Published:  12:03 AM, 24 February 2020

Namaste Trump!

Namaste Trump!

Last September, the US saw the largest gathering ever for a foreign leader on its soil when more than 50,000 Indian-origin Americans and NRIs gathered in Houston, Texas, to see and hear Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  The event was termed, "Howdy Modi," and even US President Donald Trump made sure to be there.

This week in Ahmedabad, India, Modi intends to return the favor with "Namaste Trump," and both the city and nation are wildly excited about it.  While much of the excitement is about the "bromance" between the two men, the two savvy leaders are making sure that the trip will be about a lot more.

The bromance-a non-romantic, non-sexual relationship between two men who have a great deal of personal fondness for each other-is real and contributes to the two leaders being able to work out their differences and maximize their common interests.

For instance, while each of them is committed to putting their respective nations first, that fondness has enabled them to find common ground despite resulting trade and other conflicting interests.  Trump was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Modi on his re-election, and Modi was the first to congratulate Trump on his election.

Trade will be a big part of the visit, however, merely focusing on that alone only isolation highlights the importance of the geopolitically significant US-India relationship.  One would expect that Modi's "Make in India" initiatives and Trump's focus on America first economics, would pretty much scuttle cooperation between the two nations, which makes it highly significant that the two countries find so much on which to agree.

It also shows that these two men can keep their egos in check and maintain focus on what is really importance.  Some Indian media outlets are predicting as many as five agreements coming out of President Trump's visit.  Two likely ones are India's $2.6 million purchase of 24 Seahawk helicopters; and the US giving India a pass on duties and tariffs for a specific period in return.

Media and self-styled experts enjoy finding problems in general and with these two leaders in particular, and have minimized the value of the visit, one terming it "window dressing."

But if these experts have been consistent in anything, it has been in underestimating both leaders.  Regardless of conflicting interests, there will be a much greater geopolitical issue looming largely over the two men's discussions:  China.  No matter what other differences the US and India might have, their shared determination to strengthen India as a counterbalance to Chinese expansionism will overcome all of them.

  In fact, looking down the line, it is more likely that both Trump and Modi want to make India the premier superpower in Asia.  To be realistic, they all won't be overcome during this particular visit.  Modi and Trump are both tough and disciplined negotiators.  But eventually, the China factor will be the glue keeping the two men, and the two countries together for a long time.

China has attacked US and Indian interests on a range of fronts in the past decade, perhaps none as cynical as in its attitude toward the countries victimized by its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), more popularly known as China's "debt trap diplomacy." 

By now, even the least savvy borrower is aware of BRI's wreckage in Montenegro and its seizure of ports in Sri Lanka (Hambantota) and Pakistan-occupied Balochistan (Gwadar); but they might not be aware of all the restrictions debtor nations live under because of BRI. 

Take Pakistan, for example, a country formed specifically as an Islamic Republic, whose China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is considered BRI's crown jewel.  Yet, it has been effectively muzzled from making even the slightest comment about China's horrific persecution of its Uyghur Muslims.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has been forced to remain a silent spectator to China's anti-Muslim repression.  Force feeding them pork and putting over a million in high tech concentration camps is only one part of China's anti-Muslim policy (a policy important enough for China to have put it directly under the all-powerful Politburo).

Muslims are under constant surveillance and, according to the BBC, can be imprisoned for growing a long beard, making an international call, or browsing the internet.  While Pakistan recently canceled some BRI contracts, it likely is too little too late.

CPEC has cemented its subservience to China.  More than a third of all BRI debtor nations were found to be at "high risk" for debt servicing problems, and eight (including Pakistan) were considered to be at especially serious risk by the Center for Global Development.

Beyond that-and here is where Trump and Modi come back into the conversation-BRI has never really been about infrastructure as advertised.  Rather, it exists to further China's ambitions to anchor its geopolitical aim to outflank the US and India.  In fact, surrounding and "containing" India has been an element of Chinese foreign policy for decades.  A strong US-India relationship is the best way to defeat that and maintain the independence of all SAARC nations.

Add to that the fact that Trump and Modi share a similar political and economic philosophy, both being proud capitalists and believers in the free market, and there might be no better way to prove its capitalism's superiority than to defeat the still state-managed economy of Communist China.  Both leaders also are fighting opposition to their efforts to control their nations' borders and stop illegal immigration, and both also face unrelenting attacks from their political left.

There is no better way to silence their opponents than with economic and geopolitical success.  Modi already won a landslide victory last year, and all predictions point to a Trump victory in November.  Taken together, that is why the Trump-Modi relationship and the impending Namaste Trump visit have been greeted with such high expectations.

Ahmedabad is getting a serious facelift ahead of President Trump's arrival, which is something I have fun contemplating since Ahmedabad is the first place I got to know Narendra Modi when he was Gujarat's Chief Minister.  (I recall telling him years ago: "Today, I call you 'Mr. Chief Minister.'  But one day I will call you 'Mr. Prime Minister'.")  That relationship helped me give direction to my work in South Asia, and I always will be grateful for Prime Minister Modi's long support for my efforts to stop the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh.

Even those of us who believe we have some sort of "special insight" or "inside information" can do little more than speculate on how many military, economic, and geopolitical agreements will come out of the Modi-Trump get-together.  The only things that are certain are that the two men will renew one of the great relationships among world leaders and that the visit will be a gala of an event that people will be talking about for a long time to come.


The writer is an American scholar and geopolitical analyst


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