Can Modi do a diplomatic aikido?

Can Modi do a diplomatic aikido?
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Highlights

Everything about Trump–Modi meeting is big. Their stature, issues at hand, people’s expectations, Opposition’s criticism, the venue, Trump’s motorcade including his official limousine called the 'beast' are all big! Their friendship is big and so are the differences in what they want for their respective countries.

Everything about Trump–Modi meeting is big. Their stature, issues at hand, people's expectations, Opposition's criticism, the venue, Trump's motorcade including his official limousine called the 'beast' are all big! Their friendship is big and so are the differences in what they want for their respective countries.

It is not just a meeting between ordinary leaders. Both are widely followed and avidly watched by the world. Having proved not only to their countrymen but to the world at large that they are politically invincible, they are brandishing their brand of nationalism – especially after redefining it!

Until Modi came, secularism was India's national interest and before Trump assumed power, it was immigration that was important for America. But both leaders changed the rules. They want to fiercely protect their nations.

In the last few years, India and US collaborated in a big way for defence, security, counterterrorism etc. The very fact that terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) released a video calling for "revenge" ahead of US President Donald Trump's India visit proves that both of them are being targeted for wanting to eliminate terrorism from the world.

But this bonhomie and camaraderie seen in bilateral and at multilateral meetings are also punctuated by differences. President Trump's comment "India had been hitting the US very hard" with high tariffs and in the same breath saying that he is very fond of Modi form the context of this meeting.

"I like you, but I don't like what you do…" is perhaps the defining backdrop – a meeting between friends who connect at a personal level but are cautious at a professional level.

Unequal partner

In India, everybody is busy discussing the outcome of the meeting. Opposition leaders seem to be concerned not only about a wall being allegedly built to hide slums in Ahmedabad but are worried that Trumps' visit might actually become an extension of US presidential election like 'Howdy Modi' event influencing Indian diaspora.

However, the industry and investor community is concerned about actual trade announcements. The political analyst community is all primed to see if their assumptions will be proved right – that the United States of America is unable to enter into an equal relationship with any partner in the world.

They blame it on its preeminent global power position with military bases all over the world that makes the US a big brother not to be treated as equal. According to them, as the most powerful country with a belief that it can shape the world according to its interests, if necessary, through military means America has become a tough partner for many.

The US has been described by a political commentator some time ago as a country that seeks a basketball-like end to negotiations — relatively short with defined objectives and a definitive outcome. And it is for the same reason that one can see a huge index of asymmetry in its favour in almost all its bilateral ties.

What does this mean for India? Recently the US has stripped off the 'developing nation' status of India. The US under Trump sees the world through the lens of 'commerce' and runs it through the sieve of what's good for America? In fact, traditional US allies like Germany, Japan and South Korea have all suffered similarly since Trump came to power.

In the past too there were differences between what Modi and Trump wanted - be it in investments, technology, arms or Indians working in the United States - were not on the same page. Remember the occasion when the United States was hoping to sell its F21 combat jets to India, but was unwilling to part with the technology? And also, when India acquired S-400 air-defence system from Russia, it was not pleased.

Recently the US revised the list of countries eligible for special concessions and removed India from that list. It is because India being a member of G-20 with more than 0.5 per cent of the world's trade share is classified as 'high income' economy by the World Bank.

Based on the classification, US removed benefits under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). In the past, India exported goods worth $6.3 billion to the US, taking benefit of the GSP structureand that gave us $240 million of duty concession. Now, all future exports will happen without this duty concession and that is what Modi doesn't want!

The business community here, notwithstanding this irritant, is expecting that Modi will ink a trade deal with maximum advantage to Indian manufacturing, exports, trade, international commerce, and service industry!

As China is going through one of its worst economic phases in recent years after the coronavirus outbreak and the US- China trade deal being a non-starter, India has this window of opportunity.

Moreover, India after rejecting Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is to yet formulate its strategic outreach. There is speculation that India and the US won't be signing the limited Free Trade Agreement and instead may decide to work on something much bigger: a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, that will encompass not just duty-free trade of merchandise, but also free movement of professionals and easier investment norms.

It is a great opportunity for India and a big task for trade negotiators, defence experts and diplomats to navigate this complex deal in India's favour.

Coming to geopolitics, President Trump wants to end engagement with Afghanistan while Modi wants it to continue. Trump wants not only to intensify sanctions against Iran but would be happy to initiate a war against it while Modi expects peace between them. After abrogation of Article 370, Trump offered to mediate between India and Pakistan. Modi diplomatically rejected that offer.

It is believed that President Donald Trump during this visit will raise the issue of religious freedom, claiming that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) represents a significant downturn in religious freedom in India.

India has recently become a preferred trade partner of the UK after its exit from the European Union, in fact the UK is planning a rather intense India outreach very soon.

But the recent differences between Trump and the newly elected Prime Minister of the UK in the context of the UK taking China's Huewei help for its 5G network when US has almost cut off all its trade ties with china did not remain confined just to their corner offices! The world is watching this open spat between Trump and Boris Johnson.

India has to be alert to this new equation.

Russia, traditionally India's ally is watching India's increasing bonhomie with the US. Given the complexity of the situation, Prime Minister Modi may have to show the art of "Aikido Diplomacy".

Aikido is a modern Japanese martial art where practitioners defend themselves while protecting their attacker from injury. The tactic of blending with an attacker's movements for the purpose of controlling their actions resembles a dance rather than a fight. This art is necessary for Modi especially when both nations want to balance their nationalist, cultural and economic agendas.

America has always been powerful. But the 21 century belongs to Asia and India is one of Asian Tiger economies. If India has an opportunity to emerge as the fulcrum of economic growth in Asia, it is now!

As they say, the world politics is a game of ruthless calculation of self-interest. The political and financial clout of the United States has made many a country give into its unreasonable dem¬ands. Can Modi's aikido diplomacy reverse the trend?

(The writer is BJP leader, president, Futuristic Cities, global thought leader, advisor on smart cities, governance & policy)

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