US President Donald Trump is likely to finally get a wall, but it will be coming up thousands of miles away from the US-Mexico border in the city of Ahmedabad, India. The wall will greet Trump on his two-day visit to India starting February 24.
The wall is being built on the directions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to hide the slums that lie along the road that Trump will take on his visit to the city. Ahmedabad is in Modi’s home state, Gujarat, and began serving as a destination for visiting dignitaries soon after Modi came to power in May 2014.
A few years ago when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Ahmedabad, the slums were hidden from view using swathes of cloth. This time the Indian government wanted a more permanent wall.
But much like the wall that wants to hide some obvious unpleasant failures, the visit by Trump is likely to be more optics than substance. Just weeks before the planned visit, the US government ended any Indian hope of getting market access under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) scheme.
Bilateral trade shocks
According to the office of the US Trade Representative, India is no longer a “developing nation” and therefore ineligible for preferential trade access. The USTR considers countries with shares of 0.5% or more of world trade to be developed countries. Thus, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam are ineligible for the preference even though, based on the most recent World Bank data, each country has a per-capita gross national income below $12,375.
While the US exports to India goods and services worth US$58.7 billion, it imports $83.9 billion from India. India is the United States’ ninth largest trading partner and has benefited from the GSP scheme, as well as being tagged as a “developing country.”
Researcher Frank O’Donnell, a post-doctoral fellow of the US Naval War College who spoke in a personal capacity with Asia Times, noted that saving the trade relationship would be a priority for India’s leader.
Modi’s principal goal during Trump’s visit, he said, would be to reduce as much as possible the potential for a US “trade showdown” with India, to avoid further damage to India’s sluggish economy. Trump’s economic adviser Peter Navarro was contemplating such a trade war in December 2019, he noted.
The head of IT industry association NASSCOM, Debjani Ghosh, has also expressed concern at the “discriminatory” nature of US visas given to Indian professionals. “We’re at a loss trying to figure out why we’re seeing the kind of discrimination when this is actually benefiting the US,” she said in a report in the UK Financial Times.
“We just have one request to [our] government, which is — talk to him [Trump], make him understand the importance of high-skilled talent mobility,” Ghosh said. “We have to ensure that he understands that this cannot be treated the same way as immigration — they’re two different things. That’s our biggest ask.”
On the bilateral trade front, O’Donnell believes that “in recent weeks Modi has begun to prepare deliverables for the summit that aim to improve US market access and lessen pressure within the Trump administration for more punitive tariffs.” Delhi has proposed a tariff reduction on imported Harley-Davidson motorcyles, and opening its dairy, turkey and fruit markets to US suppliers.
As an ideal goal, Modi will attempt to build upon these proposals and his warm personal relationship with Trump, as evidenced by the “Howdy, Modi!” Houston event in September last year, to fully reverse Trump’s decision to remove India from its GSP list of developing countries that get tariff-free access. While that is unlikely at this stage, Modi will at least attempt to secure as many different exemptions for specific Indian exports as possible from the US’s new post-GSP tariffs.
Shaky strategic alliance
The strategic relationship between India and the US is also going to figure high in the delegation-level talks. Indian government sources say the Trump administration has been looking at “containing” China’s influence and sees India as a “key partner.”
The US is also trying to build the “Quad” – a maritime alliance with India, Australia and Japan as the other partners – with an eye on Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
However, frustration with the “slow pace” of India’s willingness to build this “partnership” is growing rapidly.
The US is also posting an officer from the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to the embassy in New Delhi on a permanent basis. This is an attempt to find ways to build more interoperability between the Indian and US special forces. India will be one of the few countries where the US has billets for SOCOM representatives.
Much of the current strategic bilateral relationship also hinges on how the Trump administration is placed on Kashmir. The disputed region has been a major bone of contention with Pakistan and is linked to US moves to pull out of Afghanistan, Indian government sources told Asia Times.
“Modi’s focus on trade will also complement efforts to deepen the US political and military partnership,” O’Donnell said. “India is presently aiming to conclude the purchase of 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters in time for the summit, improving India’s naval attack capabilities while ensuring that Trump can highlight another gain for US manufacturers under his leadership.
“Modi will likely prioritize extracting supportive comments from Trump regarding India’s ongoing suppression in Kashmir. This would enable Indian diplomats to drive a wedge between White House support and the growing opposition to the crackdown from the State Department and members of US Congress,” he said.
“Modi will also attempt to persuade Trump to weaken US ties with Pakistan, framing India and the US as locked in a fight against a common enemy of Islamist terrorism, and casting Pakistan as a supporter of that rival camp.”