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Modi-Trump Meet: No Thrills, No Frills, No Spills

It’s perhaps a measure of the sense of trepidation with which New Delhi was approaching Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first meeting with US President Donald Trump that it sought to play down expectations with an Indian official contending it was “quite happy to sacrifice the thrills and frills, as long as there are no spills” in the run up to the visit. Much to the relief of the Indian side, the meeting between the two leaders saw no “spills”, at least not in the public domain. Instead, it saw numerous convergences emerge between the Modi government and the new Trump administration with the two sides seeking to make their strategic clinch even stronger. There were no major policy outcomes from the meeting but suffice it to say that it has set a positive tone and tenor for bilateral relations under the Trump administration, undoubtedly leaving New Delhi feeling quite reassured. The many areas of convergence as enunciated in the comprehensive joint statement issued at the end of the Modi-Trump meeting too should make New Delhi optimistic about being able to sustain the upward trajectory of ties, notwithstanding the differences. That New Delhi approached the Modi-Trump meeting with a certain amount of apprehension, even nervousness was the fact that the man at the helm of affairs, Donald Trump, has left the world guessing with his penchant for the unpredictable in terms of US foreign policy. This apart, the fact that the White House had not enunciated its South Asia policy left New Delhi on tenterhooks. President Trump’s pot-shots at India on the Paris climate change agreement suggesting India stood to gain billions of dollars in foreign aid if it signed it and the signing of an executive order of ‘Buy American, Hire American’ which allows a crackdown on the H1B visa programme for skilled workers—Indian techies have been major beneficiaries of this visa--- had only queered the pitch for New Delhi as it sought to engage with the new White House occupant. The declaration by President Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House that “India would have a true friend in the White House” should set at rest at least some of the fears South Block may have had about the future of the relationship. Further, President Trump’s assertion that ties between the two countries have never been stronger and better should also put New Delhi at ease. Indian foreign secretary S.Jaishankar’s assertion that the overarching theme of the discussions were “mutually supportive of each other in a changing world” in essence provides the template for bilateral relations the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies are seeking to forge. These encompass both the strategic and economic sphere, with the former getting off to a good start with the US State Department designating Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin a Global Terrorist just hours before the Trump-Modi meeting. India got a further shot in its arm with the strong message sent to Pakistan through the joint statement which sharply called upon Islamabad not to allow the use of its territory to launch terror attacks against others. Importantly, the joint statement also asks that the Pak-based perpetrators of the cross-border strikes like 26/11 and Pathankot be swiftly brought to justice. Trump’s reference to how the two countries can together “destroy radical Islamic terrorism”, while also drawing attention to the bilateral security partnership as being “incredibly important”, too indicates the resolve to continue working together in the counter-terrorism arena. Towards this end, the Trump-Modi meeting also decided to set up a “new consultation mechanism on domestic and international terrorist designation listing proposal”. Much to the dismay of Pakistan, which has always accused India of exercising undue influence and meddling in Afghanistan, President Trump also strongly endorsed India’s role in promoting “democracy, stability, prosperity and security” there. The Modi-Trump meeting also saw reaffirmation of the strategic convergence between the two countries. The US has bagged Indian arms deals worth over 15 billion dollars, and the bilateral defence trade is set to further expand after the designation of India as a “major defence partner” by the Obama administration last year. President Trump’s pointed mention of the forthcoming Malabar exercise among the US, Indian and Japanese navies, which has been a major sore point with China in the past, reflects the growing synergies in the defence and security arena. Indeed, New Delhi which has had increasingly prickly relations with Beijing in recent times found a willing partner in Washington with the joint statement drawing attention to the South China Sea. Without specifically mentioning the disputed region, the statement calls on “all nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law”. With Trump’s honeymoon with the Chinese giving way to increasing impatience, New Delhi also got Washington to back its stand on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that runs through Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK). Part of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of Beijing, the CPEC has raised New Delhi’s hackles and it chose to boycott the BRI Summit last month. The joint statement mentioned the two leaders “support bolstering regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”. India, on its part, supported the hardline US policy on North Korea, with the two leaders pledging to counter its weapons of mass destruction programme. However, despite all the positives, there were two glaring omissions in the Modi-Trump discussions. Wary of Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra and his off-the-cuff remarks and tweets, India chose not to raise the issue of H1B visas. Neither did New Delhi raise the Paris climate change pact, which has been dumped by Trump. Bilateral trade, too, remains a major area of divergence with President Trump drawing attention to it more than once during the PM’s visit, and noting the need to “create a trading relationship that is fair and reciprocal”. India will perforce need to address White House concerns about the trade deficit between the two countries and the removal of trade barriers and market access for US goods if it seeks to maintain robust ties with the Trump administration with its emphasis on ‘America First’ and jobs creation. Else, President Trump may lose patience, as is his wont. And then the three bear hugs and numerous hand-shakes between the two leaders may come to naught.

(The writer is a senior journalist.The views are personal)

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