NEW DELHI: US President Donald Trump will open the world’s biggest cricket stadium and watch the sun set at the famed Taj Mahal during a lightning visit to India starting Monday, but behind the spectacular optics he is expected to face a protectionist counter-punch on trade.
Trump’s blossoming bromance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that will be on show again belies prickly relations, particularly over commerce, with both men ramping up protectionist measures.
Experts say this has hurt US efforts to make India a strategic counterweight to China, while Trump’s mediation offer in the long-running Kashmir dispute with Pakistan has annoyed New Delhi.
“We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot,” Trump, 73, said before his maiden official visit to the nation of 1.3 billion with First Lady Melania, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The US president arrives in the western state of Gujarat where Modi’s record while chief minister as a reformer and flag-bearer of Hindu nationalism catapulted him to the national stage in 2014.
Trump told a rally on Thursday that “six to 10 million people” would be along the route of his motorcade, but this appears to be a misunderstanding. Organisers said there will be tens of thousands.
A 700-metre (-yard) wall has been built, allegedly to hide a slum, while construction workers have been rushing to complete the Sardar Patel Stadium.
It will be rammed with around 100,000 people for an event dubbed “Namaste Trump”, payback for a “Howdy, Modi” rally in Houston last year in front of some of America’s vast Indian diaspora.
The Trumps will then fly to the Taj Mahal, the white marble “jewel of Muslim art” according to UNESCO, but afterwards it will be down to business in New Delhi on Tuesday
Reports suggest Trump and Modi may agree a modest trade pact covering items including imports of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and US dairy products such as pizza cheese, as well as a number of defence and other deals.
But this will fall short of the comprehensive agreement the world’s largest economy and the planet’s biggest democracy have been seeking for years.
Tanvi Madan from the Brookings Institution said the lack of progress on trade was the “big missing deliverable”, forcing both sides to focus more on the “great optics” of the visit.
Trade relations have worsened as Trump’s “America First” strategy to reduce the US trade deficit bumps up against Modi’s “Make in India” drive as Asia’s third-largest economy flags.
Although small fry compared to his trade war with China, Trump in 2018 levelled tariffs on steel and aluminium from India — and elsewhere — and in June stripped India of its preferential trade status.
Delhi responded with hiked duties on a raft of US agricultural goods such as almonds, and restricted imports of certain medical devices. More tariffs were announced in the recent budget.
“We’re doing a very big trade deal with India,” Trump said before the visit but conceded it may not be done before US elections in November.
This was echoed on Thursday by India’s foreign ministry which said it did not want to “rush into a deal”.
And there are other sources of mutual irritation.
Trump and Modi may ink a $2.4-billion deal for US helicopters, but overall when it comes to arms, Russia remains India’s biggest supplier.
A US decision is outstanding on whether to slap sanctions on New Delhi for its planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system.
Energy-hungry India was also irked by US pressure to stop buying Iranian oil, while Delhi’s plans to force foreign firms to store Indian consumers’ personal data inside the country has also worried US businesses.
India has bristled at criticism in Washington about its recent security and communications lockdown in Kashmir, as well as of a contentious new citizenship law seen as anti-Muslim.
But Harsh Pant from the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi said Trump coming to India sends an important signal to other countries that relations remain “close” despite these differences.
“To be fair to India, they have managed Trump much better than others including key US allies like Japan, Australia and other Western European countries,” Pant told AFP.