Michael Kugelman @MichaelKugelman
June 21, 2017, 9:21 am June 21, 2017, 3:30 am
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will soon be travelling to Washington D.C. for a visit with President of the United States Donald Trump.
Since the two men will be meeting for the first time, a major focus of their exchange will be testing the waters of personal chemistry — which famously flourished between Modi and Barack Obama, resulting in an unlikely big-name bromance.
Accordingly, the June 26 meeting — which won’t be designated as an official state visit— will lack the pomp and pageantry that marked Modi’s engagements with Barack Obama. And it likely won’t yield splashy announcements or accords.
Still, because the meeting marks their first encounter, the visit is fraught with significance.
How Trump, perhaps the most unpredictable president in American history, handles the summit remains to be seen. He may be tempted to perseverate about his branded real estate projects in India; Tribeca Developers, the Trump Organization’s partner in India, suggests he has more of them there than anywhere else outside North America.
Instead, he should emphasize the similarities between the two men — from their pro-business bonafides to their strong embrace of social media — and the shared interests of their two countries.
Modi’s objective should be to strike a balance between building trust, articulating concerns, and seeking better clarity about the relationship. He can do so by bringing up five key issues.
This may be where Modi and Trump agree the most. Both espouse a singular and strident position toward Islamist terrorism: It needs to be destroyed wherever it rears its murderous head. Ironically, this shared position could produce disagreements down the road.
Trump may want a resistant Modi to formally join the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, and Modi may want a hesitant Trump to take more drastic action against anti-India militants in Pakistan.
Still, by articulating their joint determination to eradicate terror, Modi would offer an instant and emphatic affirmation of a bedrock shared interest and enable the two leaders to enjoy some immediate goodwill.
This is another area where Modi and Trump are of similar mind. Both worry about China’s rising clout and increasingly hostile moves in the Indo-Pacific region, but also appear keen to deploy enough kid gloves treatment to avoid provoking the world’s likely next superpower. This dynamic could well change; the ever-fickle Trump began his presidency with a flurry of bellicose anti-China rhetoric before walking back his threat to label Beijing a currency manipulator and embracing China as an essential mediator to deal with North Korea. But for now, with the two men in general agreement about China, Modi should seize the moment and highlight another area of convergence.
3. Indians In America
The recent attacks on Indian-Americans are beyond deplorable — and so is Trump’s relative silence about them. Given the very real fears of Indian-Americans and the crucial role of the Indian diaspora in U.S.-India relations, Modi can’t afford not to bring up this matter. Tellingly, Trump didn’t speak publicly about the killing of the Indian-American engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas until nearly a week after the tragedy, in a joint address to Congress — delivered on the very day that Indian foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar arrived in the United States to voice his concerns to U.S. officials about the plight of Indian-Americans.
It behooves Modi to remind an easily distracted Trump about New Delhi’s continued concerns about the well-being of Indian-Americans.
Despite the continued presence of more than 8,000 U.S. troops, Afghanistan had largely fallen off the radar in Washington until the Trump administration launched a still-ongoing policy review. In the United States, discussions about the regional dimensions of the Afghanistan conundrum revolve around Pakistan, Iran, China, and increasingly Russia — but rarely India. Modi would be wise to gauge how Trump views the role of India, arguably Washington’s and Kabul’s closest friend in South Asia, in Afghanistan — where rapid destabilisation is a major worry for New Delhi.
5. Strategic Partnership
Modi should also seek clarity about the idea of “strategic partnership” — a term frequently invoked in both capitals but never properly defined. One of the constraints in U.S.-India relations has been an inability to agree on the meaning of this term as it applies to the bilateral relationship. This is problematic, given that both countries in a general sense tend to conceive of the term quite differently. For India, strategic partnership entails close cooperation on technological transfers and arms sales. For the United States, it entails those things but also joint military operations and even a willingness to fight wars together.
If a major objective of Modi’s meeting with Trump is to assess possibilities for the relationship’s future, then it would be useful to ascertain what Trump thinks about the strategic partnership — particularly because he tends to attach more importance to transactions than strategic depth in relationships.
Pursuing ‘strategic partnership’ without agreeing on its definition amounts to putting the cart before the horse.
What Does Not Appear On This List
Modi is all but certain to bring up H-1B visas, but doing so may be futile. There is bipartisan support in Washington to rein the program in, and an “America First” president will be the last person to stand in the way of reforming — or even dismantling — a program that many Americans believe takes away jobs.
Meanwhile, clean energy is a recent success story for U.S.-India cooperation, but in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, it’s now a no-go area.
Furthermore, trade and economics are key areas of the relationship.
However, the clashing objectives of two signature economic policies — Modi’s “Make in India,” which calls on foreign companies to operate in India, and Trump’s “America First,” which calls on U.S. firms to stay home — portend possible bilateral irritants that are better off not surfacing in this maiden meeting.
Ultimately, the June 26 summit will be a no-frills, let’s get acquainted affair. Still, its outcomes — from body language to any post-meeting joint statement — will offer clues about the future trajectory of a relationship that has enjoyed ample progress in recent years, but now faces considerable uncertainty under the stewardship of a mercurial new U.S. president.
Michael Kugelman is deputy director and senior associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.