Donald Trump’s administration’s policies pertaining to industry, immigration, financial deregulation, taxation, and education are domestic in content, but also have international implications. Indian economists and strategists for the past few months have been pointing fingers at this evolving dynamics and observing that Trump’s global, regional, and economic policies would also impact India to varying degrees unless pre-emptive steps are taken.
These concerns persuaded many in New Delhi and Mumbai to suggest that India must continue to engage with greater seriousness with the Trump administration and other stake-holders in the US including the US Congress, state governments, and the private sector -- in all of these areas. It was also underlined by them that the Indian government needed to convince Washington that India’s rise in the global context was in American interest.
At the same time, as an alternative step, several Indian think-tanks (including Brookings, India) have also been stressing that it should not wait for an assured understanding with the new US administration but try and also “invest in relationships with other countries to achieve its desired outcomes, while more forcefully projecting its own influence and leadership.”
These underlying factors assumed crucial dimensions during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s recent “no-frills” two-day visit to Washington during the last week of June. For nine years -- from 2005 to 2014 -- Modi was banned from entering the US. This policy was overturned when Modi became prime minister.
In 2014, he had a private dinner with Obama at the White House. It was a full-scale rehabilitation. Modi then returned in 2015 and later addressed a joint session of the US Congress in 2016. This was Modi’s fifth trip to the US.
Unlike the feverish anticipation during past meetings between Modi and former President Barack Obama, expectations for Modi’s relationship with Trump till this meeting had been lukewarm.
Nevertheless, there was a lot of anticipation with regard to the visit. It acquired special importance because it was taking place soon after Modi’s visit to Russia, Germany, and France. There was expectation because both governments were hinting that this summit was about building a personal relationship and creating a suitable equation between two leaders.
What did they talk about?
It was also stressed from the beginning of the visit that discussions would focus on development, growth and prosperity. Consistent with this approach, Modi after his discussions promised that India would “remain a driven, determined, and decisive partner.”
As reported by the media, discussions between the two sides took cognisance of certain important issues and avoided getting bogged down in contentious matters.
As clarified after their meeting, both leaders gave particular emphasis on jointly fighting terrorism. They vehemently decried “Islamist extremism” and urged Pakistan to ensure its territory was not used to launch terror attacks on other countries.
India will become the first non-NATO country permitted to buy high-tech, unmanned Guardian drones, and the US would net an estimated $2-3bn. This will smooth the path for closer cooperation
Analysts have pointed out that this could include strengthening of cooperation against threats posed by Pakistan-based militant groups Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The media in this context has also suggested that Pakistan has been given the hint that it should “expeditiously bring to justice” those behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and the attack last year on the Indian air base in Pathankot. This approach was consistent with past Indian accusations that Pakistan conducted state-sponsored terrorism. This has however been strongly denied by Pakistan.
As expected, there was discussion on matters of trade and purchase of US defense equipment. However, what Modi did for Trump was to buy more US weapons. India after all is the world’s largest importer of weapons, while the US is the world’s largest seller of weapons. Nationalism in this context did not stand as a barrier.
Records indicate that India has signed $15 billion worth of defense contracts with the US since 2008. It may be mentioned that Lockheed Martin, a US military aerospace firm, is also negotiating with India’s Tata Advanced Systems to shift production of F-16 fighter jets from the US to India.
The post-visit scenario will in all probability address this issue. Washington, it is understood is also set to confirm the sale of 22 unarmed Guardian drones, a naval variant of the Predator, which New Delhi wants to deploy to Indian Ocean waters where China is expanding trade routes and sending submarines.
A first of its kind
If this is approved, then India will become the first non-NATO country permitted to buy high-tech, unmanned Guardian drones, and the US would net an estimated $2-3bn. This will smooth the path for closer cooperation. Trump has also praised Indian airline Spice Jet’s recent order of 100 planes from US manufacturer Boeing.
Such areas of potential defense cooperation will definitely sway USA more towards India. This will also help to reduce the impact in Trump’s eyes of the growing trade deficit between the USA and India.
It may be noted here that US-India trade has more than doubled from $45bn in 2006 to about $115bn in 2016 and that the US trade deficit has also widened to $31bn in that time.
This step might also help in minimising the impact of the clashing objectives of Modi’s “Make in India” -- and Trump’s “America First” -- which suggests that US firms need to stay at home to generate greater employment opportunities in the USA.
Conflicts in friendship
Both sides appear to have been quite cautious in not openly referring to the contentious issue of immigration or the effect of climate change and global warming. Analysts have particularly pointed out lack of clear reference to the US work visa system -- the H-1B (primarily used by Indian engineers and developers). They apparently account for about 70% of the visas awarded annually in this category -- most of them going to Indian workers involved with its massive tech industry.
This has however acquired a sensitive touch with Trump repeatedly asking US tech companies to replace this pro-India format with unemployed American workers. Lack of a clear-cut decision with regard to this dimension is particularly significant for Indian policy-makers as well as for the nearly four million Indian Americans and the 166,000 Indians who study in the US.
This first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders was sealed with a bear hug.
The BBC has also reported that Trump has accepted Modi’s invitation to visit India and mentioned that his daughter Ivanka would be leading a US delegation to an entrepreneurship summit in India later this year. The two leaders ended their meeting with a dinner, marking the first time that Trump has hosted a foreign dignitary at a White House dinner.
However, it might still be too early to describe the Modi visit as heralding a breakthrough in US-India relationship that has seen ups and downs in the past.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at [email protected]