As Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded his fifth visit to the United States in three years, there was a perceptible shift in the mood of the official delegation from “caution” to “satisfaction”. Modi’s “diplohugs” (three of them) and Twitter diplomacy had succeeded with President Donald Trump. The “strategic partnership” was not only holding but the new spin was that the “India-US relationship had never been better and stronger”.
Just days before, both sides were doing their best to keep expectations low. No major announcements were on the cards. With the Trump administration still understaffed, it was clear that the outcome would be judged on the Joint Statement but more importantly, on the optics of the visit.
In Delhi, it was billed as “a get to know each other” visit. The tricky part was that with Modi not being a golfer and Trump not a yoga enthusiast, one an ascetic vegetarian and the other fond of a well done steak doused with ketchup, there was a degree of unpredictability about the optics.
In Washington, old India hands suggested that this be seen as a “no frills, no thrills and no spills” visit. In other words, it was important to prevent a negative outcome and there were potential minefields – Trump’s focus on “buy American, hire American” and India’s concerns on restrictions on H1B visas and Modi’s flagship Make in India, US’s growing warmth towards China coupled with a downturn in relations with Russia, Trump’s aligning himself with Saudi Arabia and a harder stand on Iran, rejection of the Paris accord on climate change, Trump’s description of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as “a terrific guy” in a tweet months earlier and continuing dependence on Pakistan for American policy on Afghanistan etc.
But finally, the gods smiled. Less than 48 hours before the visit, Trump tweeted –
Modi tweeted in return –
A “working dinner”, after the bilateral meeting and the Joint Press Conference in the Rose Garden on Monday afternoon was finally confirmed and billed as the first official White House banquet to be hosted by President Trump.
This was followed by the US State Department designating Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin as a “global terrorist”. India promptly welcomed the decision claiming it as vindication of its stand on Pakistan’s continuing sponsorship of cross border terrorism.
There was the announcement that US had cleared the sale of 22 Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles to India. This is the unarmed maritime surveillance version of the Predator which is what India had been seeking for some years. Though there is no formal decision that India will purchase the Guardian drones there are reports that this would address India’s needs in the Indian Ocean, complement the fleet of P8Is (also of US origin) and is an MTCR Cat I restricted item that has only been shared with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies.
The atmospherics changed and the careful choreography paid off. There were no awkward moments and the “diplohugs” indicated that the two leaders had struck a level of comfort and rapport which was reassuring. Trump described his meeting with Modi as a “tremendous success” and Modi thanked his new friend “for his kind words about India and his enthusiasm towards a vibrant India-US partnership”. Modi also invited Ivanka Trump and she has tweeted that she is looking forward to leading the US delegation for the entrepreneurship summit scheduled to be held in Delhi later this year.
No hesitations of history
The statements by the two leaders at the Press Conference and the Joint Statement – Prosperity Through Partnership – reaffirms the key elements of the strategic relationship. The anticipated areas of differences, particularly on the trade and energy side, have been worked around carefully. No new initiative has been launched but there are references to a robust defence and security partnership. India is a “major defence partner” and US is supportive of India’s military modernisation in terms of sales of advanced weaponry, co-development and co-production under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative and joint military exercises.
There is a stronger reference to North Korea in terms of “condemning” its continuing provocations in keeping with the Indian announcement last month that India has stopped all trade with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea except for food and medicine.
The Iran-Saudi rivalry has been bypassed merely referring to the need for greater diplomatic consultations and “tangible collaboration with partners in the Middle East”.
An announcement that US will be increasing its troop presence by 3,000-5,000 has already been made though an Afghan policy review is still under process. While the US has acknowledged India’s economic assistance for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, for the first time, there is also reference to India’s contribution to Afghanistan’s stability and security.
The references to China and the Asia-Pacific are pertinent in view of the recent incursions in Chumbi Valley sector. US and India now describe themselves as “democratic stalwarts of the Indo-Pacific region”. New language on China’s Belt and Road Initiative talks about the need for regional connectivity projects to “respect sovereignty and territorial integrity” and adopt “responsible debt financing practices”, arguments used by India for boycotting the Beijing meeting last month.
On counter-terrorism and Pakistan, the Joint Statement calls on “Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries” and urges it to bring to justice the perpetrators of 2008 Mumbai and 2016 Pathankot “and other cross border terrorist attacks” – the last being a new addition.
While there is need for a more balanced trade relationship, it pointed out that Indian purchases of Boeing aircraft sustain 1,30,000 American jobs, Indian investments in excess of $ 11 billion have created 52,000 jobs, 1,66,000 Indian students contribute $ 5 billion and support 64,000 jobs and the Indian IT industry has created another 1,56,000 jobs in the US. These references, together with the role played by Indian-Americans in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, reflect the real ties between the citizens of the two countries.
From “estranged democracies” in 1990 to, “natural allies” in 1998, “strategic partners” in 2005 and “the defining partnership of the 21st century” in 2010, has been a long journey. Modi’s visit has provided the assurance that the “hesitations of history” will remain consigned to history.