The Indian government has issued Donald Trump a formal invitation to attend the country’s Republic Day festivities in January of 2019. While foreign leaders attending prominent national celebrations is technically an apolitical gesture of friendship, in actual fact, such events are often make or break moments in terms of securing meaningful agreements. This phenomenon was recently brought to the fore when Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu attended Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on the 9th of May, thus solidifying Russia’s role as a guarantor of Israel’s territorial integrity, including parts of its territory legally defined by the UN as Syrian territory but which Israel has illegally occupied since 1967- the Golan Heights. It goes without saying that Netanyahu’s visit to Russia was about more than paying tribute to the 27 million Soviet citizens who gave their lives to destroy European fascism.
Trump plays hard to get
Rather than respond in a clear manner to India’s invite the Trump White House Press Secretary has said the following:
“I know that the invitation has been extended, but I don’t believe a final decision has been made. I do know that both Secretary Mattis and Secretary Pompeo will be traveling to India — I believe it’s next month — and will begin the dialogue and the process and potential discussion for a presidential visit later in the year”.
What this means in plain English is that Trump’s decision to attend the Republic Day celebrations will be largely contingent on the twice postponed ‘2+2’ meeting between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the United States which is now scheduled to take place in September.
What the US wanted from India
America’s south Asian pivot away from Pakistan and towards India corresponds with the US desire to essentially use the current Indian government’s position of hostility towards Beijing in order to try and limit China’s regional partnerships. Thus far, all the strategy has done is strengthen the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan but nevertheless, as part of the overarching strategy of integrating India into the so-called ‘Quad’ which will act as a Indian, Japanese, Australian and the US theoretical alternative to the Chinese One Belt–One Road initiative, there remains a long term goal in the US of trying to capitalise on India’s rivalry with China for its own strategic purposes.
Even here, the vague concept underlying the Quad has been generally preempted by swift Chinese responses in the Asia-Pacific region. As geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko writes,
“Vietnam is firmly in the American camp when it comes to the delineation of the South China Sea, whereas the US’ former colony of the Philippines has pivoted towards China ever since President Duterte came to office almost exactly two years ago. The Pentagon’s “pincer” plan to “trap” China between two weak but American-backed “Lead From Behind” claimants supported by the “Quad’s” other Indo-Japanese and Australian members has therefore failed and presented Beijing with the window of opportunity that it needed in order to break through the “containment” wall that was being built around it. It’s in this geopolitical context that it felt comfortable enough with the progress it’s made in backing up its claims to deploy state-of-the-art weaponry there.
The US and its allies are predictably fear mongering that this will somehow infringe on what they like to term as “freedom of navigation”, but the reality is that China wouldn’t “cut off its own nose to spite its face”, so to say, by interfering with maritime shipments through this route and inadvertently sabotaging its own trade networks. For that matter, Japan also wouldn’t be interested in this either, but the economic survival of the remaining three members of the “Quad” and their regional Vietnamese partner isn’t dependent on traversing the South China Sea beyond the disputed islets, hence why they’re less sensitive to any potential trade disruption here as the expected result of a forthcoming crisis.
China has proven that it’s the most powerful force in the South China Sea and has neutralized the US’ Vietnamese-Philippine “pincer” through the skillful use of Silk Road diplomacy with Manilla, meaning that Washington’s only real hope for responding to Beijing’s latest missile move in the region is to enhance its and the rest of the “Quad’s” military cooperation with Hanoi. As a prelude to this eventuality kicking into high gear, it can be anticipated that an infowar offensive will be launched in the near future in attempting to scare Vietnam into thinking that these Chinese armaments are directed against it and not the US naval assets in the area.
The “Quad” wants to formalize Vietnam’s already de-facto inclusion into this framework in order to create what could then be described as the ‘Quint’, but it first needs to manufacture a “publicly plausible” pretext for selling this unprecedented foreign policy realignment to the country’s public. The ASEAN state isn’t anywhere near powerful enough to challenge China on its own, hence why it would need to rely on the military expertise that only the US could realistically provide for it through a military partnership focusing mostly on naval and missile technologies. As ironic as it may be to imagine, there’s the distinct possibility that China’s missiles might one day soon be countered by American ones sold to Vietnam, but only if the infowar succeeds in making this ‘deal with the devil’ ‘acceptable”.
What the US wants from India
Because of the lopsided development of the Quad which has resulted in more confusion and contradiction than short termsuccess from the US perspective and because of the elephant in the room during any US talks with India is the fact that the US would never directly militarily intervene in a future conflict along India’s disputed colonial era borders with China, the US has set immediate goals for India which are far simpler in their ambition but far more insulting and even potentially devastating to India’s sense of independence for all intents and purposes.
The new short term goals that the US wants vis-a-vis its Indian partner can be described as follows:
1. India must stop buying oil from Iran by November at the latest or else face US sanctions
2. India must stop cooperating with its Cold War partner in Moscow on the purchases and upgrades military hardware as much as reasonably (or perhaps unreasonably based on how CAATSA waiver negotiations process) possible or else face US sanctions
Adding insult to injury, the US has at no time implied that any of these demands let alone the longer term ambitions of strengthening the Quad are contingent on India receiving any special treatment regarding the Trump tariff onslaught. India was in fact recent caught somewhat off guard by Washington’s refusal to exempt India from its blanket tariffs on steel and aluminium. This has had the effect of making at least some milder voices in New Delhi seek a quiet thaw in relations with China. However, the outcome of such a thaw is still far from guaranteed.
Taken in totality, India should not have been surprised that Trump would not look to exempt New Delhi from the wider global protectionist posture of the US in 2018. This is the case because the US has refused exemptions to nations that have been allies of the US for far longer than India including, Israel, the European Union, Canada and South Korea, while the hard fought exemptions for Japan remain at best a temporary and unsatisfactory fix in the eyes of many in Tokyo.
If there was any further doubting that Trump has no intention to “go easy” on India regarding trade, shortly after the 2+2 meeting was postponed for the second time, Trump stated,
“We have countries where, as an example, India, they charge up as much as 100 per cent tariff. We want the tariffs removed”.
Therefore, far from giving India preferential status in his wider trade war, Trump singled out India as a country whose own trade policies he feels are detrimental to America’s economic interests.
Appearance fees in geopolitics
In the United States many celebrities are given substantial fees to appear at events or even businesses like restaurants or discos in order to boost the prestige of any given business or long running event. In some cases, major celebrities are paid handsomely simply for being photographed at a given business or event for as little as five minutes so long as the photos indicate that said celebrity had a fantastic experience at said event or business.
As a man who was a major celebrity prior to entering politics and a master of branding, Trump will be well aware of this practice. In fact, it is almost certain that he received appearance fees of the aforementioned nature prior to his political career. Therefore, in making his appearance at India’s Republic Day directly contingent on the 2+2 meeting resulting in a zero-sum victory for the United States over India’s Iranian and Russian partnerships, Trump has essentially extrapolated the appearance fee to geopolitical proportions.
Trump is taking the gamble that India will do as the US says if it wants to be saved the embarrassment of Trump effectively snubbing India at a time when New Delhi seeks to present itself as an economic and even defence player in league with China. Like many gambles Trump has taken before, he may well win this one as India has made itself so reliant on the US in recent years that New Delhi may not be able to withstand US sanctions in the event that the south east Asian state continues to purchase oil from Iran and weapons from Russia against the wishes of Washington.
In Israel the US and Russia cooperate – in India they complete
There is a clear tendency among Indian experts who believe that cooperation with both Russia, Iran and the US is possible, to highlight recent developments in Israel. Both during and after his Helsinki Summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump remarked that both leaders share passionate concerns about Israel’s security and that the new reality is that both countries will continue to cooperate to ensure that Israel feels secure from what Tel Aviv labels threats.
The natural question to follow any realisation of the Russo-US cooperation over Israel is: why cannot the same thing happen with India? The answer lies in the fact that while it is in the geopolitical interest of Russia to cooperate with the US and Israel in order to attain a position of greater leverage over other rivalling factions in the Middle East, when it comes to India, the US and Russia are engaged in what amounts to a de-facto zero-sum rivalry to sell as much to India as possible. While India could theoretically purchase weapons from both sides as Turkey seeks to do, India’s apparent unwillingness to develop a Turkish like multipolar stamina in the face of zero-sum threats has made it so that India has boxed itself into a corner and will likely have to choose either Russia or the US as a result of its own short term thinking. This is especially the case unless India reverses its policies towards China as a Sino-Indian partnership could leverage the current competition between Russia and the US in India’s favour.
While the outcome of the forthcoming and now long awaited 2+2 meeting is anything but assured, if one were to sleep from now until next year’s Republic Day in India, one could judge the results of the summit based on the appearance or absence of Donald Trump at India’s biggest parade.