Mike Pompeo in India: A lot of campaign, maybe a little diplomacy
Wheels up for my trip to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia," tweeted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he left for India. The wheels, meanwhile, were coming off his boss Donald Trump's presidential campaign back home.
Trailing in every national poll, with little time to recover, the Trump campaign is looking for a series of photo ops that cash in on the general anti-China sentiment among the US electorate.
Seventy-four per cent of Americans have a negative view of China, and 77 per cent do not trust President Xi Jinping do the right thing regarding world affairs, according to Pew Research Center findings published earlier this month.
Anyone thinking that the India visit is primarily about closer strategic relations is being naïve. Although the president paid way more taxes in India than at home and has branding deals for buildings in Indian cities, his (little) knowledge of South Asia is, to put it kindly, recently acquired. At a preparatory briefing in 2018 for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he was surprised to find that India had countries called "Nipple" and "Button" as its neighbours. (I kid you not)
Although the Pompeo-Esper visit is a campaign stop, there are still approximately 1.9 million Indian American voters in the US elections. Even in the face of data to the contrary, there seems to be a firm belief among Republicans that desis will support Trump, primarily because they support Prime Minister Modi.
Proof of concept, they believe, was last year's 'Howdy Modi' event in Houston where Indians filled a stadium to watch Trump perform the opening act for Modi, and the Indian Prime Minister chant: "Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar". The crowd sang along. What further validation did either side need?
On the flip side, democrats believe that having Kamala Harris on the ticket would sweep every desi vote towards the democratic ticket.
Research carried out by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, found "no empirical evidence" for either position.
The study found that Indian Americans care far less about the Modi-Trump relationship than about issues such as healthcare, and find the Republican party "unwelcoming". Overall, they lean solidly democrat.
Indo-US relation will not determine whether the desi voter will choose Biden or Trump.
This is understandable because there is a mountain of evidence to show that this administration uses foreign policy to further Trump's re-election agenda. From Trump's attempts to blackmail Ukraine into providing dirt on his opponent to his craven request to the Chinese President Xi for support, the examples are many.
Being a "US ally" also appears to mean little. This is an administration that regularly dumps its allies-look no further than the wonderful redefinition of relationships with Europe that Trump has managed through Twitter, among other such vital diplomatic tools. The president also regularly cosies up to dictators-sometimes even "falling in love" with them. Trump's foreign policy formula over the last four years has been to create a crisis, then pretend to solve it. And never miss a photo op.
The diplomatic language of the Pompeo visit will likely employ a wider, less romantic, vocabulary than Trump's "tremendous", "strong" and "beautiful", but whatever the new words may be, it's prudent to treat them as being just as vacuous.
Understanding that Pompeo is doing a campaign stop for a President whose chances of re-election are abysmally low (about 13 per cent, according to an analysis by 538), presents the Indian side with the opportunity to get more out of the interactions. This is a desperate administration -- it would be willing to give up more internationally if it sees benefit at home.
India is also dealing with a secretary of state who has been one of Trump's most unblushing enablers. In order to please his boss and his evangelical support base, Pompeo delivered his political speech praising Trump during the Republican national convention when he was on an official visit to Jerusalem.
Pompeo is accustomed to mixing domestic politics with international diplomacy, disregarding both precedent and legality. Stronger anti-China rhetoric from him on China's expansionism and its "export" of the coronavirus would please his boss -- and the Indian government.
But first, Pompeo must breathe India's "filthy air" and do his best to clear it. His boss's casual remark during the last debate hasn't played well in our sensitive media community, which frequently needs to vent.