India Inc India Inc: Friday, 10 November 2017 12:23

Trump continues to confound friends and foes alike

Is Trump simply grandstanding in China or is he willing to cut a deal with Xi even if it means ruffling feathers in democratic capitals around the world? Your guess is as good as mine, writes India Inc. Founder and CEO Manoj Ladwa.


Let me begin with an honest confession: I am no wiser now about US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy than I was when he took up residence in the White House about a year ago.

In the run-up to the US presidential election and even in his comments after assuming office, Trump had been virulently critical of China, comparing its trade practices to rap and theft. Calling out Beijing as an “economic enemy”, he has, in the past, consistently held forth about how he would tame China the bogeyman and herald the rebirth of US manufacturing en route to “Make America Great Again”.

“We can't continue to allow China to rape our country and that's what they're doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world,” Trump had thundered before

an audience of hundreds in course of his bruising campaign to get elected President.

Many Indians, both Indian-American PIOs as well as citizens of my country of origin, had cheered this rhetoric from the sidelines, hoping that a shared wariness of the rising dragon would place Washington and New Delhi on the same side of the emerging geo-political fault line.

Cut to the present. Trump has spent the last couple of days effusively praising his Chinese hosts on his first visit to that country. In a complete U-turn from his position comparing China’s trade practices with illegal and unacceptable behaviour, the US President, instead, heaped praise on the Chinese leadership for exploiting opportunities created by presumably bumbling previous US administrations for the benefit of its own citizens.

“Who can blame a country for being able taking advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?” Trump told a gathering in Beijing in the presence of his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. “I give China great credit. In actuality, I do blame past administrations for allowing this trade deficit to take place and grow.”

Earlier today (Friday), Trump repeated this theme on Twitter.

“I don't blame China. I blame the incompetence of past Admins for allowing China to take advantage of the US on trade, leading up to a point where the US is losing $100s of billions. How can you blame China for taking advantage of people that had no clue? I would’ve done same!” he tweeted.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose job is to frame US foreign policy – although Trump has undermined his authority by declaring that only he, as President, has the mandate to take decisions on the subject – sought to give his boss’ comments a spin that will make it more acceptable to the constituency that elected him.

“There was a little bit of tongue in cheek in that characterisation, but there was also a lot of truth to it,” he said, trying, somewhat weakly, to explain away the apparent U-turn in Trump’s position on China. “I think what the President was just reflecting on is, look, we are where we are because previous administrations, whether through benign neglect – which is my own characterisation of it – or for whatever reasons allowed this to happen.”

There was more. Trump continued his honey-dripping praise of the Chinese leadership. Saying, it was a great honour to be with Xi, he termed bilateral relations between the world’s only superpower and its sole challenger as “a great one”.

I know that Trump is a salesman at heart and his somewhat over the top (or OTT in the lingo of today’s kids) praise of the world’s most powerful dictator and the globe’s leading totalitarian power could well be the thin end of the wedge as he tries to cajole China into helping him isolate North Korea and sign trade deals that will allow him to sort out the issue of China’s now decades old and ever-increasing trade surplus with its trans-Pacific neighbour.

Will this new approach work? And how long will Trump stay the course before making his next about turn.

Given his flip-flops in the past on almost every policy issue he has confronted, I don’t rule out a return to the cowboy image he has tried to cultivate as a global maverick.

Consider another statement he made on the campaign trail: “You can win against China if you're smart. But our people don’t have a clue. We give state dinners to the heads of China. I said why are you doing state dinners for them? They're ripping us left and right. Just take them to McDonald’s and go back to the negotiating table.”

Trump’s public display of affection towards Xi and the Chinese government will almost certainly make many of my Indian friends wonder what’s going on. And I wonder where his new-found admiration for China leaves US support for the Indian stand on the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that New Delhi has opposed in principle as it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

And where does this leave the emerging, yet informal trilateral partnership between India, Japan and the US, especially on hot button topics such as China’s unjustified claims over all of South China Sea? Will Trump suffer an attack of selective amnesia on these issues if Xi offers him a good deal on his real pain points?

Now juxtapose Trump’s comments with those of his Secretary of State. Addressing a gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Tillerson made Washington’s tilt towards India vis-à-vis China and Pakistan quite clear.

But top American officials have been calling for closer ties with India for most of India’s seven decades as an independent nation, and little was new about Mr Tillerson’s calls for improved military and economic relations between the two.

“China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations’ sovereignty… China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for.”

If that wasn’t enough, he added: “The Trump administration is determined to dramatically deepen ways for the United States and India to further this partnership.”

Is Trump simply grandstanding in China while his foreign affairs chief elucidates the real US policy? Or is Trump saying he is willing to cut a deal with Xi even if it means ruffling feathers in New Delhi, Tokyo and other democratic capitals around the world?

Your guess is as good as mine.

As I said at the beginning, I am no wiser now than I was a year ago. So, I will wait – as, I suspect, will many policy wonks in many of America’s existing and emerging allies – for the next chapter in this saga to unfold.

Manoj Ladwa is the founder of India Inc. and chief executive of MLS Chase Group @manojladwa

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