SINGAPORE: An hour-long meeting and three hugs later, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a strong start to the India-US partnership under Donald Trump’s presidency. On Monday (Jun 26), the two men exchanged very warm pleasantries and reaffirmed common strategic objectives at the White House Rose Garden.
In the run-up to the meeting, both sides kept expectations low. There were apprehensions. Would the two leaders get along at all given Trump’s “America First” approach and Modi’s “Make in India” agenda? Would India successfully appeal to Trump’s good side given his tough rhetoric on trade and immigration?
Yet we must not forget that the visit was designed to be an ice-breaker – an opportunity for Modi to gauge Trump and find common ground – rather than a sit-down engagement to wrangle bilateral irritants out.
The Indian side therefore focussed on speaking Trump’s language, i.e., demonstrating how India could help “Make America Great Again.”
LOW-HANGING FRUIT HARVESTED
This non-confrontational approach seems to have worked – for now.
The joint statement endorsed by both Modi and Trump prioritised areas of natural strategic convergence – the easy wins, so to speak.
India and the US already share strong convergence on defence and security matters. So it comes as no surprise that both sides agreed on greater security cooperation including, but not limited to, jointly combatting terrorism, consultations on Afghanistan and a closer partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.
Yet, the joint statement went a step further to employ new language that echoed India’s position on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan. It specifically named Pakistan and called on it to “ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks” as well as to bring the perpetrators of the attacks in Mumbai (2008) and Pathankot (2016), among others, to justice.
This is the first time the US and India have called out “cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups” in a joint statement. This is a huge victory for Modi.
Another win for Modi was the Trump administration’s tacit endorsement of his concerns with the Belt and Road Initiative. Although not mentioning the Belt and Road Initiative explicitly, the joint statement said the leaders supported “bolstering regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and use of responsible debt financing practices while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
The statement borrowed language from a previous official Indian statement on the Belt and Road Initiative, where there was also special emphasis on “responsible debt financing practices”.
The emphasis on ensuring respect for sovereignty in connection with the Belt and Road initiative also protects India’s interests. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which forms a critical part of the Belt, passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, territory that both India and Pakistan have made claims to. India boycotted the Belt and Road Initiative forum earlier this year.
But Trump did not go away empty handed.
He elicited from India a strongly worded condemnation of North Korea’s provocative behaviour and a pledge to jointly counter its nuclear programme. (Yet, agreement to these words comes at no cost to India.)
At the Rose Garden, Trump also stressed the need for “fair and reciprocal trade” and urgent measures to reduce US trade deficit, a key irritant in the US’ relationships with countries like India and China, in his view.
Both sides also seemed to have advanced the defence relationship in terms of arms sales, to the delight of both Trump and Modi. The joint statement highlighted the US’ offer of a US$2 billion sale of 22 Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems to India.
DIFFICULT ISSUES RELEGATED
Quite predictably, the economic sections were relegated to the end of the joint statement where greatest differences exist. Even then, there was no mention of the US’ intention to curb H1B visas (of which 70 per cent go to Indian nationals). There was also no mention of concrete progress on issues that were expected to be more difficult, including trade.
Both sides instead chose loose language, preferring to delegate the responsibility of “finding creative ways to enhance cooperation” to their respective bureaucracies.
There was also no comment on India’s concerns over climate financing after Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
SUCCESS FOR MODI BUT SUBSTANTIAL WORK TO BE DONE
Overall, Modi succeeded in setting the right tone for the India-US partnership under Trump.
Taking cue from the American president’s past interactions with world leaders, their first meeting focussed on the positives rather than the problematic.
But what was missing in this first interaction signals precisely why there is substantial work left to be done.
Sumitha Narayanan Kutty is an associate research fellow at the South Asia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.