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Modi Meets Trump – What To Expect?

Ashok Sajjanhar is President, Institute of Global Studies, and a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.
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  • June 21, 2017

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to the United States at the invitation of President Donald Trump on June 25-26, 2017. This will be the first meeting between the two leaders although they have had telephonic conversations on three earlier occasions. These interactions have created a suitable atmosphere for Modi's visit.

    National Security Adviser (NSA) AK Doval visited Washington DC twice, and Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar thrice, since Trump's election to establish contacts with their counterparts and other senior officials. Jaishankar will be travelling to Washington DC again on June 21 to flesh out the deliverables of this crucial Modi-Trump meeting.

    In the reverse direction, the American NSA, General HR McMaster, visited New Delhi to confer with Indian leaders about the security situation in South Asia and particularly Afghanistan. He also called on Prime Minister Modi.

    The press Statement issued by the White House on June 12, 2017 announcing Prime Minister Modi's visit states that discussions to strengthen ties and advance common priorities relating to fighting terrorism, promoting economic growth and reforms will take place. Mention is also made of ''expanding security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.''

    Modi’s visit is being looked at with a little hope, considerable apprehension and some enthusiasm. Trump is about to complete five months of his tenure. Since he is a new-comer to office and has not held any government or public office so far, his views and positions on a large number of international and foreign policy issues are not known. What has become increasingly clear over the last months is that Trump continues to be unpredictable, impulsive and temperamental; he is prone to change his positions very quickly; he lacks a strategic view of the world; he tends to reduce all relations to transactional, economic terms, and is prone to launch into outbursts on the basis of specious data.

    The focus of Modi’s forthcoming visit will be to build a personal rapport and a working relationship with Trump. The main objective would be for Modi and Trump to come on the same page on key issues such as terrorism, UN reforms, South China Sea and the future of climate change. While Modi will raise India’s concerns over H-1B visas, the essential goal would be to establish a comfort level and understanding with Trump and his establishment on issues of key and critical concern. It will be a challenge for Modi to enrol Trump as a staunch and unwavering supporter of stronger India-US partnership. But it is a matter of satisfaction that barring Trump’s eruption on June 1, 2017 when he made a scathing attack on India (and China) for demanding ‘’billions and billions and billions of dollars’’ for meeting commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Trump has had positive things to say about India and Modi.

    On the bilateral front, defence will be an important subject. Considering the fact that Trump prefers to operate on a transactional basis, it would seem appropriate for some major defence acquisitions to be announced during Modi’s visit. The United States has emerged as India’s second largest defence supplier, next only to Russia, with orders worth USD 16 billion in the kitty. Progressive manufacture in, and transfer of technology to, India should be woven into the defence procurements that are announced. Indian companies have also decided to import 250 civilian aircraft from Being Aerospace. This should create more than 25,000 jobs in America, which should be gratifying for Trump.

    The question of H1B visas to Indian professionals is likely to come up. Modi could refer to the role of skilled Indian talent in enriching the American economy and society and urge that the US develop a reflective, balanced and farsighted perspective on the movement of skilled professionals. It should be remembered that the India-US partnership is not a single-issue relationship and bilateral ties should not be viewed only through the prism of the H1B visa issue. Modi should apprise Trump about the creation of jobs in the United States by Indian investments. Trump should be disabused of the idea that it is a one-way street.

    Some of the most consequential discussions can be expected to take place on US policies regarding China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Trump’s views on dealing with China have not crystallised. His position has swung from one end to the other. He has already created a vacuum by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving the way open for China to expand its presence. By reneging on the Paris Climate Change Agreement, he has allowed China to assume a leadership position on this vital issue. A comprehensive, long-term understanding on strategies to deal with China’s aggressive and hegemonic rise should be reached. Relations with Japan, North Korea, South China Sea, China’s Belt Road Initiative and its increasing forays in the Indian Ocean can be expected to be in focus during the Modi-Trump discussions.

    Little clarity has emerged on Trump's strategy to deal with the spectre of international terrorism and the worsening situation in Afghanistan. A well thought-through strategy to deal with Pakistan’s persistent support for terrorist forces needs to be worked out. Also, greater attention needs to be given to ensuring stability and security in Afghanistan.

    During the visit, Prime Minister Modi will use the opportunity to meet and share views with other interlocutors like the two Houses of the US Congress where India enjoys huge support, with the business community, and the Indian diaspora. All these deliberations will send a powerful message to President Trump and his administration about the vigorous and wide-spread enthusiasm that exists for India and the India-US partnership in the US political system, business community and society.

    The success of the visit will be gauged by the commitment to bilateral ties that Modi is able to get from Trump. His task would be to get Trump’s recognition that a strong, stable and prosperous India is in America’s own interest. Although no big bang announcements are expected at this stage, one can be cautiously optimistic of a mutually beneficial outcome.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.