Next week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in the US for his long anticipated meeting with President Donald Trump. Given the circumstances, expectations are low, but the visit will be important in defining Indo-US engagement in the Trump era.
Officials are saying this is a “get to know you” kind of visit minus
the hoopla that surrounded Modi’s first visit to the US as PM in 2014.
This will be Modi’s fifth and shortest bilateral visit to the US since
he took office, he made another visit to attend the multilateral Nuclear
Security Summit in March 2016.
Use of diaspora
Unlike China or Mexico, India was not in Trump’s cross-hairs prior to
becoming President. In his campaign speeches, he did lump India, along
with China, Japan, Mexico and others for “ripping off” the US and taking
away American jobs. But later in October, a month before the election,
he participated in a fund raiser organised by the Republican Hindu
Coalition (RHC) funded by Shalabh Kumar, and in his keynote address he
said, “India and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White
During the current visit, Modi will avoid the kind of diaspora event
he staged at New York’s Madison Garden. Given Trump’s allergy to
immigration and immigrants, this could possibly provoke a negative
reaction. The Modi team is well aware there are limits to using the
diaspora to push Indian policy.
The first issue that Modi will seek to deal with is that of H1B
visas. The US allocates 65,000 of these visas to allow US companies to
bring highly specialised foreign workers and in 2016 more than two lakh
Indians had applied. Related to this is the anti-out sourcing stand of
the Trump Administration which could impact on the $150 billion per
annum IT industry in India.
There is a fundamental clash of interests between a Trump programme
of America First and Modi’s Make in India idea. The challenge is to find
the middle ground and see whether the two sides can cut a deal towards
The second issue is that of China. Since he became President, Trump
has bewildered the world with his shifting stances. Perhaps the most
dramatic has been the shift on China where through the campaign he
attacked China, promising to get tough on it on a range of areas from
trade to the South China Sea.
But as President he has shifted track. Concern over America’s China
policy is important for India which has reached out to the US and even
made significant commitments such as committing itself to a mutual
basing agreement and signing up on a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia
Pacific and the Indian Ocean with a view of balancing China’s rising
Third, India would like to fit its Pakistan concerns relating to
Pakistan within President Trump’s hardline views on Islamic radicalism.
But the US attitude towards Islamic radicalism seems confined to the
Arab world and the Sunni/Shia interface. This is related to India’s hope
of closer cooperation with the US whose position on Afghanistan is
India is waiting for a broader long term US strategy for stabilising
Afghanistan. However, it is clear from the limited increase in trainers
and advisers being undertaken by the Pentagon that the US will pursue
some form of “reconciliation” which could involve negotiations with the
Taliban and the good offices of Pakistan. This would not fit into the
Indian calculus, and it remains to be seen whether New Delhi is willing
to adjust its position to meet American goals.
Fourth, there is the issue of the Middle East, the one area where US
and Indian interests have never quite been aligned and where the Trump
disruption is at work. From the point of view of interests, this is
arguably the most important external region for India.
This is where it gets 60 per cent of its oil and gas and from where
an estimated 7 million of its citizens send back remittances worth $35
billion (Rs 2,25,600 crore) annually. Trade with GCC countries is of the
order of $138 billion (Rs 89,00,000 crore).
Here, the US hardline on Iran threatens to throw a spanner in the
works of our policy which seeks to carefully balance ties between the
Saudi Arabia, GCC, Iran and Israel. The experience so far is that in
dealing with the Trump Administration, it is the President himself who
matters. He does not hesitate to upend policies recommended by his
Cabinet colleagues or go back on his own views.
For this reason, the key outcome will be in the chemistry that
develops through the Modi-Trump dinner meeting. There is nothing to
suggest that this could go awry, but then, with Trump, you never know.
Mail Today June 19, 2017