Saturday, July 08, 2017

When Modi meets Trump: Expectations are deliberately being kept low for US visit

No other foreign tour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has generated the kind of interest that his upcoming visit to the US is doing. No doubt it has to do with the personality of the current occupant of the White House, the unpredictable President Donald Trump.
GoI is keeping its fingers crossed and working out offerings for the visit: a UAV deal topped, perhaps, by one to make F-16s. Expectations of getting something in return are being kept deliberately low. Tamashas like the Madison Square Garden event of 2014 are out; Trump’s allergy to immigrants and immigration is well known. Issues like H1-B visas, trade deficit and market access, and the fight against terror remain in the books, but none of them are game changers. Our political relations still remain at the somewhat hyperbolic and declaratory stage. So, the actual danger to India is suffering collateral damage as a result of Trump’s policies elsewhere.
They have already created a sense of uncertainty in east Asia and Europe though their consequences for India are marginal. But there is one disruption that can be disastrous for us and it appears Trump has been working hard at it. This is roiling the volatile Middle East.
This is the most important external region for India, way beyond the much hyped Indo-Pacific. Qatar provides us 65% of our natural gas, Saudi Arabia 19% of our oil, along with significant amounts from Iran, Kuwait and Iraq. UAE is our third largest trading partner. Chabahar in Iran helps us bypass the Pakistani blockade and the region is a fertile ground for our private and public sector companies. The truly loyal 7 million strong diaspora remits $35 billion every year.
Trump’s outreach to the Muslim world has become an embrace of Saudi Arabia, a country central to the rise of Islamic extremism. Emboldened by Trump’s effusive support and leavened by a $110 billion arms deal, the Saudis have since led a draconian embargo on Qatar, ironically, for supporting terrorism. Trump added salt to the wound by attacking Qatar for funding terrorism “at a very high level”. He seemed to be unaware that Qatar hosts the biggest US military base in the region, set up after the Saudis kicked out the US. In the process Turkey, a key Nato ally, has lined up with Qatar, along with Shia Iran.
In the last two weeks we have seen a bizarre situation where the US has signed a $12 billion deal to supply Qatar air force with F-15 fighters, and the US state department has backtracked on the president’s words and demanded that the Saudis and their allies come up with a credible justification of their embargo.
The bigger danger is from the Trump administration’s Iran policy which the Americans say is still evolving. Trump accused Tehran of spreading terrorism even as the country re-elected reformist Hassan Rouhani as president. Last week, secretary of state Rex Tillerson openly advocated regime change in Tehran. Iranians, whose nuclear deal has been certified by the state department, are doing much of the ground fighting against IS, an alleged target of the Trump administration.
So we have all the ingredients of a crisis, indeed a possible war, in a region of extreme importance to India. As the record shows, its prime mover appears to be President Trump and his inept administration.
Modi has invested as much in the Middle East as in moving to a higher plane in his relationship with the US. His visits to Riyadh, Dubai, Tehran and soon Tel Aviv, have sought to carefully, but decisively, enhance Indian interests without falling foul of the multiple fault lines of the region. He overcame the “hesitations of history” to sign up on a joint vision for Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean with the US. But all this and more could go up in smoke if the Gulf goes up in flames, with a match lit by the president of the United States.
Times of India June 24, 2017

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