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Last Updated : Feb 24, 2020 08:34 AM IST | Source:

Trump's India visit | The bets placed on bilateral visits in the game of diplomacy

India has awaited his visit for a good two years. It was in 2018 that India sent feelers to Washington DC — at that time with a desire that he could be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade

Maha Siddiqui

On Monday, when US President Donald Trump meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, it will be the fifth meeting of the two leaders in eight months. Four out of these five have been on the sidelines of multilateral events across the globe including one in US itself on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, last September.

The visit to India, for President Trump, is his maiden one and even though there are several questions being raised about the deliverables for India during this visit, a senior government source had this to say - for emerging powers incoming visits should not be seen only in transactional terms. Not every visit can have big ticket deliverables.


So what do visits of this nature achieve and what goes on in the background to pull-off these high-profile visits? Let's take the example of President Trump's visit itself.

India has awaited his visit for a good two years. It was in 2018 that India sent feelers to Washington DC - at that time with a desire that he could be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade.

The Modi government had managed to get former President Barack Obama as a chief guest in 2016, making him the first American President to grace the prestigious occasion. Though this was in the last year of his Presidency.

However, buoyed by the success, an attempt was made in 2018 to get President Trump for the 2019 Republic Day parade. But not only did the White House not respond to the request, the eternal wait for the same saw media stories coming out with details, making matters more complicated with clear embarrassment in store.

The Ministry of External Affairs did some salvaging by suggesting that the invite for him was an open one and that President Trump could visit India whenever he so desires. So here it is now, technically an effort of two years culminating with a visit yet again in his last year of current Presidential run.

However, sealing the dates for a visit is just one part of the humongous preparation effort that follows. Starting from routine like security, protocol, locations to be visited and their significance for the incoming guest to the more concrete like talking points during the meetings - both delegation level and the restricted meeting between leaders, to the joint statement are all not just time consuming but entail constant engagement with back-and-forth between the two sides.

With a powerful leader like the US President, the Secret Service vets all locations and takes calls on where the leader can or cannot go. For instance, it appears that the US security cut down the roadshow route in Ahmedabad from 22 km to nine. One of the reasons cited were the curves on the route posing an issue for the pilot cars in Trump’s motorcade to make sharp turns. It was stretching the time for the roadshow to beyond what was initially considered.

On some issues like the joint statement, work is on till the very last minute. A joint statement is not just a message of intent but reflects that depth of relationship hence is considered a very important aspect of diplomacy.

Former diplomat Vishnu Prakash explains that "more important the visit, more critical are the discussions" surrounding the joint statement. He also points out that the discussion happen virtually till the last minute and some paragraphs could be bracketed for the External Affairs ministers or the Principals to look into.

In the current visit a senior government source pointed out that India was looking at a powerful joint statement which was strongly worded on terrorism and also showed intent for a future Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The US would include a mention on Indo-Pacific.

Meanwhile, one question that is asked quite often is why have these bilateral visits when leaders anyway hold talks on the sidelines of multilateral, global events? Vishnu Prakash gives an analogy to explain, he says in simplistic terms the difference is one between meeting in a hotel or restaurant and inviting someone for a homestay. "A home stay is always more memorable." But that aside, he says a bilateral visit gives the leaders a longer duration to be with each other which could go up to even 10 hours together as we saw in Chinese President Xi Jinping's Mahabalipuram visit.

This gives them an opportunity to discuss the relationship threadbare whereas the bilaterals or sometimes as they are called, pull-asides by leaders at mutilateral event don't end up being longer than 30-45 minutes.

Some have also blamed outstanding bilateral issues between countries over-shadowing meetings of groupings. Example here, the SAARC forum.

More often than not the entire focus would veer towards issues between India and Pakistan rather than what the grouping was doing. Since 2016 there has been no summit level meeting since India boycotted the one in Islamabad after the Uri terror attack.

As India rolls out the red carpet for President Trump which has an added element of a huge rally in Ahmedabad, questions have also been raised on the cost of such extravagance. This will be apart from the usual bilateral meeting held in Delhi's Hyderabad House.

The estimated cost of the Ahmedabad event has been reported as 100 crores though there is no official figure put out and the estimated number of people involved is approximately two lakh. Several lines of defence have been offered for the event - from this being an opportunity to showcase India to a powerful leader to India, as an emerging power, should be able to make such events larger than life for the outside world to sit up and notice.

Many diplomats believe that with the dynamic geo-political chances across the world, soft diplomacy has to be mixed with hard-nosed negotiations to be able to manoeuvre tricky international situations and for that bilateral visits such as these are vital opportunities.
First Published on Feb 24, 2020 07:45 am