Indian and American officials have been burning the midnight oil to ensure a positive outcome of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s talks with US President Donald Trump today. They should be successful because, leaving aside relatively minor disputations, India remains an area where the new and difficult US President does not have strong views.
Yes, in pulling out of the Paris climate deal, he lumped us with
other countries as freeloaders. He has complained about India — along
with China, Japan and Mexico — taking away American jobs, but he has
also declared his friendship with India and Modi, albeit at an
Indian-American fundraiser last October.
Having roiled relations with Europe and causing dismay among allies
in the Asia-Pacific by cosying up with China, Trump also needs to show
the US can retain and strengthen important partnerships. So, there is
the first White House dinner of the Administration, to show that
US-Indian relations are indeed special.
But given a “what’s in it for me” incumbent in the White House, the
tone of the conversation will be one where India will demonstrate the
many ways it is of benefit to the US, rather than a country seeking an
indulgence here or a favour there. It will pitch India as an
indispensable partner of the US, both in countering China in the
Asia-Pacific and in dealing with Islamic radicalism. Further, it will
showcase itself as an important market for the US defence industry. The
expected sale of 22 Guardian drones is being hyped, though they are
primarily used by the US Coast Guard and Border Protection Service.
Trump and his aides will no doubt use the occasion to press India in
an area in which we are not too comfortable: market access and removal
of trade barriers. In a letter to Trump on the eve of the Modi visit,
four powerful legislators have outlined the American case. This is an
area close to Trump’s heart, since it affects American jobs and
businesses. So, Modi may find the going a bit uncomfortable, but it
would be surprising if he goes into the conversation without being
prepared. There is a glaring clash of visions in Trump’s America First
promise of restoring US primacy in manufacturing and Modi’s Make in
India plan. There is also a trio of issu es — the H-1B visas, climate
change and the attacks on foreigners, including Indians in the US —
which may not come up in the discussions, but forms an overhang on them.
Trump has his obsessions, but so has Modi, and in recent times, one
of them has been Pakistan. In almost every speech abroad, Modi has never
ceased to denounce Pakistan either by name or indirectly, for
Inserting Pakistan into the counterterror and Islamic radicalism
conversation will have to be a careful exercise and will most likely be
woven into the narrative of the positive role India has played in
stabilising Afghanistan in coordination with the US.
There are still many imponderables that go beyond the Trump-Modi meet
or the binary India-US equation. These relate to Europe, East Asia or
the Middle East where Trump-led disruptions could have serious
consequences for India. A breakdown of the US-China relationship is as
consequential as a possible condominium between them, a conflict with
Iran would be devastating for India’s energy security and geopolitical
goals. But today’s conversation is likely to be bilateral.
Good relations with the US are important for India. But New Delhi has
lockeditself into a hostile relationship with China and Pakistan,
losing significant room for manoeuvre. Modi may be a tad overinvested in
Washington even though he claimed merely to have overcome the
“hesitations of history”. India’s potential, both as a security actor
and an economy, has kept the US engaged so far. But the Trump approach
could be a demand to “show the colour of [our] money”.
If Trump had been a normal president, it would have been fairly easy
to predict that, given the upward trajectory of Indo-US relations, this
will be an important visit. But his tendency to take contrary stances,
peremptorily overrule line departments and reveal policy stances through
tweets makes prediction hazardous.
One thing seems clear, Trump actually gets along well with tough-guy
leaders like Modi. Witness his attitude towards Russian President
Vladimir Putin, Egyptian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Turkish President Recep
Tayyip Erdogan, or for that matter, Xi Jinping. This could be the real
prize of the visit. If he establishes good chemistry with Trump, the
other details could always be filled in later.
Economic Times June 25, 2017