Dr. Madan on Trump’s visit to India

Tanvi Madan is a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy in the Foreign Policy program, and director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Madan’s work explores India’s role in the world and its foreign policy, focusing in particular on India's relations with China and the United States. She also researches the intersection between Indian energy policies and its foreign and security policies.
Shreya Bhatnagar CMC '20 interviewed Dr. Tanvi Madan on March 27, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Madan on behalf of Brookings Institution.

Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald President Trump came to power during the worldwide wave of populism. President Trump in 2016, and Prime Minister Modi in 2014. Are there similarities in their governing philosophy and policies? Has this impacted their personal relationship?

It’s difficult to speculate about the state of their personal relationship, let alone what's motivating that personal relationship between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump. They sometimes want us to think they get along, but it's hard to know if they actually do or if it's something they are trying very hard to project. What is apparent is that Modi has gone out of his way to make a real effort to engage this president. That stems from his understanding of the U.S. as India’s most important partner. Prime Minister Modi looks at security and economic imperatives as motivation to continue engaging the U.S. and to ensure that the U.S-India relationship continues to develop. Modi understands how important any American president is for India. Given that context, he has understood that it is important to have a good relationship with President Trump. So, he made a concerted effort during Trump’s trip to India. Prime Minister Modi and his government designed the trip to appeal to President Trump’s preferences.

There are aspects of Modi and of India overall that President Trump likes, going back to 2014, when he visited India as a businessman just after Modi came to office. Over the years Trump has seen Modi as a “winner” and said that he likes “winners.” And he sees Modi as a strongman. Trump has tended to get along with those kinds of leaders quite well. The fact that Modi just got re-elected by an even bigger margin likely boosted his image with Trump. Modi has also made it a point to engage with Trump positively.  Unlike other world leaders who have criticized Trump publicly, Modi has been more careful. 

These are the things that have helped the two leaders to (seemingly) get along. I wouldn't exaggerate the impact of this, but it has helped keep the relationship between the two countries relatively steady -- huge crises have not erupted so far and some potential ones have been sorted out. 

Moreover, both Trump and Modi are leaders who understand and emphasize the importance of leader-to-leader ties. The fact that both like that type of interaction has helped them sit down together and sometimes reach agreements at that top level when something is stuck at a level below.

In late February, President Trump visited India for a two-day state visit culminating in the “Namaste Trump” event in Gujarat attended by over 10,000 people. The purpose of the trip was to draft a new, bigger trade deal. However, trade negotiators on both sides did not reach an agreement, other than the Indians purchasing $3 billion worth of U.S. helicopters and related technology. Some have called the trip underwhelming for its apparent lack of significant developments for U.S.-India trade relations. Do you agree with this assessment? What is your assessment of why the trade deal did not come to fruition?

I would define the purpose of the visit differently and more broadly. I see a big trade deal as some ways down the line, and likely beyond the timeline of this administration in any case. One purpose of the visit was for the two countries to get a “phase one” trade deal that would hold for the next few months while they try to resolve their differences on the trade front. It was clear even before the visit that this was not necessarily going to happen during the visit. 

The trade deal did not come together for several different reasons. First, trade is a complex issue that involves foreign policy and domestic politics and policy. Both leaders are hypersensitive to trade issues, especially in certain sectors, which prevents the two sides from being able to compromise beyond a point. Both sides have complained that the other side was changing the goal post. One side would make a concession, but then the other side would think it could push the envelope because it thought it had gained leverage. 

Sometimes you need a call made at the senior most level to get a deal. Particularly with these two leaders, these decisions can be made at the top, which is a reason why these decisions could not be made ahead of the visit. There was an agreement during the visit, before the coronavirus crisis took over everyone’s agenda, that they would complete this “phase one” trade deal within a few months after the visit, if not a few weeks.   

There are other aspects of the trip to consider as well. It was important for the U.S.-India relationship that the visit happened at all. President Trump, who doesn't like to travel abroad a lot, made an effort to visit India for two days because his administration saw it as important. Had he not gone, there would have been concern that this relationship is not on a strong footing. Every American president since Bill Clinton has gone to India. 

And it was a crucial purpose of the visit to maintain momentum and drive forward more cooperation. That was achieved as well. In the Joint Statements and speeches, you see a number of important working-level agreements of the kind that this relationship is being built upon.

Lastly, there was a range of issues that the two governments needed to talk about, including China and the developing situation in Afghanistan.  

Hence, the success of this visit needs to be assessed on the basis of all these dimensions.

However, there was some disappointment that the U.S. did not express concern about Indian domestic developments. President Trump did kind of mention it in his speech in Ahmedabad. And it was clear from his remarks in Delhi that Indian domestic problems were discussed privately. 

As you mentioned before, in the White House joint statement on the India visit President Trump pointed to this being “phase one” of a longer trade deal supposedly to be finished by the end of the year. However, both sides still seem to have different opinions on what the deal should accomplish, which they need to overcome to work on the deal. What is the breakthrough issue that the Indians want to get out of this deal? What do the Americans want out of this deal in their best-case scenario?

There's not one big thing but a range of issues. You could reach an agreement on one aspect but not another. It’s a little like “whack a mole” since once you decide on one thing, another thing might pop up and you have to go tackle that instead. To get a deep dive on these issues, I recommend Alyssa Ayres’s “A Field Guide to U.S.-India Trade Tensions.”

It is important to remember that the U.S.-India trade issues differ from U.S.-China trade issues. This is not a trade war; at best it's a trade skirmish since the scale of U.S.-India trade is not much. Nonetheless, there are long standing concerns that pre-date this administration. 

The U.S. wants to reduce the deficit with India currently at $23 billion, which is miniscule in comparison to that with China, but Trump wants it to be even lower in future. For the Indians, the concern is tariffs. The tariff war has also hit them, even if it was not necessarily directly targeted in India. The U.S., in turn, is concerned about India’s import duties for American products. India is also concerned about the U.S. having taken away India’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences. Both sides have concerns about access for their agricultural products in the other country’s markets. The U.S. has concerns about intellectual property protection, and price controls on medical devices that American companies sell. 

Additionally, the U.S. is concerned about the investment climate in India. India, on its part, has complained about immigration rules in the U.S. that could limit labor market access for Indians. Finally, there's a new set of issues related to India's new digital economy, whether that's India's proposed data localization bill, India's data privacy rules, or India's guidelines for e-commerce companies. 

The idea of a “phase one” deal was to tackle a few of these concerns. Then down the line the U.S. and India would negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement. That won’t be for quite some time, though. 

Criticism from Indian new outlets centered on the President Trump administration’s failure to address the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests that rocked Delhi for months prior, leading to the deaths of more than 20 protestors at the time of President Trump’s visit. Why do you think President Trump avoided directly tackling this issue on a public scale?

In his prepared speech at the “Namaste Trump” event in Ahmedabad, Trump made it a point to allude to the importance of India’s diversity and religious tolerance for the prosperity and security of the nation. He mentioned it seven or eight times to convey where the U.S. stood on the issue. 

He likely didn't directly make a statement for two reasons: diplomatic and personal. On the diplomatic side, this is a situation where he would have been blamed for not saying something but also blamed for saying anything. For example, had Trump said something about the violence in Delhi, some of the same domestic media would have criticized him for intervening in India's internal affairs. 

The general protocol for American presidents has been to not directly criticize developments that are going on in a particular country at the time they are visiting. If there is criticism, it is usually made by a senior administration official talking on background. 

On the personal side, it is a matter of personal style. Trump likely didn't mention it because he has shown a propensity to give leaders that he likes the benefit of the doubt on such things. For example, when people asked him about the crackdown on protestors in Hong Kong, he said that President Xi would handle that internally. He has done this for other leaders he seems to admire as well. He seems to have a positive impression of Prime Minister Modi, and very much enjoyed the welcome he received to the point that he kept mentioning it even days after returning to the U.S. And that impression perhaps led him in his Delhi remarks to say that he got a personal assurance that Prime Minister Modi was taking care of the problem. As you know, some people in the U.S. and India have criticized that statement. 

Although Indian-Americans tend to lean Democratic, President Trump has made considerable efforts to engage with the diaspora in an unprecedented way. In your NPR article on President Trump's visit to India, you mentioned that President Trump seeks political gains from this exercise, particularly related to his “favorability” abroad. Could you elaborate on why President Trump has repeatedly tried to engage with Indian-Americans?

When Trump goes abroad, he says he is looking out for American interests, and getting “deals” in areas of defense or otherwise. He also likes to be seen as respected on the world stage. These are the elements that his campaign will likely highlight from the India trip too.

In terms of Indian American voters, there are just not that many to make a huge difference. Besides they are concentrated in blue states or in big cities that tend to vote Democratic. 

That said, there might be a couple of reasons behind why the Trump campaign has been running ads on Indian channels in the U.S. One reason is because of campaign fundraising. There are a number of high net-worth Indian Americans, but also many others who are very active on the political side and donate to campaigns. They are trying to reach out and get these folks to donate to the campaign. 

A second aspect might that they think there are enough Indians in swing states that Trump won by a few thousand votes in 2016. So, he probably thinks that a few votes might make a difference in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. In other states like Florida, the number of Indian Americans probably cannot swing the state alone, but they can add to the total. 

One final thing is that Indian American votes could help in down-ballot races to bring out voters who do care about these issues. 

Having said that, as I mentioned at the end of my NPR article, we do know based on research, for example by Devesh Kapur at Johns Hopkins SAIS, that Indian American voters are quite diverse and tend to largely vote Democratic. 

Political scientists have drawn similarities between the populist approach of both leaders. However, what do you think are the main differences between the two?

There are key differences in their background and actual policies. For example, in terms of background, they come from extremely different economic classes. Trump comes from a wealthy family, and runs his family business. Modi came from little means and has worked his way up to the office of Prime Minister. 

Another difference is in their experience, Trump handled his family's business and came to Washington as an outsider to the policy world. Modi had a lot of government experience; he was Chief Minister of Gujarat multiple times. And even before that, he was also a political activist for a number of years. 

Their policies and political philosophies are also quite different. Modi is an economic populist who believes in a welfare state and has expanded the social welfare system in India in a way that is not something Trump or the Republican Party would do. Modi also has a very different idea of regulating business than Trump. 

There are also differences in Trump and Modi’s style. Trump can be very freewheeling in his style, while Modi is very controlled. You can see it in terms of how they deal with the media and twitter. Both complain about the media, but Trump is always ready to give press conferences. By contrast, Prime Minister Modi has not given many press conferences. In fact, I cannot recall more than one or two. 

It’s worth keeping in mind that even where Trump and Modi have similarities, it does not mean that U.S.-India agreement. Both of them have been quite protectionist, for example, and it has actually been a part of the problem in U.S.-India trade relations.

In the context of rising U.S.-China tensions, how did President Trump’s visit figure in Washington’s strategic calculations?  Was there any specific and significant China-related outcome from this visit?

In terms of strategic calculations, Washington has seen India from a certain perspective over the two or three administrations. Particularly, the Bush and Obama administrations saw their relationship with India in the context of the rise of China. The logic of these strategic frameworks is that the behavior of a rising China is of concern to the U.S. (and India), so a good relationship with democratic India is both important because India can act as a counterbalance to China and because it can serve as a democratic contrast to China: a large Asian country that is a democracy that could show that democracy and development are not mutually exclusive. India has figured in multiple administrations’ calculations in this way. 

Different administrations have had different plans to broaden this relationship. In the Obama era, India fit into the pivot or rebalance to Asia, when the then U.S. Defense Secretary called India the “linchpin” of the pivot strategy. The Trump administration's version has been to give India a crucial role in its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision, as one of the four critical “democratic anchors” in the region i.e. as one of the countries both willing and capable of maintaining a rules-based order in the region given shared concerns about China’s potential to upset that rules-based order. Officials sometimes don't say it explicitly but that is what has caused a number of people in the current administration to want to seek and enhance defense and security relations with India. 

China is very important if you look at the context for this visit, particularly their shared concerns. 

In terms of specifics, I suspect there was discussion about China privately. In terms of something concrete, we saw the helicopter deals. This was done in part to enhance India’s defense capability with respect to China. Preceding the visit, we saw a U.S.-India defense and diplomacy “2+2” with the Foreign and Defense Ministers of India and the Secretaries of State and Defense of the U.S. meeting and reaching concrete agreements. U.S. Defense Secretary Esper was scheduled to visit India to take forward some agreements, but this visit was postponed due to the coronavirus crisis. 

A third area to highlight is that during President Trump’s visit, we saw the announcement that the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) would be setting up an office in India. This could facilitate the two countries working on infrastructure projects bilaterally and coordinating development projects regionally. The DFC is in part designed to offer alternative financing to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The fact that the DFC is setting up an office in India could mean not just financing of projects in India, such as with the $600 million announced for renewable projects in India, but also providing a platform for the U.S. and India to cooperate and coordinate on their regional connectivity initiatives.

Shreya Bhatnagar CMC '20Student Journalist

White House / Public domain

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