Only time will tell if chemistry did indeed develop between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump but both played well for their audience and said the right things to each other.
Modi’s slightly awkward embrace following the Rose Garden press meet told another story of energetic Indian attempts to woo Trump, and the latter playing along, at least for the moment. That no questions were permitted following the statements made by the two leaders was notable. As a convention, at least two questions each are posed to the leaders from the press from India and the US. Both leaders like one-way interactions with the media and though it was the Indian side which nixed the proposal for questions, it’s quite possible there was an easy meeting of minds between Modi and Trump on this.
We do not know the tone and tenor of what the two leaders said to each other in their meetings through the day. There are two ways of making an assessment. One is from the formal remarks made by Trump and Modi at the presser and the other is through the joint statement adopted following the meetings. The short remarks, though scripted, do reveal something of the personality and priorities of the leaders.
Take Trump’s remarks “that India would have a true friend in the White House”. It recalled an identical formulation made when he attended a fundraiser by the Republican Hindu Coalition headed by Shalabh Kumar, a major donor to his campaign, in the final phase of the presidential elections last year. In the Roae Garden on Monday, Trump was quite flattering on India — emphasising its “fastest growing economy” status and hyping its somewhat flawed GST experiment — and the meat in his statement was economic: How the US and India could partner growth, which, incidentally, echoed the subtitle of the joint statement ‘prosperity through growth’. But Trump said the goal was “to create a trading relationship that is fair and reciprocal,” making it clear that he expected India to remove trade barriers to the export of US goods to India and reduce the current trade deficit, which is around $30 billion against the US. His reference to the 100 Boeing aircraft ordered by SpiceJet and the ongoing negotiations for long-term LNG contracts brought to the surface what was otherwise in the subtext.
In contrast to two paragraphs on security issues, economic issues merited six. The lead issue was the commonly perceived threat of terrorism and the determination to destroy them and their “radical ideology”. Trump commended the trilateral Malabar exercises to be held in July and also thanked India for its role in Afghanistan. However, it was North Korea, and indirectly China, that was on the president’s mind when he thanked India for joining in the sanctions and noted that the issue had to be dealt with “and probably dealt with rapidly.”
Modi’s remarks were carefully structured and what was evident was his subtle flattery of Trump who was thanked repeatedly for interacting with him. Modi also referred to his “vast and successful experience in the business world”. His effort was to put across an India that was ready to synchronise itself with the Trump administration’s goals, be they economic or related to security.
He emphasised the mutuality of interests and trust between the two nations and noted that there was no contradiction between his ‘new vision’ of India and Trump’s efforts of ‘making America great again’, though there is an obvious issue in Trump wanting to bring manufacturing back to the US, and Modi’s desire to get India on to the manufacturing bandwagon. Whatever be the case, Modi said, “India’s development and its growing role at the international level are in the USA’s interest”.
If Trump emphasised the economic over the security aspects of the ties, Modi’s remarks tended to do the opposite. Terrorism, of course, was a major reference, though Modi carefully nuanced his usually harsh references to Pakistan. He spoke of fighting terrorism “by doing away with the safe shelters, sanctuaries and safe havens” and spoke of the common interest in stabilising Afghanistan and ensuring security there and strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. He expressed his appreciation for the role the US had played in enhancing India’s defence capabilities.
On the other hand, the joint statement adopted by the two sides represents more of a consensual document, as well as one crafted by the officials of the two sides through negotiations. For this reason it is significant that for the first time the US has agreed to language which says “The leaders called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries.”
Previous joint statements — 2016 or 2015 — had spoken of the need to bring the perpetrators of Mumbai and Pathankot to justice. The US probably indulged India a bit by declaring Syed Salahuddin, the leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen, a specially designated global terrorist. The 71-year-old leader meant something once upon a time, but today he is a has-been, important for his symbolic value as the leader of the Hizbul and the United Jihad Council.
Whatever happens in Pakistan in relation to Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is run by the Pakistani intelligence services. Yet, we should not entirely discount the American decision that will have an effect on the morale of the Kashmiri militant movement. The US also took on board the Modi government’s pet scheme of pushing for an international convention on terrorism, even though it is unlikely to press too hard on the issue at the international level.
India also got its way in putting its critique of China’s One Belt One Road into the joint statement, though without referring to the project or China. The statement speaks of the need to promote connectivity “through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law and environment and call on other nations in the region to adhere to these principles”. The Chinese are not likely to be amused.
Where the US got its payoff was on committing India to “increasing free and fair trade”. Earlier joint statements would have anodyne references “to bolstering economic ties” and so on, but the issue here has been bluntly put and it should not be doubted that it is India on the mat. So while being “engines of growth” building prosperity all around is one thing, the US is clear that it must be done “in a manner that advances the principles of free and fair trade” which require removal of non-tariff barriers (expediting regulatory processes), protecting intellectual property rights, market access for US agricultural products, manufactured goods and services.
This is a tall order and not easy to fulfill. But presumably the government knows what it is doing. In the Obama years, there was talk of a US-India global leadership on climate change, and cooperation in solar energy and clean energy finance. The current joint statement, on the other hand, does not shy away from seeking export of US hydrocarbon products albeit LNG and clean coal. The reference in the joint statement to a deal for six Westinghouse reactors means little in the light of the difficulties affecting the US company which is owned by the troubled Toshiba corporation.
The emphasis of the interaction was bilateral, a word mentioned several times by Modi in his press statement. So even though the two sides described themselves as “responsible stewards” of the Indo-Pacific region, committed to peace and stability there, there was no mention of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), though it does speak of tenets outlined in the UN Charter. They spoke of “respecting” freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. In the 2015 Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region, the two sides were committed “to ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” In the 2016 joint statement, upholding UNCLOS and freedom of navigation was there but the reference to South China Sea was dropped.
There is a Ray Charles lyric based on an old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but talk don’t bother me”. Joint statements and public remarks in press meetings do have value in the relations between nations. But just how much they have in Trump’s America is moot. The president has not hesitated to go back on something he says or alter an established policy on whim.
All Modi and his officials can say for now is “so far, so good”. They have done well by their own measure. Pakistan has been condemned, the trajectory of relations with the US is largely intact, though question marks remain on the question of China. But the Trump disruption is just beginning and it can still come back to bite us, whether it is in the issue of trade or US relations with Iran.
This commentary was originally published in The Wire.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).