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Trump’s India tilt

February 26, 2018


LAST week, Donald Trump Jr visited India to tour and promote properties licensed by the Trump Organisation. The visit has been controversial in the US, blurring the lines between business and politics, and creating discomfort around the potential conflicts of interest between the US president’s official position and his commercial interests as represented by his son. Democrats and ethics watchdogs especially objected to Trump Jr’s plans to make a speech on Indo-Pacific ties, arguing that as a private citizen on a business trip, the president’s son should not discuss US foreign policy. (The address was cancelled hours before it was scheduled to take place.)

While protocol may ultimately have been observed, there is no doubt that there was a political dimension to Trump Jr’s visit. Senators rightly noted that the president’s son would be perceived as representing the US government. The mangled plans for a foreign policy address did not help discourage this perception. Nor did Modi’s presence at the business conference Trump Jr attended. And photos of a member of Trump’s family, garlanded and sporting a bindi, say it all: the Trump brand — the father, the son, and their whole set-up — are entranced by India.

That message is reiterated by the US’s steadily declining relations with Pakistan. Trump Jr’s cavorts with Indian businessmen coincided with the FATF plenary where the US successfully lobbied to have Pakistan ‘grey listed’ for failing to sufficiently tackle money laundering and terrorism financing. Simul­ta­neously, Trump’s deputy press secretary stated that the US president is “not satisfied with progress when it comes to Pakistan”. The FATF blow is the latest pressure tactic by Washington, following suspension of aid and demands to root out Afghan militant sanctuaries.

The FATF blow is the latest pressure tactic by the US.

All this is sufficient to make conspiracy theorists who have long railed against a supposed US-India nexus to destabilise and isolate Pakistan feel vindicated. But it is not as simple as that.

Trump Jr’s visit indicates that the tilt to India is driven by the mixed motivations of this particular administration. It is probably no coincidence that, according to a November 2016 Washington Post report, the Trump Organisation has more business interests in India than any other foreign country. The first family is not beyond using strong political ties now to reap the financial windfall once Trump’s term ends: while in India, Trump Jr griped about not being able to strike new deals owing to his father’s position and said he expected to be “welcomed again with open arms” once his family was out of politics.

India is also receptive to Trump’s art-of-the-deal version of diplomacy, which is dominated by transactions such as defence deals. As such, there is likely much short-termism in the US approach that is pro-India and hard on Pakistan. Although Washington and Delhi agree on some major issues — such as curtailing China’s regional role — they will continue to disagree on many issues, ranging from economic, energy and environmental policies to US hopes that India will be a more willing participant in its various regional interventions. Future administrations will likely seek to rebalance the US’s South Asia strategy, recognising the value of keeping Pakistan on side.

The FATF debacle is also a good reminder that the regional equation is not as simple as India-US versus Pakistan-China. Pakistan was reportedly grey listed because the US urged China and Saudi Arabia to drop their opposition to the move. This is unsurprising. Nations, including our key allies, have multiple interests that need to be deftly secured in a multipolar world. Rather than pursue an equally sophisticated, multipronged foreign policy, Pakistan continues to be reliant on the goodwill of friends, wounded by betrayals, petulant in response.

There are, however, signs that good sense might prevail. Backc­hannel talks between Pakistan and the US continue at the highest (military) levels. This subtle diplomacy is the best approach to ride out Trump’s Indophilia, and should include civilian as well as military representatives to ensure that any bilateral understanding forged is holistic and serves Pakistan’s myriad interests, not security concerns alone.

While Trump Jr chugged champagne with India’s business elite, our prime minister joined hands with representatives from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and India to inaugurate the TAPI gas pipeline. This project offers a different vision for the region than the one proffered in Trump’s tweets and his family’s business networking, and championed by the previous US administration — one of a region integrated by energy connectivity and mutual economic interests. The TAPI pipeline has had several false starts and still faces financing and security hurdles (despite an Afghan Taliban promise to protect the pipeline) that may yet stymie its ambitious two-year completion deadline. But as far as pipe dreams go, it offers a better alternative to the deepening rifts on all sides.

The writer is a freelance journalist.
Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2018