Modi and Trump will have one-on-one talks followed by a meeting between delegations. They will then make statements and go in for a working dinner, the first White House dinner for a foreign leader.
Washington: Allaying fears the US-India strategic partnership was entering the realm of the unknown with the new US administration, the White House has said “a strong India is good for the United States” and the upward trajectory in bilateral relations will continue.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will receive a “red carpet” welcome when he arrives at the White House to meet US President Donald Trump on Monday for his first face-to-face meeting. The two have talked on the phone three times, including when in an unusual move Trump called Modi to congratulate him after the UP elections.
There is every effort to make this a “special” and a “memorable” visit. A senior White House official, briefing journalists on the short but important visit, said the two leaders will have one-on-one talks followed by a meeting between delegations. They will then make statements and go in for a working dinner. It is the first White House dinner for a foreign leader.
Modi and Trump will spend more than five hours together, giving them enough time to establish some kind of rapport and understanding on crucial issues.
Calling India a “critical partner” in maintaining stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region and globally, the official said Trump “very much” wants to build on the momentum created by previous presidents.
The briefing was the first substantive elaboration by the Trump administration of its India policy and the way forward. The official provided a robust endorsement of the relationship and to some extent removed doubts and dilemmas that have gripped the strategic community about the direction of Indo-US relations since Trump took office.
The official hinted the visit will show “concrete examples” that India is a “major defence partner” – a reference to the Trump administration’s decision to authorise the sale of 22 unarmed Guardian drones to India. While the official did not want to talk about the deal before the US Congress is notified, General Atomics, the manufacturer, said on Friday that the sale, worth more than $2 billion, had been approved.
The drones will significantly enhance the Indian Navy’s capabilities to keep an eye on the vast oceans. The Guardian drone can stay in the air for up to 35 hours at a stretch. This would be the first sale of such drones to a non-NATO country.
It is likely that Trump would make the announcement on Monday.
The decision to clear the sale of drones is a major step forward and a break from the past. The Obama administration was ambivalent about selling India surveillance drones because the State Department was of the view the drones would introduce a new “destabilising” element in South Asia. In other words, Pakistan would complain about behind left behind.
The Trump administration official said flatly the drones to India don’t represent “a threat” to Pakistan, implying that not everything in the American calculation had to be about Pakistan. The American diffidence in dealing with Pakistan – a fact acknowledged by former Obama administration officials to this correspondent – may be ebbing.
The Trump administration official said the US’s relationships with India and Pakistan were separate and “stand on their own terms.” While it is not “a zero sum game,” the two relationships were qualitatively different and had different priorities. The subtext was clear – one was a positive relationship, the other one the product of necessity.
The White House official said the Trump administration plans to enhance India’s role as a key power in the region and such high tech defence sales are what “we give to our closest partners.”
The exposition by the official carried echoes of a previous Republican administration – one led by George W. Bush – when a distinct paradigm shift took place in favour of India with the conclusion of the 2008 civil nuclear deal.
In the briefing, India’s role as a force of stability in Afghanistan came for effusive praise as did New Delhi’s decision to adopt UN sanctions against North Korea, a country the Trump administration sees as a serious threat. The official noted India had helped build Afghanistan’s parliament and contributed significantly in the education sector. New Delhi’s efforts are appreciated not just by the Afghan government but also by the people, the official said. There was an indication that the US would expand its dialogue with India on Afghanistan.
The other area of focus will be counter-terrorism. The two sides are expected to enhance collaboration on screening for potential terrorists, sharing of databases and monitoring the internet.
The White House official also pointed out the growing energy partnership between India and the US, saying that long-term contracts with Indian companies for LNG amounted to nearly $32 million. Next week is energy week and it’s a good time to highlight the partnership, he said.
When asked about contentious issues such as the US demand for more market access in India and New Delhi’s worries about curbs on H-1B visas, the official underplayed their importance – at least for this first meeting. Instead, the role of the Indian American community and Indian students in supporting US jobs came in for praise.
The official recalled Trump’s declaration during the campaign in front of a large Indian American rally that if he were elected, India would have a “true” friend in the White House.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.