The meeting reflected a sense of bonhomie resulting from a convergence of interests
Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States, his fifth as the Prime Minister and first after Donald Trump became the President, has quickly been hailed as a victory by both media and diplomats. In the words of Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, it was “frankly one of the most productive of all prime ministerial visits to the United States”. President Trump has accepted “true friend” Narendra Modi’s invitation to visit India and both leaders, in a joint press conference (in which questions were not allowed) cherished the democratic values of the world’s “oldest” and “largest” democracies and vowed to deepen ties further. But beyond the optics, what did Modi actually achieve from his US visit.
There were concerns on the Indian side before the visit on how the U.S. under the new administration would respond to India’s sensitivities. Prime Minister Modi had cultivated a relatively strong partnership with President Barack Obama on various issues. President Trump, in his initial days in office, appeared to be leaning towards China because Washington wanted Beijing to use its leverage over North Korea. This, coupled with Mr. Trump’s unpredictable approach, had New Delhi concerned. But the joint statement issued on July 27 clears such doubts and reinforces the view that bilateral partnership is on a firm footing. The U.S. did not only condemn Pakistan on cross-border terrorism but also endorsed India’s views on China’s massive connectivity projects.
A few hours before Modi met Trump, the U.S. State Department had made Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin a “designated global terrorist”, a move that irked Pakistan but was welcomed by India. The joint statement was also forthright in its criticism of Pakistan. “The leaders called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. They further called on Pakistan to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups.” On China, the statement urged to respect “sovereignty and territorial integrity” on regional connectivity projects. India has long raised concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to link mainland China with different parts of the world through a number of infrastructural projects and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is passing through the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
India has returned the favour by including North Korea in the joint statement for the first time. The statement strongly condemns North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and holding accountable all parties that support these programmes, an indirect reference to China. North Korea is perhaps the biggest diplomatic crisis of the Trump administration. Ever since Trump assumed Presidency, North Korea has test-fired a number of missiles in defiance of US warnings and Washington appears to be clueless on how to rein Pyongyang in. So, obviously, President Trump is drumming up support against North Korea.
But beyond these diplomatic give-and-takes, neither the joint statement nor the joint press conference offers any new concrete achievement. The contentious issues such as H1B visa and immigration were conveniently ignored. Trump allies had campaigned against the H1B, a non-immigrant visa programme that allows US employers to temporarily employ foreign workers. Thousands of Indians go to the US every year on H1B visas. Trade remained a thorny issue. President Trump actually raised the issue with India urging the latter to address the trade gap between the two countries. The joint statement acknowledges the need “for expanding and balancing the trade relationship”. Tackling climate change, a priority issue under the Obama administration, was also not addressed.
Moreover, India continued to pay a price, literally, to keep the ties on a firm track. Few days before Modi’s visit to Washington, the Trump administration has authorised the sale of unarmed surveillance drones to India for $ 2 billion. India initiated the deal to buy 22 Guardian MQ-9B drones last year. It needs congressional approval, which is almost certain to come by. The Indian side argues that the drones will strengthen India’s surveillance capability, particularly maritime surveillance. In September 2015, hours before Prime Minister Modi took flight to Washington, the Union government cleared $3 billion defence deals for buying 22 Apache attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters from Boeing, a US company. Since 2008, India has signed more than $15 billion in US defence contracts, including for C-130J and C-17 transport aircraft, P-8I maritime patrol aircraft, Harpoon missiles and the Apache and Chinook helicopters.
This time, the White House directly mentioned the defence angle of the bilateral ties. In a “Fact Sheet” issued on June 26, the White House says “Completion of these (defence) sales would increase bilateral defense trade to nearly $19 billion, supporting thousands of United States jobs. If selected, United State offers to sell F-16 and F/A-18 fighter aircraft to India would represent the most significant defense cooperation between the United States and India to date.” There are six references to “jobs” being created in the domestic economy through the defence partnership with India in the Fact Sheet.
If India is buying US support through weapon deals, it may not be a sustainable way of improving ties. As of now, there’s a convergence of interests, and both Modi and Trump have decided to stay the course.