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India must be wary about dealing with Trump

April 18, 2018 11:47 IST

'The biggest challenge Swaraj and Sitharaman will face is how far they can take their counterparts Pompeo and Mattis seriously.'
'One just doesn't know how long they will even keep their jobs.'
'They are basically salesmen peddling American wares.'
'Actually, there is nothing like 'American policies' in the Trump era,' says Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with United States President Donald J Trump at the White House, June 2017.
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with United States President Donald J Trump at the White House, June 2017.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said 'no' to fast tracking talks with her American counterpart James Mattis.

Delhi prefers that the originally planned 2+2 foreign and defence minister-level meeting takes place first before 'Mad Dog' Mattis got his turn.

The Pentagon betrayed its interest in somehow getting Sitharaman across to Washington as quickly as possible, being the decision maker on arms purchases.

external Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's power lies, after all, in using twitter only. The American zest to regard the Naredra D Modi government as an ATM machine has become so brazen and scandalous.

Sales by US vendors zoomed to $5 billion in 2017 and the predatorial instinct is rearing its hood.

Just as Sitharaman was travelling to Moscow recently, The New York Times held out a crude threat that US sanctions against Russia might come to haunt India if she dared to finalise the deal for the S-400 missile defence system or the Russian fifth-generation jet stealth aircraft.

In the event, Sitharaman didn't close the deals, but the fact is that the Americans just alerted us about the pitfalls of putting all our eggs in their basket.

Given the American panache for imposing sanctions on countries with independent foreign policies, Delhi needs to be extra vigilant.

 

Meanwhile, the fate of the '2+2' format as such remains unclear.

What is this format anyway?

From the American side, quite obviously, the format is useful for canvassing business such as Lockheed Martin's push to sell single-engine pre-historic F-16 fighter jets to India whose production is being phased out in the US.

Fundamentally, a question mark needs to be put on the strategic assumptions underlying India's 'defining partnership' with the US now that there has been a change of guard in the foreign policy establishment in South Block.

Simply put, the foreign policy trajectory pursued during the period from January 2015 till February 2018 proved to be detrimental to India's interests and strategic autonomy.

The current trends in regional and international politics underscore the importance of strengthening India's strategic autonomy: The downhill slide in India-China relations; the tensions in US-Russia relations; the looming US-China trade war; the thaw in China-Japan relations; China-ASEAN normalisation; China's growing influence in South Asia, etc.

But the biggest challenge that Swaraj and Sitharaman will face as co-chairpersons of the '2+2' format with the US is how far they can take their counterparts Mike Pompeo and Mattis seriously.

Not only are these gentlemen not authoritative enough to spell out US policies, one just doesn't know how long they will even keep their jobs. They are basically salesmen peddling American wares.

Actually, there is nothing like 'American policies' in the Trump era.

The Washington Post carried two reports this week underlining the utter confusion within the Trump administration. Even the president is not necessarily the last word.

One of these two astonishing reports titled 'Trump a reluctant hawk has battled his top aides on Russia and lost' narrates shocking details on how the former NSA in the White House H R McMaster simply hoodwinked a bumbling Trump into approving the proposal to expel 60 Russian diplomats from the US last month:

'The next day, when the expulsions were announced publicly, Trump erupted, officials said. To his shock and dismay, France and Germany were each expelling only four Russian officials...'

'The president, who seemed to believe that other individual countries would largely equal the United States, was furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia...'

'Growing angrier, Trump insisted that his aides had misled him about the magnitude of the expulsions. "There were curse words," the official said, "a lot of curse words".'

The second Washington Post report narrates how even the famous Nikki Haley can no longer pretend to be Trump's authoritative voice.

I am reminded of the Roman emperor Caligula (AD 37-41). He had a favorite horse Incitatus whom he once planned to designate as Roman consul.

Caligula used to hold parties for friends in the steed's grand stables. In a fit of exuberant joy, he once named Incitatus a minister of state.

The Trump presidency has not quite reached that point yet, but bizarre things are happening in the Washington Beltway -- like in Caligula's decadent Rome in decline and fall.

India will be well advised to keep a distance.

M K Bhadrakumar