Enough has changed in the last two years for Narendra Modi not to have extended his customary hug to Donald Trump at the G20 Summit in Japan at the end of June. Notwithstanding his penchant for photo-ops, India’s prime minister chose to spare the world another spectacle of his "hugplomacy."
In public, Modi spoke carefully, even reticently, to Trump, noting that in their bilateral they’d discuss "four issues: Iran, 5G, our bilateral relations and defense relations."
This low-key display was starkly different from the exuberant body language the world witnessed during their 2017 press conference at the White House. Does this signal a shift in the relationship between the two countries? If so, what explains this change?
The U.S. and India have gone through a rocky two years. Despite the polished press releases and careful information management, numerous irritants are boiling beneath the surface. And, throughout this period, one major irritant has remained a constant source of tension: Donald Trump himself.
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Ever since he took charge, Trump - who thinks of himself as a "master negotiator," an expert at the "art of the deal" - has successfully managed to irritate most of his allies with supple ease, including Narendra Modi with whom he has claimed to have a "great friendship."
As befits a former reality TV star, Trump has turned not only his presidency but also American diplomacy into a reality show conducted largely on Twitter. Just a day before the scheduled meeting with Modi on the sidelines of Osaka, Trump wrote a tweet lambasting India for "very high tariffs":
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"I look forward to speaking with Prime Minister Modi about the fact that India, for years having put very high Tariffs against the United States, just recently increased the Tariffs even further. This is unacceptable and the Tariffs must be withdrawn!"
Usually, such messages are modulated by diplomatic language and sent through official diplomatic channels to ensure confidentiality and to avoid unnecessary escalation or embarrassment. But Trump chose to make this a public tit-for-tat Twitter showmanship.
Trump’s boorish Twitter showmanship, brinksmanship, and brusque diplomacy have confounded Indian diplomats. That’s especially the case when his comments intruded into India’s sovereign, strategic interests.
But it wasn’t long before Trump changed his stance entirely: just before his one-on-one he said that he and the Indian prime minister "have become great friends and the two countries have never been closer." That was a sentiment cut and pasted from his comments about Modi in 2017.
These see-sawing moods have characterized the Trump administration’s relations with New Delhi more broadly. The White House has swung between restating their strategic ties and common interests, and confirming sharp differences and taking actual antagonistic steps against each other. From the U.S. side, the White House has launched a constant stream of demands for India’s compliance, from defense procurement to its relations with Iran.
But Modi has pushed back on nearly every issue.
Over the last two years, the U.S. has demanded that India cancel its purchase of S400 missiles from Russia, the same demand it made (unsuccessfully) with Turkey. Modi has yet to make a final public decision.
But when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi on June 26th, New Delhi's position was firm on the subject of the missiles: "We will do what is in our national interest and part of that strategic partnership is the ability of each country to comprehend and appreciate the national interest of the other."
The very same day, Russia effectively trolled the meeting, with its state media reporting that delivery of the S400 system would indeed begin in 2020.
In a bid to sell American weapons and oil, U.S. State Department officials have made several trips to India in the last few years. They are trying hard to push the Indian government to stop buying from other countries sanctioned by the U.S. - such as Iran, Venezuela, and Russia - and start buying from the U.S., on terms set by Washington.
The U.S. has specifically pushed India hard to stop buying oil from Iran, one of India's largest oil suppliers, to bolster the U.S.’ "maximum pressure" policy on Iran which is based on a severe sanctions regime. Other U.S. allies – such as India, Japan, and South Korea– have likewise been pressured to cut economic ties with Iran. In response, India has cut off purchasing Iranian oil - and increased purchases from the U.S.
In the trilateral Japan - India - U.S meeting in Osaka, Modi reiterated that Iran had up to now supplied 11 percent of India's energy needs. But he was careful to add, even if somewhat blandly, that India "shared concerns" regarding escalating tensions in the region. Despite the fear of U.S. secondary sanctions, the appeal of Iranian oil remains: the geographical convenience and its cost-effectiveness will be ongoing pull factors for India.
The Trump administration also insists that India ban Chinese 5G technology, and is opposed to India’s data localization policy, which makes it mandatory for payment service providers to store data locally – and not mirror it outside India. In Osaka, Modi remained non-committal and made do with non-committal words about the huge economic opportunity of India's billion potential technology customers. Modi and Trump did not publish an agreed statement about the issue.
More broadly, the U.S. has also been pushing India to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific as a counter to China.
But New Delhi is pushing back against that framing, too: responding to Pompeo recently, India's External Affairs Minister stated in no uncertain terms that India would not unequivocally take the U.S.’s side in its geopolitical vision, noting that "the Indo-Pacific is for something - not against somebody, and that something is peace, security, stability, prosperity and rules."
And in a further quiet rebuke of Trump’s America First unilateralism, and a louder assertion of New Delhi’s autonomy in foreign policy, India, along with Russia and China, declared in Osaka the need to "uphold international order based on accepted international norms and international law" and "promote a multipolar world…rather than in a unilateral fashion."
Multipolarity – or, in other words, reducing America's geopolitical dominance – is a core priority for Moscow.
The trio went further in affirming an emerging non-U.S. global power center, declaring they were "laying the groundwork for [an] equal and indivisible security architecture in Eurasia."
For his part, Donald Trump has threatened to increase tariffs on Indian goods, reduce the number of H1B visas, and impose sanctions if India chooses to buy oil from Iran or the S400 missile system from Russia. And he has made all these threats, characteristically, on Twitter.
Trump already did indeed start a small trade war with India by unilaterally increasing tariffs in March 2019 on Indian steel and aluminium. In retaliation, India raised tariffs on over 30 American products including almonds, walnuts, apples and other chemical and metal products. India is still considering increasing tariffs on the motorcycle company Harley Davidson.
Another issue that irked the Modi administration was the U.S. State Department's report on International Religious Freedom, which said that mob attacks by "violent Hindu extremist groups" against minority communities, particularly Muslims, continued in India in 2018.
Given that the State Department once denied Modi a visa citing his responsibility for severe violations of religious freedom, this issue is a particularly personal one for Modi, as well as a prickly national image issue.
Released just a few days before U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with India's Minister of External Affairs, it provoked a terse response from the Indian government:
"India is proud of its secular credentials, its status as the largest democracy and a pluralistic society with a longstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusion. We see no locus standi for a foreign entity/government to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights."
The U.S. administration knows that the growth in anti-minority violence is Modi’s Achilles heel. That's not necessarily in terms of his domestic audience – after all, Modi just won re-election with a sweeping margin – but in terms of international perception. The Modi administration is trying hard to underplay any discussion of this in international arena.
But it is one more example of the accumulating strain under which U.S.-India relations are operating.
Endless repetitions by Trump, calling India a "friend" and "natural ally" with whom the U.S. shares a "strategic partnership" and has "deep and broad convergences," cannot counteract what is seen in India as Trump's bullying behaviour towards the country. And while Modi is happy to absorb the warm words, he is simultaneously asserting the primacy of India's own national interests and his refusal to fold under U.S. pressure.
As Trump faces re-election in 2020, dedicated to presenting himself as the champion of American interests to his voters, he is likely to put further intense pressure on India to meet his demands – particularly on the key issues of Iran, China, and Russia. The stage will then be set for far more serious clash with Modi, as head of an increasingly confident regional power, and a leader who has built his political fortunes on an "India First" approach.
Trump continues to pepper his threats towards India with frequent exclamations about his great friendship with Modi. But as the old cliché goes, "there are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies; only permanent interests." Flowery statements of friendship can turn into liabilities when the national interests of both countries clash.
And it seems that Modi is already preparing for that upcoming shift: the change in his body language towards Trump could well be an acknowledgement of this reality.
Shrenik Rao is the Editor-in-chief of the Madras Courier, a 233-year-old title that he revived in October 2016, and founder & CEO of 7MB, a digital media company. An alumnus of the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Rao writes about foreign policy issues. Twitter: @ShrenikRao