As India repositions itself and adjusts to new realities, ties with the US remain key for both strategic and economic reasons, and the convergence of interest is unlikely to disappear.
Washington: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with US President Donald Trump on June 26 will provide the first real indication of where US policy on India is headed under the new administration and whether progress is guaranteed or dubious.
It might be one of Modi’s most challenging meetings with a foreign leader, whose election came as a surprise to world leaders, throwing old calculations about US leadership off while making the evolution of a multipolar world a near certainty. Trump is focused inward and it is unlikely he would become an internationalist any time soon.
Modi will have to assess whether Indo-US relations will remain upwardly mobile and stay on the trajectory set by former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, or if ties will plateau in the short term under Trump. That India has not indulged in ostentatious criticism of the US president is a plus.
Modi moved India closer towards the US during the Obama administration, issuing a joint vision statement on the Indo-Pacific and declaring that the two democracies had overcome the “hesitations of history”. The oft-cited phrase may still hold true but to what extent is the question.
A public validation of the India-US strategic partnership by Trump would be important. Trump’s unpredictability has sent India back to the hedging table, reinvigorating old friendships and exploring new ones. It can be argued that Modi’s recent visits to Germany, France and Russia, and his determined outreach to Japan represent a new version of India’s old strategy of diversification, albeit with renewed determination. Modi will visit Israel next month in the first ever prime ministerial trip and abandon another hesitation of history, as it were.
As India repositions itself and adjusts to new realities, the relationship with the US remains key for both strategic and economic reasons, and the convergence of interest is unlikely to disappear. The US is an important trade partner, an attractive destination for Indian students and a source of high technology, even if demanding in the process.
“The best outcome of the meeting? Trump sees investing in India as good for his interests and for the US national interest,” said Ashley J. Tellis, a prominent strategic expert who has advised former presidents on South Asia. “Asian security and China’s rise were big issues for Bush and Obama and India enjoyed a pride of place in their calculations.”
“As for the key issues on which Trump is focused, such as defeating ISIS, it is not obvious what India can do by way of contribution. India is also not a huge market for US goods nor is India on the cusp of making defence decisions that could contribute to US prosperity. Even then, the question would be: Compared to what? India can’t buy $100 billion worth of weapons on a whim as Saudi Arabia did,” Tellis said.
The offer by Lockheed Martin to move the F-16 assembly line to India is on the table but discussions are in nascent stages. While defence sales would appeal to Trump, the Indian decision-making process is sluggish and “utterly painful to those who have to close on the deal”. Trump wants things in “micro seconds,” said Tellis, who led the negotiations on the Indo-US civil nuclear deal and knows the difficulties on both sides.
Nisha Biswal, former assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia in the Obama administration, said, “The strategic importance of India is not lost on key officials in the Trump administration. But she pointed out that Modi’s visit comes at an “inopportune time when the president and his team are consumed by internal political and legal challenges”.
Biswal, now an adviser with the Albright Stonebridge Group, said the visit would hopefully result in a schedule for bilateral dialogues. India and the US have 34 dialogues but “we have heard nothing from the Trump administration or secretary of state Rex Tillerson on whether these dialogues will continue or will evolve into a different structure”. On the positive side, she noted there was scope for moving forward on defence and counter-terrorism cooperation, and for having a frank discussion on Afghanistan.
“India will be anxious to know the outcome of the Afghan policy review, especially since President Trump has reportedly delegated decision-making on this to the defence secretary,” Biswal said. Trump has given defence secretary Jim Mattis the authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan and the expectation is that Mattis is going to bolster the US presence by sending an extra 3,000 to 5,000 troops to join the more than 9,000 already there.
Mattis told the US Congress last week that “we are not winning in Afghanistan right now and we will correct this as soon as possible. It’s going to require a change in our approach from the last several years.”
Senior Trump officials are likely to give the Indian delegation a perspective on what that “change” might entail. It might well be a tougher US policy on Pakistan, which Modi would welcome since New Delhi has long argued that the carrots-only US approach towards Pakistan is self-defeating.
According to a Reuters report, the Trump administration is considering toughening its Pakistan policy to include more drone strikes inside Pakistan, reducing US aid and even downgrading the “frenemy’s” status as a major non-NATO ally.
But Trump may well “press Modi on what India might do to help support US efforts in Afghanistan and against the global ISIS threat,” according to Joshua T. White, who worked on India in the Obama White House and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
Modi would also want to gauge the extent of Trump’s infatuation with China and Washington’s future course of action now that it’s becoming clear that Beijing’s efforts have fallen short in deescalating the North Korean crisis over its ongoing missile tests. After the April summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said he had “great chemistry” with the Chinese leader and was confident of his help with North Korea. This was a 180-degree turn from Trump’s extremely negative campaign rhetoric about China.
White said both Trump and Modi would be looking for ways to draw the other out. “For Modi that might mean teeing up a frank conversation about US policy toward China – a relationship that in my estimation is unsustainably buoyant at the moment.” But it’s “too early to say” what the future Trump policies on China and Pakistan – India’s two difficult neighbours – actually might be.
As for the contentious bilateral issues such as H-1B visas and Trump’s comments about India using the Paris Agreement on climate change to extract “billions and billions of dollars” from the West, White said Modi will likely “choose to focus on opportunities instead of litigating India’s grievances”.
“When I was at the White House I observed that Modi’s style was to let his senior aides broach the difficult topics in the weeks leading up to a major meeting, but once it came time to talk to the president, the prime minister was rather judicious in his criticism,” White said. “I think that served him well. Particularly for a first visit such as this one, both sides have every incentive to focus on what’s possible.”
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.