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India-US Relations: On the Upward Trajectory

Ashok Sajjanhar is President, Institute of Global Studies, and a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.
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  • June 30, 2017

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United States on 25-26 June at the invitation of the new President of the United States 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 being by Trump in end-March to congratulate Modi for the emphatic victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh elections.

    Notwithstanding these pleasant and reassuring conversations, a sense of unease did prevail in the run-up to Modi’s visit. Several reasons contributed to this disquiet, the most recent being Trump’s outburst against India on 1 June while announcing the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Accord. He accused India of demanding billions of dollars to comply with its commitments under the Paris Pact. This was resolutely refuted by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, but the damage was done.

    In addition, Trump’s attitude and behaviour over the last five months gave 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 of his predecessor. In addition to the Paris Climate Change Pact, 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 as well, similar efforts are visible. It was feared that Trump might decide to put India-US relations in neutral gear, if not exactly in the reverse. This would have been a huge setback for Modi who has invested enormous political capital and effort over the last three years in bringing bilateral ties to where they are today.

    The fact that the visit was taking place after five months of Trump’s assumption of the presidency 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 American partners including Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, China, etc. had already met Trump. This was an erroneous assessment. India itself did not wish to appear to be in a tearing hurry to go calling immediately after Trump's inauguration. It wanted to bide time. Moreover, this period gave Trump time to settle in and deal with pressing domestic issues such as immigration, jobs, healthcare, etc. Modi's visit after a reasonable interregnum was considered ideal timing to make Trump focus on the strategic partnership between India and USA. 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 should be expected. It was billed as a get-to-know each other meeting. The mood lifted perceptibly just before the onset of the visit with Trump’s tweet extending a warm welcome to his ''true friend'' Modi. The White House announced that Modi will be accorded a red carpet welcome and that he would be the first foreign leader to dine at the White House after Trump's assumption of office.

    In the backdrop of initial apprehensions, Modi’s visit can be termed an unqualified success. It provided a valuable opportunity to the two leaders to spend time with each other, get to know each other, and establish a warm, comfortable and respectful working relationship. 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 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 the Kashmiri militant outfit Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist because of his pronouncements about wreaking havoc in Kashmir and making it a graveyard for Indian forces. This is a huge slap on Pakistan's face. To compound the ignominy heaped on it, Pakistan has been 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 the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups. The Joint Statement also 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 Joint Statement include increased intelligence sharing, operational-level counterterrorism 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, etc.

    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 Trump’s strong position on global terrorism, there are better prospects today than at 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 the latter is not mentioned by name), India's position has been fully reflected. The Joint Statement declares the necessity of transparent development of infrastructure, use of responsible debt financing practices, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, rule of law, and environmental protection. Principles of freedom of navigation, unhindered over flights, and commerce throughout the region as well as the need to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law have been reiterated. This reaffirms that India and USA 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 USA emerging as the second largest supplier, after Russia, of sophisticated 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 the 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 USA to an Indian airline as also on the export of natural gas, but emphasis was also placed on the strategic contents of the bilateral partnership including the situation in Afghanistan, North Korea, Middle East, Pakistan, Indo-Pacific Region, India's membership in export control agreements and UN Security Council, cyber space, Malabar naval exercises, reaffirmation of India's designation as a Major Defence Partner, support to United States to join as an Observer in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, etc.

    Trade was a significant part of the 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 USA, Modi, in his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), mentioned that Indian investments totalling USD 15 billion in USA is creating jobs in 35 US States including in the rust belt from where Trump received huge support in his election.

    An additional aspect of the visit was Modi’s reach out to Trump’s family. He invited Trump’s daughter Ivanka to lead a delegation of US entrepreneurs to a Global Meet in India later this year. Trump appeared immensely pleased.

    The Indian foreign policy establishment can justifiably feel upbeat with the results of the visit. Given the uncertainties in the run-up to the visit, the results have been most gratifying. In his op-ed in WSJ, referring to his statement about having overcome the “hesitations of history” during his address to the US Congress a year ago, Modi affirmed it once again and expressed his confidence with regard to the growing convergence between the two nations. His visit has set the stage for rapid and robust growth in the multi-faceted ties between India and USA in the coming years.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.