Modi’s first meeting with Trump is likely to be exploratory, devoid of any frills
Prime minister Narendra Modi and US president Donald Trump’s first meeting may not yield much in terms of big bang agreements. It explains why Modi’s spin doctors have rightly underplayed the visit in terms of outcomes and operative issues. The trickiest part of Modi’s visit would be to forge a working relationship with Trump’s Republican administration. Given that the US president is a blunt talker, it would need deft handling from the Indian side to make things work.
Modi’s experience on this visit could be radically different from his deliberations with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Modi and Obama had hit off very well with convergence on several issues, shared a perspective on global issues and forged a strategic partnership between the two countries. Building on this hard work with a different administration, mindset, sensitivities and a fresh team of White House officials may not be easy. But, it’s not impossible either, given the shared objectives on vital bilateral and global issues.
Terrorism could easily be the biggest concern for both the countries where there’s likelihood of a joint action plan. While president Trump’s first and most potent enemy is the Islamic State and its Caliphate, for prime minister Modi, tackling state-sponsored terrorism from across the borders and the consolidating Pakistan-China axis on security issues would be priority. Tackling global terrorism, a lot of which emanates in India’s immediate neighbourhood, could be the starting point of such talks. The two sides could also discuss Trump’s Afghanistan policy and possible role for India in South Asia. Given that China-Pakistan may particularly appreciate an Indo-US on Afghanistan, Modi will have to tread cautiously without losing the plot.
Not just from the security angle, but even from an economic perspective, Afghanistan could offer a big opportunity and a challenge in the neighbourhood.
The Indo-US economic, trade and services engagement that totals $115 billion annually, could be yet another area for review. Given that president Trump is an astute businessman and wary of Modi’s ‘buy Indian and make in India’ campaigns, one needs to negate these concerns. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that Trump’s own campaign of ‘be American, buy American’ fetched him votes enough to get into office.
Even within this straight frame, there would be scope for expanding the trade engagement to $500 billion, as outlined in the Modi-Obama communiqué earlier last year. Similarly, there’s enough potential for joint development of defence equipment and projects that will provide jobs and opportunity for both sides.
Trump’s disdain for multi-lateral trading regimes will come handy to promote bilateral economic and trade agenda. From the Indian point of view, tackling the H1B visa issue is very important given that the country’s services exports seriously hinge on allowing highly talented professionals to move to the US.
Though the Trump administration has softened its stand, if only marginally, both Republicans and Democrats have been weary of Indian technology professionals encroaching upon American turf.
Trump’s policy towards energy issues are of serious concern for India, given that the Republican administration pulled out of the Paris accord, with the US president’s comments on India not exactly designed to set the bilateral relations on fire. Given the serious backing Trump got from coal mine workers across US, he may not be willing to buy India’s line for alternative energy matrix, especially the more cost effective solar energy projects.
Looked at any way, Modi’s visit must be seen more as exploratory rather than any high decibel engagement with the United States.