President Donald Trump, who was considered a war monger soon after his election may turn out to be the only President of the US recently who did not order a war in his first term. He was at his unpredictable best in the last few weeks. He despatched warships towards Iran and even increased troop strength in the region, but declared that he would not want war with Iran, even as his National Security Advisor and Israel favoured military action. He drove Iran to the point of openly violating the nuclear deal through his sanctions regime, but hoped that there would be no war in the explosive West Asian region.
Having walked away from a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un in Vietnam half way, he appeared with him on the North Korean border and became the first President of the United States to step on North Korean soil. The North Korean “rocket man” became a great friend, who might be invited to the White House, without any commitment on denuclearisation on his part. He complimented Kim for “moving mountains” for arranging a meeting at short notice. The third actor in the Korean drama, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, was so euphoric that he announced the de facto end of the Korean war as three nations declared peace in the Demilitarised Zone.
Meanwhile, Trump had sent his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, with a tough brief to India on trade, Iran and Russian missiles and tweeted just before his meeting with Modi, demanding that India should unilaterally withdraw the tariff imposed on US goods without any discussion. But during his meeting with Modi, he praised Modi as a great friend and remarked that India-US relations were never better. At a second meeting with Modi, he agreed to ministerial talks on the complex trade issues, totally defusing tension between the two countries. He did not raise the matter of Russian missiles, even though Modi had made it clear that he had no intention to cancel the deal. The India-US roller coaster, which had descended quite a bit in Delhi, began ascend slowly even though the Iranian and Russian issues remained unresolved.
The most significant change of heart of Trump was in the case of the US-China trade war, when Trump and Xi Jinping of China agreed to resume trade talks after a seven-week breakdown. The decision averted the escalation of their multimillion dollar tariff war at least temporarily. Though there never were winners and losers in trade wars in history, this particular tariff war had threatened to rock the world economy and create a confrontation between the two largest economies.
The cease fire, which came after more than an hour of discussions between Trump and Xi, did not mean a breakthrough in resolving the fundamental issues. It simply gave the negotiators more time to work out an arrangement
“We discussed a lot of things, and we’re right back on track,” Trump told reporters after his session with Xi. “We had a very, very good meeting with China,” Trump added, “I would say probably even better than expected, and the negotiations are continuing.”
Even more surprising was Trump’s announcement that he agreed to lift some restrictions on Huawei, the Chinese technology giant, which was considered not only a technology rival, which had to be countered, but also a grave security threat to Western civilisation itself. The US had got the daughter of the founder of Huawei arrested in Canada on spying charges and choked off the firm’s access to American suppliers and barring it from the American market. Huawei’s development of 5G was seen as a major threat to the world and even India was asked to curtail its activities, even though Huawei is poised to expand its mobile phone manufacturing in India. The Chinese firm has penetrated the Indian market not only with mobile phones, but also with its components in virtually all communications networks. India’s response to the US request to blacklist Huawei was, therefore, ambivalent, though Indian technologists were also suspicious of Huawei's intent. For India, the price factor is the most attractive feature of the 5G technology likely to be developed by Huawei.
The US actions against Huawei were kept separate from the trade war as the concern was more about security than trade. But no negotiations between the US and China on trade can exclude a deal on Huawei and the clear indication given by Trump is that he is not averse to it.
The G20 meeting started in the shadow of many possible wars, including a serious trade war, but ended with peace breaking out on account of the sudden change of heart by Trump. But there is no guarantee that another tweet from Trump will not reverse the situation altogether. If there is even a beginning of a resolution of the Korean imbroglio, Trump may even win a Nobel Prize for Peace before he faces an electoral challenge in 2020.
Clearly, the peace offensive by Trump is part of his re-election strategy as his Democratic challengers gain momentum. Though foreign policy is not decisive in US elections, he probably wants to improve his image abroad and provide his people a sense of security by eliminating threats from China and North Korea. These peace initiatives may also distract attention from the impeachment moves on account of alleged Russian interference in the American elections. Interestingly, Trump was relaxed enough about the Russian scandal to joke with Vladimir Putin that he should not interfere in US elections, taking the sting out of the accusation against Russia.
For India, the latest posture of Trump as a peacemaker is a matter of relief. We do not know how the Iran sanctions will hurt India’s long-term energy and communications programmes and whether the Russian missiles will help us defend ourselves. But if the forthcoming negotiations between trade ministers will remove the tariff threats, India can work on other matters to bring stability to India-US relations. It appears that our strategy to stay firm on non-negotiable red lines has paid off.
Independently, the US Senate has passed a resolution that India should be declared a NATO-like ally with access to technology, including weapons. There are problems between India and the US like that on Iran, Russian missiles and trade. But the language being used is of peace and not war.