Indo-US relations have always suffered from a three body problem, to use an analogy from astrophysics: the relations have always been affected by China.

by Jagdish Bhagwati and Pravin Krishna

It is tempting to put President Donald Trump’s state visit to India today and tomorrow in historical context, such as that it is the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s visit or that it is a “return” gesture by Trump, who obviously relished the huge outpouring of favourable sentiment during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “jugalbandi” visit to Houston in September 2019.

Yet, this is not the most compelling way to think of the upcoming Modi-Trump meeting in India. Looming over the February meeting is the ominous shadow cast by China on the world stage, affecting both India and the United States.

In fact, Indo-US relations have always suffered from a three body problem, to use an analogy from astrophysics: Indo-US relations have always been affected by China. Recall that in the 1950s, the US gave substantial aid to India, largely because developmental economists at the time believed that totalitarian China would overtake India, because China, with its draconian ways, would raise more resources than India, which was democratic.

Again, when China came down the Himalayas in 1962, President Kennedy sent ambassador Harriman and Carl Kaysen to see whether they could get Pakistan to withdraw its forces from the Indo-Pakistan border, so that they could be sent to the Chinese border.

Prime Minister Nehru is supposed to have told Harriman and Kaysen that Pakistan would not oblige whereas, amusingly, finance minister Morarji Desai is reputed to have told them that they should not worry because “even if the Chinese occupied India”, that would only be “for maybe a thousand years” and that eventually “India would throw them out”.

In each instance, the US was assisting democratic India vis-à-vis totalitarian China. The US was dispensing largesse and did not regard itself as a beneficiary.

What has changed now is that China has now emerged as a strong strategic rival to the US, so that the alliance with democratic India is now seen to be mutually beneficial and thus on a sounder footing, since altruism, as against (enlightened) self-interest, runs out of steam, sooner or later, in international relations.

The new convergence of strategic interests between the US and India is also marked by the fact that India compares remarkably well with China on several issues that Trump is agitated about.

Thus, while Trump has gone to war on China’s theft of intellectual property across many sectors, the US dispute with India is mostly about the pharmaceutical sector. Besides, thanks to the loss of Bollywood royalties, India now has more sympathy for intellectual property protection.

Further, while no respectable economist would justify Trump’s misguided focus on bilateral deficits as an indicator of openness in trade, the sure-fire way to defang him is to note that India’s bilateral trade surplus with the US is about $25 billion, only a fraction of the Chinese surplus with the United States of $400 billion.

Why fuss about it – especially when strengthening defence ties between the two countries are virtually certain to scale up India’s purchases of US exports over the coming years?

On trade openness, the Indian situation is indeed worrisome. India has steadily been shifting back towards protectionist policies, reversing our trade opening policies since reforms began in the early 1990s.

Arvind Panagariya, in a remarkable recent book refuting the protectionist fallacies of economists such as Dani Rodrik, has provided a compelling case for keeping India open to trade. In fact, if Trump puts pressure on India to keep protectionism at bay, that is something we should welcome.

Foreign pressure – what the Japanese used to call “gaiatsu” – can be beneficial, if used strategically to implement policies that are in India’s long term interest.

Trump’s visit can also be a time to celebrate India’s democracy and embrace of secularism and human rights over the decades, in contrast to China’s deplorable record on all these dimensions. Modi has appointed minorities and members of historically oppressed classes in high government positions (for instance, UN ambassador Syed Akbaruddin, ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu and President Ram Nath Kovind).

Women in India, over the years, have held the highest positions in government, including as President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, defence minister and finance minister. Today, the PM can boast of two impressive self-made women in his Cabinet: Smriti Irani and Nirmala Sitharaman.

India’s growth over the last decades too has broadly reflected India’s inclusiveness, with incomes rising and poverty declining dramatically within all religious groups and social classes, including the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

Perhaps the PM could share these and related truths with Trump, so that India’s impressive record on what unites India and the US becomes a cause for joint celebration at the forthcoming summit.