Modi’s US nexus | Shahzad Chaudhry

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Imagine you were a chaiwala, and one day you made it as the prime minister of India. Would you not go crazy embracing everyone you came across? In Western culture, they are kind of startled at this, but in South Asia you hold hands for fun and jostle and embrace routinely. So even Trump could not understand what was happening when Modi hugged him twice in a formal presentation in front of the press in the Rose Garden.

We had our own chaiwala. He is now modelling and making it better for himself and his family. Good luck to good looks – and why not. But Modi, the chai wala, was thrust in a different league. Outshining leading icons of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and gaining the blessings of the ideology-driven, Hindutva brandishing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, equivalent to the Klu Klux Klan of White America is no mean achievement.

Chief minister-ship of Gujarat may have once been a bridge too far, what to say of premiership. Yet both fell in his lap in quick succession when providence decided to overwhelm him with goodness beyond imagination. Body grabs and embraces may be an insufficient expression of boundless joy when you end up being as lucky. Modi has made the farthest in contemporary history and finds it difficult to behold being on the same mantle where the Churchills and the Gandhis and the Kennedys of history have stood.

The president of the US is the president of the US, even if it be Donald Trump; most end up fidgeting in that hallowed company with all the trappings and aura of the Oval Office. Mind you, you only get invited to the White House. That is why you take it even if it is not an official visit and only a working visit. (Such characterisation is purely administrative and determines the level of protocol and expense to be offered.)

But let’s move on. This hyperbole of the Indo-US nexus is far overblown. And Modi’s embraces of Trump or before that of Obama in Washington or in Delhi are absolutely no reflection of it. The two countries – India and the US – at this point of time in history find a convergence in objectives, vis-a-vis China. To both China is a threat; to India a present threat and to the US an emerging threat. It is thus natural that the two find themselves on the same side. To India, China is an enemy; to the US, China ‘could’ be an enemy. India can do little to face off China with its current power potential; the US can do a lot but would like someone else to do it for them. It creates an opportunity then for the two to tango.

A US-China war will have consequences. It will upstage the global order, it has the potential to upscale to a global war, and risks common economic stakes. A collapsed global economic structure will unleash societal and economic forces unable to be contained within borders. The collapse of societies will foment chaos. This war is, thus, unlikely to happen. The US’ total debt has at least a trillion coming from China, with another trillion finding investment in the US. That ties both into a binding relationship forcing each to seek other’s buoyancy. Only a sound America can return China’s money, while an afloat China alone can invest more in the American economy and keep the dollar alive. They will, thus, not fight.

So how does the US then stop China? By a thousand cuts. Little strokes of constant pain and stumbles imposed by proxies in regions where China seeks eminence, or in its vicinity by players who can do America’s bidding. The South China Sea is a hornet’s nest. The US would like India to join the fun there. Similarly, India is apprehensive of China’s string of pearls in the Indian Ocean that it thinks encircles their landmass. China, whose riches come from production and trade while its people realise prosperity through jobs producing tradeable surplus, holds incumbency in protecting its routes and must therefore vie for equal presence if not domination of the Indian Ocean and its choke points. This amounts to a potential confrontation. CPEC is one alternative for China against the world ganging up around the Spratlys and Malacca. India, in turn, hopes to make up for its inadequacies in the IOR using America’s props.

The reality of the nexus? India has a $30 billion plus balance of trade in its favour with the US. India does it with additional tariffs against any and all to protect its industry – one reason among a few more why Pakistan could not give India the MFN status in days when such thought was possible. Modi’s mantra is ‘Make in India’; Trumps is ‘Buy American’. The two will find it difficult to marry such ideals opposed in their intent and construct. India wants American technology; the US wants India to submit to the control regimen on it through inviolable undertakings which amount to giving up sovereign control. India will have to digest such affronts before foreign masters if it wishes to gain from Modi yatras.

The Indo-US nuclear deal was not meant only to give India accession to the NSG, but essentially to enable the NSG members to sell nuclear materials to India to create jobs in their respective countries; in the US to revive a flagging nuclear reactors industry. The liability laws and various other instruments as the CISMOA keep India from progressing beyond mere MOUs. So all isn’t as nexus-ist as we make it to be. India is a difficult partner in anything and the US, so tied by its own regulatory mechanisms, just cannot bypass anyone of those even if it be to countervail China as a strategic imperative.

The over one billion growing market of India is enough honey for one and any to salivate on. It cannot be a reflection of hatred for Pakistan. As is for China which is far ahead and far independent thus in its own projection through economic inducement. So when Modi and Trump grappled and embraced it wasn’t in hate for Pakistan but each found a complementarity to their respective motives with the other. Modi, beyond reasons of mere overawed company, happens to be in a difficult region where he needs exalted company to assert his presence. The US will only oblige by incremental baiting, and by making India sign the celibacy annulment compromise.

Modi is in a difficult place. He has the newfound Indian arrogance to carry and the reality of its inadequacies to hide. It is a tough ask. Best to lunge at the other guy saturating his responses in literal terms. You need to just look at the faces of anyone he crashes into. They really are out of sorts for a while before they know what hit them. For the moment this is mostly a bodily nexus.