that Trump does not follow a script. He is unpredictable,” Prakash said. “With two of the world’s largest economies coming together, the focus will be on sectors such as technology, big data and education,” he said.
So what are the sticking points?
Trade tensions between the two countries soared since the Trump administration levied tariffs on steel and aluminium from India, and a series of tit-for-tat levies followed. Trump has often called India the tariff king, and the two nations have sparred over everything from tariffs on farm goods to Harley Davidson motorbikes and price caps on medical devices and India’s new rules on local data storage. Trump himself played down expectations for any major trade agreements next week, saying: “I’m really saving the big deal for later on. I don’t know if it will be done before the [US] election, but we’ll have a very big deal with India.”
Does that mean no deals are likely during the visit?
“Trade-side issues could make a major agreement unlikely during the trip. But with the US emerging as a prime energy supplier, the focus will likely move to oil supplies and new areas of cooperation,” said Prakash. Local media reports said US oil giants are willing to step up shale oil supplies to India by offering importing companies a discount of up to $5 (Dh18.35) per barrel over global benchmarks, along with freight discounts and a higher credit period of 90 days. Negotiators have also been trying to finalise a deal giving the US greater access to India’s dairy and poultry markets and lowering tariffs on other products, but the fate of that is uncertain.
What are the key numbers in US-India trade?
The US is India’s second largest trade partner after China, with their goods and services trade hitting a record $142.6 billion in 2018. Last year, the United States had a $23.2 billion goods trade deficit in 2019 with India, its ninth largest trading partner in goods. “While this is too big a relationship between the two countries to flounder, it’s also true that President Trump doesn’t like trade deficits for the US. So he will also move to reduce any deficit in future,” Prakash said.
What are the areas of future cooperation?
Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said yesterday that defence and trade will be on the agenda of Modi and Trump’s talks in New Delhi. And Modi’s cabinet met yesterday to give formal clearance for a $2.6-billion deal for two dozen military helicopters from US defence firm Lockheed Martin. Apart from defence, India and the US have also forged close political and security relations in recent years, with Washington replacing Moscow as the top arms supplier to India.
So will the visit be a success?
“Just having President Trump present to give a speech, get some face time with Prime Minister Modi, and sign some bilateral deals including defence sales, will mark a success for bilateral relations. Of course, if the two sides are able to finalise a trade deal at the last minute, the visit will be considered an even greater success,” said Jeff Smith, South Asia Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation in Washington DC.
“The fact that the trip is happening at all is a success for India-US relations. There was a great deal of speculation that the visit would be tied to the completion of an India-US trade deal that has been the subject of years of gruelling negotiations. I commend President Trump for deciding to make the visit with or without a trade deal,” he told media in Washington.