The India-US relationship has conventionally been undergirded by commonly shared democratic traditions, despite periodic upheavals. Thanks to president Donald Trump, this is likely to change soon and acquire a transactional shade based on quid pro quo, where acknowledgement is contingent on favours extended.
This was evident when Trump unveiled his long overdue strategy for Afghanistan, a nettlesome issue that’s remained unresolved through the last four presidencies to now bedevil a fifth one. Apart from his trademark bluster and rhetoric, Trump’s speech revealed two distinct strands: a deal-based approach to achieving strategic objectives, and, a marked candour that separates his speech from the studied diplomatese of past presidents.
Obviously, no speech on Afghanistan and South Asia can ignore India. But, Trump’s hat-tip to India and its critical role in maintaining regional stability has acquired a new binary, apart from a foreboding tenor: “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”
This is a curious statement, tethering Indo-US trade to India’s help in Afghanistan, and can be parsed in multiple ways.
One, this is a clear and overt threat: cooperate or else. President Trump has been waving the trade flag in all his perorations concerning India. He has been unequivocal about seeking enhanced market access for US goods and services. The joint press statement issued during prime minister Narendra Modi’s Washington DC visit has him saying: “It is important that barriers be removed to the export of US goods into your markets, and that we reduce our trade deficit with your country.” Indo-US trade touched $114.8 billion during 2016, with India enjoying a $30.8-billion trade surplus. It would seem Trump has made India’s trade with the US contingent upon cooperation in Afghanistan.
There is a second aspect. India’s port and associated connectivity projects in Chabahar, south-east Iran, have been delayed. The port, and its rail and road linkages, are expected to provide India an alternative trade route to Afghanistan and other central Asian republics, bypassing Pakistan. The highway linking that port with Hajigak mines in Afghanistan is expected to facilitate movement of iron ore for Indian steel plants. The Afghan Iron and Steel Consortium, a group of six companies led by public sector Steel Authority of India and brothers Naveen and Sajjan Jindal, has won concessions for three iron ore mines, including projects to set up steel and power generating companies in the Hajigak region. Connectivity is expected to help operationalise the $10 billion project, which is beneficial for both India and Afghanistan.
Many similar Indian projects are either in limbo or progressing slowly due to a combination of factors: concerns over security, changing domestic political configurations in Afghanistan, and the global economic slowdown rendering initial cost and revenue estimates awry. A lot will, therefore, depend now on how the US plays its cards with Iran and how additional US boots on Afghan soil affect India’s spectrum of projects in the war-ravaged economy.
There is a third angle, albeit an unspoken one. There has been speculation for some time now that Trump’s Afghan adventure is fuelled by a desire to help US companies access the nation’s vast mineral resources, still unexploited. The minerals range from iron ore, copper, and zinc to precious gems (lapis lazuli, emeralds, rubies) and even rare earth minerals like lithium. Many of these are being illegally mined by the Taliban and other militant rebel factions, largely as a funding source. While many estimates about the value of minerals trapped under Afghan soil have been thrown around, it is believed that the lure of access to these resources is what changed a reluctant president’s mind about continuing the US’s engagement in Afghanistan.
Trump’s exhortation to India on Afghanistan could, thus, also be viewed as an implicit inducement: cooperate and we will allow you to share in the mineral spoils.
Finally, the Indian reference could be an attempt to placate the US’s strategic and political community, which has as many India supporters as opposers. Hence, the attempt to pack both “for and against” sentiments into a short and contradictory statement.
On its part, the Indian ministry of external affairs (MEA) has welcomed Trump’s Afghan initiative, though the gamely and cryptic approval is conspicuously silent on the noisy undertones of the speech. Any shades of glee detectable in MEA’s response, can, of course, be attributed to schadenfreude.
Trump has thundered against Pakistan and held out direct threats to that country. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond…We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars; at the same time, they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.”
The MEA’s official reaction welcoming issues of safe havens and cross-border terrorism was predictably pointed.
To be fair, the MEA’s response has been circumscribed by the duality in Trump’s speech. His bluntness on Pakistan is a break from usual president-speak: This is the first time that a sitting US president has openly used such harsh words against traditional ally Pakistan. At the same time, the ambiguity arising from the odd pairing used in the India reference, which is open to multiple interpretations, is bewildering. But it does reveal a slice of Trump’s foreign policy bias: a calculus that will increasingly be based on give-and-take.
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