ON way to Foggy Bottom from the Dulles international airport in the spring of 2016 to cover the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, I noticed an under-construction metro line with a little unusual design in the middle of the road. The Pakistani cabby helpfully explained that this was in the making for some years and had missed multiple deadlines. Meant to connect DC downtown with Dulles and beyond, the line was originally slated to open in 2018. Last checked it has been pushed to 2020, and the authorities are not sure if even this deadline would be met.
Apart from the irony of a Pakistani mocking America look at the other fact. Roughly in the same period that urban planners at the federal capital of the United States of America have struggled to get its metro right with cost and time delays, China has built 29,000-kms of High Speed Rail (HSR), accounting for two-thirds of global HSR networks. This is just one of the many possible ways to give you an idea of where the sun is rising in the global geopolitical firmament.
America under Donald Trump reflects the anxieties of a power in wane. For the outside world, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is an acknowledgement that the greatness needs salvage. For reasons to be judged by history, America has chosen to build moats and look within for that salvage mission. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in New Delhi this week, would he come with some understanding of these hard facts on the ground? Pompeo’s visit is the first high profile US engagement with India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned to power, and a build up to a possible bilateral between Trump and Modi on the side-lines of G20 summit in Japan later this month.
While Pompeo created just the right atmospherics ahead of his visit with the “Modi Hai Toh Mumkin Hai” line at a recent DC speech, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) has been more hawkish, brandishing a Section 301 Trade Act investigation against India, making the Delhi summer hotter for Indo-US relations. It is also hot on the heels of the recent trade spat that saw India slapping tariffs on import of American goods worth USD 250 million, in retaliation to US withdrawal of Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) affecting similar Indian exports to the United States. Trump has termed India ‘tariff king’ and his administration has launched maximum complaints against India at the WTO after China. There is no sign yet of America considering a CAATSA waiver for India’s purchase of S-400 missile shield from Russia, or an alternative to Iran beyond buying American oil. From the high of 2008 Condoleeza Rice testimony before the US Senate on the Indo-US nuclear deal, the bilateral relationship seems to have come full circle. Or has it?
Juxtapose this picture of doom with a very different set of happenings on the strategic front. From almost zero at the beginning of the century, India’s defence imports from the US have crossed 17 billion dollars at last count. The United States designated India a major defence partner in 2016 and renamed the Pacific command (PACOM) as Indo-Pacific to reflect India’s geostrategic relevance in the region. While logistics (LEMOA) and communications (COMCASA) sharing agreements kick in a synergy between the forces of the two nations in the Indian Ocean geography, more defence purchases are in the pipeline. Though not good for India, the tapering of trade surplus from USD 21 billion in 2018 to about USD 16 billion now should also provide some cushion to the Trump administration to focus on the strategic dimension instead.
When the two nations had decided to overcome the hesitations of history at the turn of the century, America was not investing in the India of that day but of India of 2030 and beyond. While Obama administration’s configuring of India as the ‘Pivot to Asia’ sounded more transactional than what even Trump could have conjured, from New Delhi’s perspective Pompeo visit provides a fresh opportunity to reset the dynamics of engagement. Speaking about President Trump in an interview to CNN’s Jake Tapper this Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence said that “this was a president who is always going to count the costs.” Irrespective of the projection, the trade war is going to hurt US as much as it would the global economy. In the first five months of 2019, while the China-US trade has come down by about 10 per cent, China’s exports and forex reserves continue to grow. I believe team-Modi should be ready with a list of its own “counting the costs” to Pompeo, who by all DC accounts is a friend of India. It is unlikely that a winding down America is going to turn a globalizer just at the behest of the Modi government. We will have to learn to live with it.