Is there something US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson knows regarding the Trump administration’s South Asia policies that observers in Delhi do not know?

Facing a 30% cut in budget allocation for the State Department, he has replaced his scissors with an axe to chop those branches of the outgrown tree that do not bear fruits. An across-the-board shrinking of the bureaucracy in that department is expected.

The fate of the South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau hangs in the balance. The senior-most official in the Bureau to handle Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit will be the acting principal deputy assistant secretary Howard Vanvranken whose background is “more in management than in policy”, according to a report in Politico magazine.

Vanvranken corresponds roughly with an Under Secretary in South Block. Again, Trump has not nominated an ambassador to India since the summary exit of the previous envoy in January.

There is talk that a middle-ranking functionary in the White House’s economic team who is being replaced due to differences with the Trump team might come to Delhi to take up residence at Roosevelt House in Chanakyapuri.

Talking points

Meanwhile, just as Modi left for Washington, in the classic American style of diplomacy (which Russians would know best), four hugely influential US Congressmen wrote a letter to Trump on his “talking points” with Modi. They are Senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance; Senator Ron Wyden, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee; Congressman Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means; and Congressman Richard Neal, ranking member of the House Committee on Ways and Means.

The letter encourages Trump to be his natural self, do some plain-speaking with Modi – the way he did earlier with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – on how they can contribute to “America First” by correcting their countries’ trade imbalances with America, and by making investments in the US economy that create jobs.

The letter reminds Trump that Modi’s economic policies “significantly harm” American businessmen and workers.

Reality check for India

It will be a fair assessment that the above worrisome tidings from Washington more or less frame Trump’s approach to Modi’s visit – shorn of diplomatese.

Alas, Indian estimations of the visit are still hazy, with ex-foreign secretaries fantasising about the “good chemistry” between Trump and Modi (whatever that may mean in the pitiless world of diplomacy) and pundits racking their brains to invent what they call “convergences” in the prevailing sultry climate of relations.

The glaring disconnect with reality is actually self-invited. Little has really changed in a fundamental sense in the US-Indian bilateral relationship through the past three years under Modi’s watch. All that brouhaha that Modi turned US-Indian ties around was largely vacuous, as it turns out. True, during the final lap of the decade-long United Progressive Alliance rule, when it became apparent that a transition was due in Indian politics, things slowed down, inevitably – just as things have been at a standstill during the past six months of civil war conditions in Washington DC.

The point is, the core issues of the “defining partnership” remain, as far as the American side is concerned, the opening up of the Indian market for US business and the promotion of US civilian and military exports. The US lawmakers just reminded us that the score card shows there is really no appreciable change on this front.

Modi and Obama set a $500 billion trade target, but trade volume has been virtually static since 2014, around $45 billion (according to US data.) Incredibly enough, US exports to India have remained stagnant at around $20 billion since 2010.

Simply put, business-friendly Modi did not deliver the way he was expected to, and the Americans are unhappy. The lawmakers’ letter to Trump robustly criticises the business climate in India. It says:

“While Indian businesses continue to benefit from open US markets, India has failed to eliminate, or even address concretely, multiple trade and investment barriers that have been the focus of recent bilateral and multilateral fora, At the same time, India has imposed several new significant barriers that have harmed US producers across all sectors of our economy, including services, manufacturing, and agriculture.”

The big difference today is that while Obama had a way with words and could make everything sound musical, Trump is frank and outspoken. Obama too sought a transactional relationship that helped in America’s economic recovery, while Trump posted the garish lamp post, “America First”.

(Photo courtesy: PIB).

American grouse

On the other hand, going back to the abacus, Modi also could not extract out of Obama anything worth celebrating for India. It is even doubtful whether Modi boosted the image of India in North America.

However, where things have gone horribly wrong relates to another template of vital concern to India: the Modi government failed to grasp the quintessence of Obama’s pivot strategy in Asia [a strategic re-balancing of US interests from Europe and West Asia towards East Asia].

Obama never intended to go to war with China; he only tried to negotiate with China more effectively when the US began palpably losing strategic ground. Obama was aware that India can never be a counterweight to China. But then, why should he have blocked India’s gravitation to the pivot strategy that complicated its normalisation with China? The setting helped the US to sell more weapons to India.

Trump has changed tack, discarding the pivot strategy and seeking an agreement with China, with a 40-year road map in hand.

The Indian establishment has only itself to blame. The US-China interdependency is such that the two big powers have the option to rise and rise together or to inflict wounds on each other (and oneself in the process). India ought to have grasped this base line in the power dynamics in Asia. Looking back, front-loading the partnership with the US with geo-strategy itself was a bad idea.

This was not how Narasimha Rao had intended the India-US partnership to develop. In Rao’s conception, US partnership provided the underpinning for his vision for the transformation of India. With his immense experience as a top diplomat, Rao perceived (despite the pervasive “unipolar predicament” in the Indian mind at that point in time) that it would be futile (and unnecessary) to try to harmonise the profound contradictions in the respective foreign-policy objectives of the two countries. His opening to Iran testifies to that.

India began careering away since the announcement of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership between India and the US in September 2004. Geopolitics outstripped geo-economy in the Indian mind, while in the American mind the core philosophy of this initiative was to facilitate significant economic benefits and work to improve regional and global security.

Therefore, the American side has a genuine grouse today that they were invited to a feast that was never put on the table – for whatever reasons. It is up to Modi to decide whether it is within his means to order a feast when the economic climate in India is such that it will be a very audacious thing to do.

On the contrary, a reset means refurbishing of the foreign-policy architecture, which is overdue. If Trump gets to act forcefully on the lawmakers’ letter and if Modi decides to order a feast now, it could have also have a salutary impact on another complicated vector – the impasse in India-China relations as well. Curiously, the Chinese Communist Party tabloid, Global Times, introduced a tantalising thought on Thursday that if Trump were to get Modi to make India’s business climate attractive for foreign investors, it would be a terrific thing to happen, because Chinese companies also will be beneficiaries.