August 19th, 2019

Narendra Modi’s Free-Trade Dilemma

Manish Swarup/AP Photo

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in Goa, India, 2016.

As the United States and China continue their trade war, Beijing has turned its attention to wrapping up the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a massive free-trade deal that would integrate the largest economies in the Asia-Pacific region. The deal is an underreported example of China’s geopolitical and geo-economic expansion, and it is forcing India to ask tough questions about its stance on free trade and industrial policy.

Delhi must decide whether to go ahead with the domestically unpopular deal or back out altogether, potentially forgoing a chance to build its influence in Asian economic and security affairs.

In the face of Trump’s one-man teardown of the international trade regime, all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, are racing to conclude RCEP with the hope that it will stabilize the global trading order.

The most recent negotiations wrapped up in Beijing on August 3 with China driving the deal forward, hoping to finalize it by the end of the year and create the world’s largest trade bloc, accounting for one-third of global GDP and almost 50 percent of the world’s population.

Beijing’s motives for accelerating RCEP are clear. In light of recent escalations of the U.S.-China trade war, the agreement would provide China with better access to some of the world’s most vibrant markets. Perhaps more importantly, the deal would allow Beijing to exert more influence on the flows of goods and services in Asia, an effort made simpler by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Despite Beijing’s desire to push ahead, India’s concerns about the deal remain the largest stumbling block to finalizing RCEP. Various Indian industry groups have voiced concerns that tariff reductions would allow cheap Chinese goods to inundate the Indian market, exposing its struggling manufacturing sector to increased competition; Indian industrialists fear South Korea and Japan could also further entrench themselves in the domestic electronics and steel markets; farmers are worried the deal might lead to a collapse in dairy prices due to an influx of low-cost products from Australia and New Zealand.

After largely agreeing to cut import tariffs as part of the deal, India has recently hardened its stance, demanding that other RCEP countries allow the free movement of Indian technology and services professionals and take steps to reduce bilateral trade deficits; Delhi has asked Beijing to import more pharmaceuticals, sugar, and rice, among other Indian goods and services.

Though India has requested these concessions, it remains unclear which, if any, will be agreed to, and time might be running out. China is losing patience with the process, having mooted the possibility of pushing the deal ahead without India, as well as Australia and New Zealand, the latter two due to their concerns about the agreement’s lack of environmental and labor safeguards.

If its demands go unmet, India will be forced to decide whether to accept a deal that many citizens oppose or back out altogether, missing an opportunity to further integrate into the region’s economic networks and expand its influence in East and Southeast Asian affairs.


SINCE THE BEGINNING of negotiations in 2012, the Indian government has been an enthusiastic supporter of RCEP, for reasons related to both economics and security. The agreement fits neatly into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East policy, which aims to improve security and economic ties with Southeast Asia in order to expand Delhi’s influence in the Indo-Pacific and counter China’s rise.

By building on previously agreed trade deals with ASEAN, South Korea, and Japan, RCEP could help streamline trade and investment regulations—and integrate India into Asian production networks and value chains. It would also further open markets for India’s IT and technology companies, business interests with which Modi, though elected through a combination of populism and Hindu nationalism, has aligned himself. Furthermore, some in the Indian political establishment hail RCEP as a framework through which to push necessary domestic economic reforms that would lessen the private sector’s dependence on government support and increase its global competitiveness.

Increased economic tie-ins would also benefit Delhi’s security agenda, as India wants to work closely with Vietnam, Japan, and Australia to deter Chinese military expansionism in the Indo-Pacific. Despite the Doklam crisis, a China-India military standoff in a disputed border region, and recent events in Kashmir, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Modi have shown they can cooperate, as evidenced by their amicable informal meeting last year in Wuhan. The agreement could further integrate the Indian and Chinese economies and potentially dampen the potential for conflict.

But RCEP continues to be a tough sell to Indian citizens. Despite promising to be a pro-farmer and pro-business leader, Modi has failed to fundamentally reform India’s economy. Many of his more ambitious initiatives, especially those having to do with agriculture, have largely failed or been abandoned.

Modi famously promised to double farmers’ incomes by 2022 and recently dedicated his electoral victory to this long-suffering constituency, but most of India’s hundreds of millions of agriculturists still live in poverty. While more than half of the subcontinent’s citizens depend in one way or another on agriculture, farming makes up just 17 percent of the national economy.

Rural voters, despite Modi’s heretofore hollow promises, seemed willing to give him a pass for the failures of his first term, hoping that he could turn their fortunes around if re-elected. Farmers, however, view RCEP as a betrayal of their trust, as many influential unions have pushed back against RCEP, worried about ceding their control over seeds and the dairy sector’s ability to compete with low- or no-tariff imported milk products.

Things look similarly bleak on the domestic manufacturing front. As increased trade between the U.S. and manufacturing powerhouses like China has led to deindustrialization in the United States, Indian industry, already very weak, worries that RCEP’s relaxation or elimination of high import tariffs could expose it to potentially debilitating competition.

The current picture isn’t pretty, as India’s automakers recently reduced production targets and cut thousands of jobs, while the manufacturing sector lost 3.5 million jobs between 2011 and 2018. Some economists are calling for an industrial policy that would build up manufacturing, but the last such policy, approved in 2011, was never implemented.

Strong market protections, coupled with robust investment and growth in manufacturing capacity, were vital to the speedy development of South Korea, Taiwan, and mainland China. Despite high import tariffs and investments in the sector, India’s manufacturing has not taken off. As of 2017, manufacturing made up about 15 percent of India’s GDP, a figure that has not changed significantly since 1991. Conversely, manufacturing accounted for around 29 percent of GDP in China and 28 percent in South Korea that same year. RCEP’s stipulations could undermine Delhi’s efforts to boost manufacturing, thereby ruling out one tried-and-true development strategy.


IF DELHI CAN win the aforementioned concessions and protect its agriculture and manufacturing industries, joining RCEP would likely be a boon for India. However, if the other countries push back, Modi will have to decide whether his international goals or domestic economic policies are more important to him and to India.

His nationalism and desire to play a larger role in Asia have led to deeper engagement with India’s neighbors, a trend which RCEP would continue. But the debate around the agreement also shows that Delhi might need to get its own economic house in order before it can undertake broader international strategic initiatives.

While India’s economy is massive, it is still heavily rural and largely unprepared for competition from abroad. Unemployment stands at a 40-year high. For the common citizen, domestic economic policies that guarantee better livelihoods likely trump the allure of competition with China or enlarging India’s regional footprint.

Though he was just re-elected in historic fashion, Modi may weaken his own mandate by signing a less-than-ideal free-trade agreement, and with it both his domestic and international ambitions.

There Will Be No Justice for Trump’s Enablers

Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA/AP Images

Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders with President Donald Trump in the East Room, June 13, 2019.

After Donald Trump became his party’s nominee for president in 2016, a great many Republicans in Washington said publicly and privately that they would never work in his administration if he were to win. For some it was because they doubted his commitment to conservative ideology, but for most it was about Trump as a person: He was erratic, unqualified, and most of all an utterly corrupt and immoral person who sullies everything he touches. 

They had principles, and reputations to defend. He might be in office for four or eight years, but they would be around after that time was over. Working for Trump could only end in shame and ignominy. If things went poorly, it might even be career suicide. Just imagine what kind of accounting there could be at the end of what was certain to be a disastrous presidency! No one who had put themselves in the service of this repellent man would escape blame. 

Three years later, there are some prominent “Never Trumpers” around, but their numbers are tiny. The overwhelming majority of Republicans—elected officials, political professionals, policy wonks—have to one degree or another bent the knee to Donald Trump. Even the party’s eminence grises are in line; former vice president Dick Cheney, who has criticized the administration on foreign policy, will be raising money for Trump’s reelection. 

Which is as good a sign as any that the moral and professional accounting some Republicans feared—or hoped for—will never take place. 

There may be some places where those who placed themselves in Trump’s service will receive the contempt they deserve, like Kirstjen Nielsen being heckled in one restaurant and Sarah Huckabee Sanders being refused service in another. But by and large they’ll be fine, because they live in a world where nearly everyone is complicit. That means that they will all have an interest in convincing each other and the world that working for the single most odious human being to ever sit in the Oval Office was a perfectly reasonable, even noble, thing to do. 

Consider Sanders, who defended and justified the most dishonest politician in American history (and perhaps that of the entire world) with an almost superhuman degree of commitment and enthusiasm. What will happen to her? She’ll probably write a best-selling book, and have corporations give her obscene sums to obtain her wisdom on damage control when they’re caught despoiling the environment or killing their customers. A Fox News gig will be hers for the asking, should she not find that too pedestrian. For the moment, she’s considering a run for governor of Arkansas. And she’d probably win.

There is Trumpite here or there who has really suffered from their identification with this president, like Sanders’s predecessor, Sean Spicer. What got Spicer in such trouble, however, was the fact that he felt shame for his service to Trump. Everyone knew he was lying whenever he went before the cameras, and he obviously knew that everyone knew, and felt bad about it. That’s what made his brief tenure so embarrassing, and why he’s one of the few that left the White House with his reputation having suffered the proper degree of damage. 

There are others who fared as poorly, if they pled guilty to crimes, or were accused of domestic abuse, or undertook a spree of penny-ante corruption. But they’re still the exceptions, when true justice would demand that every last one of them be ostracized and denounced. Sure, one sees the occasional story about something like young Trump staffers complaining that no one wants to date them. But there will be no truth and reconciliation commission, no universal condemnation, no shunning of even the worst offenders.

The reason is that the entire Republican Party will make sure it doesn’t happen, because nearly all of them are implicated. 

Consider someone like Stephen Miller, probably the most villainous figure in the administration. The latest revelation about Miller is that he tried for some time to find a way to get states to bar undocumented immigrant children from going to school; he was thwarted not because other officials said, “My god, what kind of monster are you?” (they didn’t) but because the scheme was obviously illegal.

Now try to imagine the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute saying to Miller in 2021, “We’re sorry, but we cannot offer you a senior fellow position, because your actions during the last four years were so morally abhorrent that we do not wish to associate ourselves with you.” The very idea is ridiculous. We know what will happen: Heritage, AEI, and any number of other prominent conservative organizations will fall all over themselves to offer Miller a comfortable sinecure from which he can continue to advocate a whiter future for America.

In fact, they’ll undertake a massive project of historical revisionism to convince the country that what we just lived through was all a figment of our imagination. “Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” Trump said last year, and this project will attempt to convince us that what we saw, read, and experienced never actually happened. Donald Trump was a fine and responsible president, they’ll say, and even if he might have gotten a little silly on Twitter from time to time, anyone who supported him should take pride in their service to the GOP and to America.

And since the entire Republican Party will repeat this line again and again and again, it will become, if not conventional wisdom, at the very least a respectable position to hold. At worst, if Trump leaves office in disgrace Republicans will say what they did when George W. Bush slinked off in 2009 with the two wars he started still dragging on and the country experiencing the worst economic crisis in 80 years: I never liked him anyway. He wasn’t a real conservative. And of course I didn’t figure that out until it was all over, so don’t blame me. 

By and large, they won’t be blamed. Their party may pay a price at the polls, but the men and women who signed up to aid Donald Trump will not get what they deserve. There may be a political reversal, but if you’re waiting for justice, you might not want to get your hopes up.

“Just Following Orders”: Conversations With Concentration Camp Guards at the Southern Border

Delcia Lopez/The Monitor/AP

A Customs and Border Patrol officer walks on the Hidalgo/Reynosa International bridge. 


In early August, I walked through an open gate at the Paso del Norte detention facility in El Paso, one of the more notorious detention facilities for refugees on the southern border, and began talking to the guards. One of them threatened me and a colleague with arrest, but he was an outlier. Some of them were standoffish, but even those unwilling to answer questions were mostly polite and engaging. One man even told me he appreciated the chance to dialogue with a fellow American in a human way.

Several admitted, when pressed to speak as Americans instead of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, that they didn’t think some of what was going on was right. One promised me that he would do everything he could to help change the policy that had him and his colleagues arbitrarily imprisoning refugee families. He hadn’t realized until our chat, he said, that the camps were unconstitutional. He had never heard about the Refugee Convention, but he said he’d look it up.

These men and women are the foot soldiers in Trump’s concentration camp–industrial complex, the ones whose resignations or refusal to carry out orders may be the one thing that could gum up the gears of this heinous enterprise. For ten days at the end of July, I traveled, interviewing activists and concerned citizens on the El Paso border and across the country about how to resist these camps. Many are protesting, or offering to supply the detainees. But very few citizens are approaching these detention facilities and politely asking the guards to explain and justify their conduct.

As Lauren Sukin, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in political science, notes, detainees in these camps experience conditions not only worse than those of the country’s worst criminals, but worse even than the way we treat real enemies—prisoners of war. Struggling to find effective ways to resist, many Americans are doing what they can to oppose Trump’s network of concentration camps. Protests, advocacy research, and court proceedings are important. But these strategies also maintain a safe distance from the guards who are implementing directives from Washington.

At Paso del Norte, anyone brave enough to confront a guard can walk up that front driveway and go in that gate (or, as my colleague New Mexico State University professor Neal Rosendorf did two months ago, wander in a back gate and take photos of imprisoned refugees). When I spoke with the some of the guards, they gave me long explanations of why they thought the conditions in the camps were better than what the news media reported. Many of them think 800-calorie-a-day diets are humane because “it’s better than what they had in their own countries.”

I discovered their definition of a “refugee” is a bit different from what’s codified in the Refugee Convention. “These people’s countries are not at war, so they’re not refugees,” one guard told me. “Maybe they’re fleeing ‘violence’ but there is violence everywhere. You could get murdered in your own community.” Most of all I learned what mattered to these guards: To be seen as upholding an oath to protect the nation, to be able to convince themselves and hopefully all Americans that they were on the right side of history.

Many of my conversations with them involved debunking tropes, such as “We’re just enforcing the law,” by reminding them that they are, in fact, breaking the law. “Are you familiar with the Refugee Convention that the United States signed?” I asked. “Are you familiar with Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, that you swore to uphold, which says treaties are the supreme law of the land?” No executive order that violates constitutional protections can supersede these fundamental laws, I reminded them.

“That’s not for us to decide,” they would reply. “Our job is to follow orders.” “You have an obligation not to follow illegal orders,” I replied. “Camp guards from Nazi Germany were prosecuted at Nuremberg for following orders,” added Rosendorf, who had joined me for this particular visit.

There’s a breakthrough when guards deny rather than justify the stories you’re describing, when they talk of “bad apples” and ask that activists not paint them personally with the same broad brush as other people with more malevolent intentions. When guards feel that the actions of their colleagues make them personally look bad in the eyes of their fellow citizens, those norms still have some power to make them think about their actions in the camps.

Americans can engage these guards and remind them of the Nuremberg principles. We can remind them they are vulnerable to prosecution if they follow orders, but have power—and moral courage—when they resist. Activists can laud heroes like former CPB agent-turned-activist Jenn Budd, who resigned her post due to the cruelty she witnessed and has been speaking out ever since. Citizens can consider the other kinds of assistance that would make it easier for people working in these places to speak out—or turn in their badges— rather than remain loyal to a regime bent on violating the human rights of civilians fleeing conflicts in their home countries.

These kinds of conversations require respectful engagement. Accustomed to dealing with the news media, ACLU lawyers, and protesters chanting and waving signs, guards sometimes imagine they are protecting the detainees against the potential violence of angry protesters. By contrast, approaching a gate guard with open hands and a smile, instead of protest signs or accompanied by swarm of reporters and cameras, makes it much harder for them to fire at you or dismiss you. One person said to me, “It’s pretty innocuous when you come in here with no camera and can just have a conversation as two human beings without yelling and screaming.”

Of course, we also need protests—like the interfaith march led earlier this month by the Reverend William Barber II and the Border Network for Human Rights. In fact, my strategy is likely only effective in the context of persistent, more confrontational activism—but it is an underused one. At even peaceful protests I’ve attended, I have never seen someone walk up to a guard and converse, American to American, about what kind of country we want.

During my travels, I learned about other individuals who decided to go to the southern border region to bear witness to these human rights abuses. Georgetown Law professor Heidi Li Feldman coordinates a loose coalition of Americans through a Slack group for her community, #CitizenPresence. She specifically recommends that a “steady stream” of Americans show up at facilities and ask the guards questions like: “Are you holding detainees in your facility? How many? If not, when was the last time you did?” These are important questions. But I found that we can also talk to guards not just as public servants, but as parents, people of faith, and fellow Americans who think of themselves as law-abiding citizens.

When I spoke with these men, we talked about the law, the Office of the Inspector General’s Report on overcrowding at their facility, and trauma science, but we also just talked about our families. “Do you have children?” I’d ask. “What do you tell them about what they see in the newspaper? What do you want me to tell my child? What would you want for your family if you were fleeing a war zone? Would you want your child treated like these families here are treated? Even if you’re just following orders, do you personally think this is right?”

The guards I met were remarkably willing to struggle through these questions. They were also surprisingly willing to cede my points, check out my sources, and reconsider their own power. These conversations lower their defenses, allow us to find common ground, and plant seeds of humanity that can make a difference inside the walls, if only at the margins.

And when they are lying, these conversations can also expose their duplicity. On the final day of my El Paso visit, Rosendorf and I returned to the facility with pictures on Rosendorf’s phone that proved information I had received on my first visit was false. The supervisor I spoke to on that visit had said there were no children in the facility, but only 12 hours earlier Rosendorf had snapped a photo of children behind a fence, and the following day when I came back I had watched three adolescent boys taken into the facility, one in handcuffs. We came back to confront the agents about this lie.

When we arrived, we asked to see the supervisor on duty. But he refused to speak to us even through the fence and instructed us to leave. If we didn’t, he threatened to call the police. Willing to take the risk, we told him that in a democracy Americans had every right to question our public servants. A contingent of officers arrived. Now we had fresh advocacy targets, a new audience with whom to dialogue.

We talked with these three El Paso police officers about the Constitution and the human rights violations that were happening in this facility right under their noses. We talked with them about the Nuremberg principles. We asked why, if they had jurisdiction to protect the gate guards from curious citizens they did not also have jurisdiction to protect detainees from the gate guards? By the end, the police sergeant acknowledged we had grounds to file a complaint against Paso del Norte for having called the police at all on a false pretext—“disturbing the peace.” And the CPB agent on duty grudgingly agreed that he would do everything in his power to oppose policies that he now understood violated his oath under the Constitution.

Perhaps he will not follow through and was just trying to get rid of us. But human rights research shows these kinds of one-on-one, human conversations can have an impact, particularly if activists find common ground with guards through a shared national identity as Americans or through religious beliefs. History shows that when soldiers with guns refuse to shoot civilians, it is because they understand that there is power in disobeying unlawful orders. When the Egyptian military refused to fire on protesters during the Arab Spring, the Mubarak regime crumbled. When Tank Commander chose to disobey orders and not run down Tank Man, China began to change.

Perhaps these micro-dialogues will help remind CPB guards and local police that they do not just enforce laws, they are bound by those same laws: Even individual foot soldiers have legal and moral responsibilities. As long as there are concentration camps operating in the country, Americans have the right to go to these camps to ask questions and demand answers.