India and US Upgrade Ties, Agree to Start Talks for 'Bigger' Trade Deal

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi held discussions and signed three agreements related to mental health, safety of medical products and distribution of natural gas.

New Delhi: While India and United States upgraded their relations to a “comprehensive global strategic partnership”, there were no substantive deals beyond purchase of military helicopters, with both sides only agreeing to starting negotiations on a comprehensive trade agreement.

The upgradation of the relationship was announced during the joint press appearance by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump on the green lawns of Hyderabad House.

The two leaders came out after less than an hour of formal discussions in the stately house located in central Delhi. Following the discussions, there were signing of three agreements related to mental health, safety of medical products and distribution of natural gas.

PM Modi described the relationship as the “most important partnership of the 21st century”.

“We discussed every important aspect of US-India partnership, be it defence and security, energy, strategic partnership, trade or people to people ties,” he said.

Modi announced that both leaders have decided to upgrade ties to “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership”.

He also announced that on bilateral trade, the two commerce ministers – India’s Piyush Goyal and Wilbur Ross from the US – had “positive discussions”. “We agreed that the understanding reached should now be given legal shape. We also agreed to start negotiations for a bigger trade deal,” said Modi.

“The increasing defence and security cooperation between India and the US is a very important aspect of our strategic partnership. Cooperation in ultra-modern defence equipment and platforms will enhance India’s defence capabilities. Our defence manufacturers are becoming a part of each other’s supply chains,” he said.

“We have also taken a decision today to further increase our efforts in order to hold supporters of terrorism responsible,” PM Modi said.

In the area of new emerging technologies, the partnership between India and the US has “attained new levels in terms of innovation and enterprise”, the PM said, adding that in the fields of “Industry 4.0 and of the new technologies of the 21st century”, the talent of Indian professionals have reinforced US companies’ technological leadership.

The prime minister highlighted the role of the Indian diaspora in the US, saying whether as professionals or students, they have strengthened the people-to-people relations between the two countries. The Indian diaspora has also contributed to the US economy, he said.

“I have requested President Trump that the contribution of our professionals, in terms of social security, should be discussed further within the framework of a totalization agreement. This will be of mutual interest to both of us,” Modi said.

US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi make joint statements after bilateral talks at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, February 25, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Al Drago

‘Tremendous progress’: Trump 

Trump also mentioned in his remarks that there was “tremendous progress” in talks for a “fair and reciprocal” trade deal. He asserted that the focus was on reaching a “comprehensive trade deal”.

The US president noted that American exports to India have increased by 60%, while fuel exports have gone up by 500%.

Also Read: From Howdy Modi to Namaste Trump, Two Leaders Heap Praise on Each Other

He referred to the Indian Oil-Exxon Mobil deal, which will improve the capacity of the distribution network and thereby allow India to import more LNG from US. In his characteristic style, he called on the Exxon Mobil CEO, “That’s a big deal, Alex.. can you handle it?”

Trump referred to the need for a secure “5G wireless network”, which can be utilised for positive purposes. “To guarantee that the infrastructure of the future is built in a safe, transparent, and accountable manner, the United States is working with a range of partners, including Australia and Japan, to create the Blue Dot Network, a major initiative to ensure countries around the world to have access to private sector-led, sustainable, and trustworthy options for high-quality infrastructure development, and that’s what’s happening,” Trump said.

With Trump having spoken about combating opioid crisis as a domestic priority, India and the US agreed to form a counter-narcotics working group that will look at preventing the spread of drugs that fuel the epidemic.

On the strategic front, both the leaders referred to the Indo-Pacific and the need to secure the region. Modi mentioned that both leaders have agreed to provide “sustainable and transparent” financing for connectivity infrastructure. The “new partnership” between USAID and MEA’s Development Partnership Administration will help in cooperating with third countries.

Trump also referred to the ‘Quad’ ministerial-level meeting as “so much more” than what it ostensibly stood for.

The joint statement issued at the end of the visit listed India-US-Australia-Japan Quadrilateral formats as one of the various platforms for strengthening consultations between Modi and Trump.

After an absence in the 2017 joint statement, South China Sea again made an appearance in the bilateral document.

“India and the United States took note of efforts towards a meaningful Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and solemnly urged that it not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations according to international law,” it stated. South China Sea had first appeared in a India-US joint statement in 2014, when Modi was hosted in Washington by President Barack Obama.

The “free, open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region got a mention in the joint statement with a reiteration of ASEAN centrality.

US described India’s role as a “net provider of security, as well as developmental and humanitarian assistance in the Indian Ocean Region”.

Taking note of their countries’ shared commitment to advancing effective development solutions in the Indo-Pacific and globally, Prime Minister Modi and President Trump look forward to a new partnership between USAID and India’s Development Partnership Administration for cooperation in third countries.

The US president also boasted about the $3 billion military helicopter deal to sell MH-60R naval and AH-64E Apache helicopters to India.

The joint statement added that the two countries proposed to deepen defence cooperation “through greater maritime and space domain awareness and information sharing; joint cooperation; exchange of military liaison personnel; advanced training and expanded exercises between all services and special forces; closer collaboration on co-development and co-production of advanced defence components, equipment and platforms; and partnership between their defence industries”.

On the issue about terrorism, Trump said, “In our discussions, Prime Minister Modi and I affirmed our two countries’ commitment to protecting our citizens from radical Islamic terrorism. In this effort, the US is also working productively with Pakistan to confront terrorists who operate on its soil”.

Similar to previous bilateral diplomatic declarations, the joint statement also called on Pakistan “to ensure that no territory under its control is used to launch terrorist attacks, and to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of such attacks, including 26/11 Mumbai and Pathankot”. There was also denouncement of use of terrorist proxies and cross-border terrorism.

“They called for concerted action against all terrorist groups including Al-Qa’ida, ISIS, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Hizb-ul Mujahideen, the Haqqani Network, TTP, D-Company, and all their affiliates”.

While the Haqqani network was mentioned as one of the terror groups, US is, of course, now getting ready to sign a deal with Taliban. The Haqqani network is one of its most influential components, with Sirajudin Haqqani as the deputy leader of the Taliban.

There was no specific reference to the imminent peace deal, but on Afghanistan, the two sides agreed that they supported “an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process that results in a sustainable peace; cessation of violence; elimination of terrorist safe havens; and preservation of the gains of the last 18 years”. Trump also welcomed India’s role to provide development and security assistance to provide “connectivity” in Afghanistan.

Later, both the Indian and US sides clarified that while the issue of CAA did not come up, freedom to practice religion was a topic of discussion.

“The issue of CAA did not come up, but with regard to what you mentioned, the term religious freedom, there was appreciation from both sides that pluralism and diversity are a common binding factor of both the countries,” foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla told reporters.

He added that “religious harmony was discussed in a positive way”. There was no reference to the violence and riots that had racked a section of Indian capital in any diplomatic engagements.

On Kashmir, Shringla said that India shared that there had been a “great deal of positive development”. 

“Recently, we had two groups of envoys, including US ambassador. Sense is that the focus is now on development, focus on tourism and leading to a right direction. There was apreciation that great deal has been done in moving towards that way,” he stated.

During his solo press conference, Trump referred to Kashmir has being a “thorn on the side” and said that there were always “two sides to a story”.

President Trump concluded by saying, “We won’t be taking questions now; I’ll be having a news conference at 5 o’clock and we’ll take plenty of questions. Thank you all very much.”

After Trump arrived in India on Monday, his first day in Ahmedabad and Agra was all about pageantry and pomp, with Trump addressing hundreds of thousands of people at ‘Namaste Trump’ rally in Motera, the world’s biggest cricket stadium.

The Delhi leg of travels

The Delhi leg of his travels began with being greeted at the airport by Union minister for civil aviation, housing and urban affairs, Hardeep Singh Puri on Monday night.

After waking up on Tuesday, Trump seems to have been watching Fox News, as he posted tweets related to Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and called on two Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to recuse themselves from cases related to him.

His official engagements started with a ceremonial reception at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan at around 10 am. His motorcade was led into the expansive grounds by the red-uniformed Presidential bodyguards and was then greeted by President Ram Nath Kovind and PM Modi.

After taking a salute from a phalanx of troops from the three services, the first couple were then whisked away to Raj Ghat where they laid a wreath.

US President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s President Ram Nath Kovind and his wife Savita Kovind pose for a photo at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, February 25, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Altaf Hussain

“The American people stand strongly with a sovereign and wonderful #India -The vision of the great Mahatma – This is a tremendous honour!” wrote Trump in the visitor’s book.

Thereafter, both of them went to Hyderabad House at about 11 am, where they shook hands with the Indian PM for a photo opportunity in front of the arched main door, flanked by alternating flags of India and the US. Melania Trump peeled off for a planned visit to a Delhi government school to check an innovative education initiative, while Trump began formal closed-door bilateral discussions with his host.

As per pool reports from the travelling White House media, Trump thanked Modi for the “amazing in every sense of the word” visit. His agenda seemed to be clear, with Trump listing trade, fighter jets and energy as areas on which he hoped to hear more from Modi. He apparently said that there were “substantial transactions” to report in those areas.

Also Read: Contrary to MEA Spin, US Lautenberg Amendment Doesn’t Help India’s Argument on CAA

He also was pleased by the size of the crowd at Motera stadium, as he noted that there were “thousands of people trying to get in”. That may not be exactly accurate, as all the invited audience had been brought into the stadium several hours earlier due to security consideration. Instead, there were videos that showed that many of the audience who were sitting directly under the hot afternoon sun started to leave before his speech ended.

“I would even imagine they were there more for you than for me, I would hope so,” he told Modi. “The people love you…every time I mentioned your name, they would cheer.”

Note: The article has been updated with details from the Joint Statement.