Exactly how successful was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington, DC, and summit meeting with President Donald Trump? To answer that, one should consider how other visitors and interlocutors would assess the Modi visit. The Japanese Prime Minister, whose trip to Trump’s America was held up as a model for other world leaders, had to promise Japanese investment and cajole America’s new chief. The Chinese President made trade concessions, and had to stomach Trump surprising him with news of a United States missile attack on Syria, against a regime backed by its (China’s) Russian ally.
The Saudi Arabian royals had to mollify Trump with substantial military purchases. The Chinese are providing customers to businesses run by the American President’s extended family. The Germans and the French have had arguments with the Trump administration and meetings have been frosty. In contrast, Modi has achieved a miracle. He has given away little, gained a fair bit — some of it notional, some tangible — and left Washington, DC, without being snubbed by a Trump remark or tweet. If all that the domestic Opposition can quibble about is why the US describes that part of the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir that is under Indian control as “Indian administered”, then clearly there is not much to complain about.
It is to the credit of Team Modi that it managed to pull off perhaps the most conventional summit meeting in the Trump term so far. India has had to concede little other than a full paragraph on North Korea’s “continued provocations” and “weapons of mass destruction”, and agreeing to a “comprehensive review of trade relations with the goal of expediting regulatory processes; ensuring that technology and innovation are appropriately fostered, valued, and protected.” This is not much or new. It is the continuation of an old American argument about access to Indian markets, particularly for agricultural and pharmaceutical products, as well as greater protection for intellectual property — again a pet theme of Big Pharma.
India cannot agree to all of this, at least not till its economy is substantially stronger. Yet, in accepting there is room for a conversation, Prime Minister Modi has bought himself time. At some stage this issue will balloon again, but for the moment the “comprehensive review” is a low-cost concession that will keep trade negotiators busy.
No doubt, when discussions on “free and fair trade” — an expression used in the joint statement released by the two leaders — come up, Indian negotiators will talk of access for Indian skilled labour and human capital. This again is a larger subject, not limited to just H1B visas. It remains a worry in an America that is becoming more protectionist. Even so, Modi saw no reason to engage in philosophical debates with a White House resident who has little patience for such stuff. The Indian leader left those wider matters of multilateralism to his European friends and to Trump’s Franco-German interlocutors. He picked up whatever bilateral balls he could and ran with them.
What specifically did India gain? There are five points to consider here. First, Trump recognised India as a partner in a pan-Asian geography: Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia. For a President committed to withdrawing from providing security underpinning in far-off Asian frontiers, Trump signed off on a document that described India and the US as “responsible stewards in the Indo-Pacific region.” There was no disagreement on Afghanistan, and India’s Think West outreach to the Gulf and Arab states was welcomed with a promise to “increase cooperation” and “tangible collaboration”.
Second, on terrorism, President Trump did not distinguish between his adversaries in Syria and India’s adversaries in Pakistan. What this translates into in real terms remains to be seen. For now, India can come away with the sense that an American administration has acknowledged that at least parts of the violence and militancy in the Kashmir valley are offshoots of the global terrorist jihad. This is no small gain, especially as the summer promises to be a tough one in Kashmir.
Third, the Barack Obama administration had moved strongly on defence relations with India. The Trump presidency has blessed that process and not disagreed at all. “Shared maritime objectives” and “new [naval] exercises” beyond Exercise Malabar have been spoken about. This is more comfort than Trump has given traditional US allies in Europe, Japan or South Korea. The sale of Sea Guardian UAVs to India is a first to a non-NATO country. It has India giving Trump what he seems to relish most — military purchase orders — but does so for a product category that India covets and needs to monitor the seas it shares with China
Fourth, while China and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are not specifically mentioned, the joint statement endorses India’s objections when it announced its boycott of the BRI Forum. The joint statement talks of “regional economic connectivity” projects that entail the “transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment.”
This stress on sovereignty and sustainability, with very similar language, is what the Indian statement on the BRI had captured. In Germany, France and now the US, these parameters and the unfair trade practices of the BRI have been flagged. It may lead to nothing more in the short run, but it does mean Modi has been heard and is far from isolated.
Fifth, in a period when he is focused on trying to keep people out of America, President Trump has “welcomed India’s formal entry into the International Expedited Traveller Initiative (Global Entry programme) in order to facilitate closer business and educational ties between the citizens of India and the United States.” Frankly, India deserves to be part of this initiative — but it is still worth noting that Trump, for all his constituency’s isolationist instincts, has gone along.
This visit does not mean all problems with America have been resolved. This visit does not mean India has zero concerns about the Trump era. This visit does not mean America is not inherently thinking transactional and tactical. Nevertheless Prime Minister Modi has accomplished a visit that is as strategic in its outcomes as America’s and its President’s current tactical mood will allow. Indian diplomacy can derive much satisfaction from that.
This commentary originally appeared in Daily Pioneer.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).