India-US Relations: After Modi’s Visit, Signs Of An Upward Trajectory In Ties

by Ashok Sajjanhar - Jul 1, 2017 10:39 AM +05:30 IST
India-US Relations: After Modi’s Visit, Signs Of An Upward Trajectory In TiesUS President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk from the Oval Office to deliver joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
  • Held in the backdrop of considerable apprehension, Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US can now be judged as an unqualified success.

    Modi’s visit has set the stage for rapid and robust growth in multi-faceted ties between India and the US in the coming years.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United States (US) on 25, 26 June at the invitation of the new US President Donald trump. This was Modi's first meeting with Trump, although the two leaders had spoken to each other on three occasions after Trump won the election. One call was made by Modi and two by Trump; the last one was made at the end of March to congratulate the Indian Prime Minister for his emphatic victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.

Notwithstanding the pleasant and reassuring conversations held thus far, a sense of unease enveloped the visit as it approached. Several reasons contributed to this disquiet. The most recent was the outburst against India that Trump unleashed on 1 June while announcing his country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. He accused India of demanding billions of dollars to comply with its commitments under the Paris climate accord. This was resolutely refuted by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, but the damage had seemingly already been done.

In addition, Trump’s attitude and behaviour over the last five months have given the impression that he is fickle, mercurial, unpredictable and impulsive. He has applied himself single-mindedly over this period to overturn most of the initiatives implemented by his predecessor, Barack Obama. In addition to the Paris climate agreement, he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and is not leaving any stone unturned to reverse the policies initiated by Obama on Iran and Cuba. On the domestic front also, similar results are visible. It was feared that he might decide to put India-US relations in the neutral gear, if not reverse them. This would be a huge setback for Modi, who has invested enormous political capital and effort over the last three years in bringing bilateral ties between the two nations to where they are today.

The fact that the visit was taking place after five months of installation of Trump as US President was also commented upon adversely by several analysts as proof that India was not a priority for the new US administration. It was asserted that all major partners of the US, including Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and China, had already visited Trump. I think that this is an erroneous assessment. India itself did not wish to appear to be in a tearing hurry to come calling to Washington, DC immediately after Trump's inauguration. India wanted to bide its time. Moreover, this period gave Trump some time to settle in and deal with pressing domestic issues like immigration, jobs and healthcare. Prime Minister Modi's visit after a reasonable interregnum was considered an ideal timing to make Trump focus on the strategic partnership between India and the US. The final results have proved the validity of this assessment.

On account of the rather discouraging build-up to the visit, it was suggested that expectations should be kept modest and no big-bang announcements be expected. It was billed as a meeting for the two leaders to get to know each other.

The mood lifted perceptibly just before the onset of the visit with the tweet from President Trump, conveying his warm welcome to his “true friend”. White House announced that Modi will be accorded a red carpet welcome and he would be the first foreign leader to dine at the White House after Trump’s accession.

In the backdrop of initial apprehension, the visit can now be judged as an unqualified success.

The visit provided a valuable opportunity to the two leaders to spend time with and know each other and establish a warm, comfortable and respectful working relationship with each other. They exuded easy camaraderie and bonhomie with each other. The body language was reassuring and encouraging. In addition, several significant decisions were taken during the visit and reassurance received that the upward trajectory of the India-US bilateral ties will continue unabated.

The biggest takeaway in substantive terms was the stern language against Pakistan and the designation of Syed Salahuddin, the ‘supreme commander’ of Kashmiri militant outfit Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’ because of his pronouncements to wreak havoc in Kashmir and make it a graveyard for Indian forces. This is a slap on the face of Pakistan. To compound the ignominy heaped on it, Pakistan was mentioned twice by name in the joint statement issued at the end of the visit, once to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terror strikes against other countries, and the second to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of 26/11 attack in Mumbai, Pathankot and other cross-border attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups. The statement names terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and others and exhorts the international community to take united, stringent action against them.

Other actions identified by the statement include increased intelligence sharing, operational-level counter-terrorism cooperation, exchange of information on known and suspected terrorists for travel screening, strengthening information exchange on plans, movements and linkages of terrorist groups and their leaders, terror financing and so on.

The real test of the commitments assumed by the two countries will lie in action taken by them in the coming months. For the time being, all this represents a collection of pious intentions. Keeping in view the strong position of Trump against global terrorism, there are better prospects today than any time in the past that suitable action will be taken by the two countries to quell this menace.

On the subjects of regional connectivity and South China Sea (although it is not mentioned by name), India’s position has been fully echoed. The statement declares the necessity for the transparent development of infrastructure, use of responsible debt-financing practices, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, rule of law and environment. Principles of freedom of navigation, over flights, and commerce throughout the region; and need to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law have been reiterated. This reaffirms that India and the US are on the same page with respect to dealing with the rapidly growing influence and presence of China in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific region.

Defence has emerged as a major area of cooperation with the US surfacing as the second-largest supplier, second to Russia, of sophisticated defence equipment to India. The sale of 22 Guardian surveillance drones is on the cards and is likely to be announced shortly. Also, reports have emerged about a possible tie-up between Lockheed Martin and Tata group to locally manufacture F16 aircraft in India. This could provide a significant impetus to the ‘Make in India’ initiative.

The initial anxiety that Trump looks upon all relations in transactional terms has been belied to some extent. There was focus on the sale of 100 civil aviation planes by the US to an Indian airline as also export of natural gas, but emphasis was also placed on the strategic contents of bilateral partnership, including the situation in Afghanistan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Middle East, Pakistan, Indo-Pacific Region, India's membership of export control agreements and United Nations Security Council, cyber space, Malabar naval exercises, reaffirmation of India's designation as a ‘major defence partner’, support to the US to join as an ‘observer’ in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and so on.

Trade was a significant part of discussions. The two sides agreed to a comprehensive review of bilateral relations and to further expand and balance ties on the principle of free and fair trade. Trump, in his statement to the press, referred to a fair and reciprocal trading partnership between the two countries. To respond to Trump’s concerns about creating jobs in the US, Modi in his article in the Wall Street Journal said Indian investment of $15 billion in the US is creating jobs in 35 American states, including in the rust belt from where Trump received significant support during the election.

An additional aspect of the visit was the outreach to the family of Donald Trump by Prime Minister Modi. He invited Trump’s daughter Ivanka to lead a delegation of American entrepreneurs to a Global Meet in India later this year. Trump appeared immensely pleased.

The Indian foreign policy establishment can justifiably feel upbeat about the way the visit has panned out. Given the uncertainties that had plagued the journey over the last few weeks, the results have been most gratifying. Prime Minister Modi wrote in his op-ed piece in Wall Street Journal that a year ago while addressing the US Congress he had spoken about having overcome the “hesitations of history.” He affirmed that a year later, he is confident of the growing convergence between the two nations.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit has set the stage for rapid and robust growth in multi-faceted ties between India and the US in the coming years.

The author is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. He is currently President, Institute of Global Studies.”

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