Cordial Modi-Trump summit must translate into action, experts say

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a meeting with President Donald Trump and members of his administration in the Cabinet Room of the White House, in Washington, June 26. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Relieved that the Trump-Modi summit in Washington, D.C., seems to ensure continuity in the U.S.-India Strategic and Commercial Partnership, longtime India and South Asia hands are watchful now over whether the leaders’ promises and pledges will translate into action to take the relationship to the next level.

“Both countries are counting on a robust personal relationship between the leaders to smooth over the issues on which they disagree,” said former U.S. Ambassador Teresita Schaffer. “They’ve made a warm start. In his three years as prime minister, Modi has courted the leaders of countries important to India, including Barack Obama. He is doing the same with Trump.”

But she added: “In practice, however, they pull in different directions.”

She said trade and investment were vital issues but come with built-in tensions. “At a business meeting the day after Modi left,” she said, “One speaker after another assured the audience that there was no consistency between Trump’s determination to bring more manufacturing to the United States and Modi’s ‘Make in India’ program.”

Transactions, she said, have greater visibility than policy statements, including those contained in the joint statement released by the two leaders.

“Theater is still important between these two showmen,” she said. “The two hugs between Modi and Trump have been covered with great enthusiasm.”

She wondered whether this “promising start” could be undermined by what she called “a future outburst on social media.” Trump noted that both he and Modi are enthusiastic users of the communications mode. “President Trump noted with pride, in their joint press appearance, that he and Modi are both champions in their use of social media, with 32 million and 31 million Twitter followers respectively. Both embrace their social media personae, and both have used high risk tactics in achieving their political renown,” she said.

She said she believed the relationship will flourish only if there is mutual benefit. “India’s economic growth – and the economic policy that helps keep it strong – will largely set the scale of U.S.-India relations,” she said.

Raymond Vickery Jr., another senior former administration official, said the summit had a feel-good mission behind it. “In their first-ever face-to-face meeting, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi achieved the primary goal of their summit – namely, to assure each other and their respective countries that the U.S.-India relationship is still important to both sides and is on track to strengthen. More narrowly, the meeting was to reassure India that…the digs at India about the Paris climate change agreement, and the hammering of ‘Buy American, Hire American’ campaign rhetoric, really nothing had changed in the basics of the bi-partisan relationship created under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.”

Vickery said both leaders wanted to demonstrate the “good chemistry” in their personal relationship. “All this was achieved – and Modi even got his ‘bear hugs’ of Trump in for the benefit of the cameras,” Vickery said.

Vickery did not overlook the undercurrents and noted avoidance of contentious topics. “Particularly in regard to economic matters, there were significant undercurrents indicative of the tension between a flourishing strategic partnership and a trading regime that is showing considerable strains,” he said. “Wisely, the parties did not take up the contentious issues of outsourcing and H1-B visas, a bilateral investment treaty, or climate change.”

He noted that Modi, like Trump, is somewhat of a protectionist when it comes to trade. “Modi wants to ‘Make in India’ instead of buying from the U.S., and the Trump was at pains to point out that trade with India must be ‘fair,’” he said. “While Modi may agree with the trade fairness principle, he certainly does not agree with Trump’s political refrain that trade agreements are unfair to the United States. For his part, Trump likes selling Boeing aircraft to India but claims purchasing of IT services from India puts Americans out of work.” He said “Make in India” and “America First” policies need to converge somehow.

“The most obvious opportunity for this is to move a production line like that for the F-16 to India.  However, the myriad difficulties concerning tech transfer and licensing for this or a similar joint venture have not been resolved at the summit and could require congressional intervention,” he said.

Vickery acknowledged the leaders’ consensus on terrorism and China. And, Vickery said, “for the first time, India indicated its willingness to help out with the problem of North Korea by observing UN sanctions. This is a major extension of India’s sphere of strategic interest and follows on a more robust posture concerning freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”

He said, however, in the final analysis “the best that can be said for this summit is that it did not mess up the U.S.-India relationship and showed good will for future progress.”

Deepa Ollapally, research professor of international affairs at George Washington University’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies, said the focus on good chemistry between the two leaders was a good strategy. “When India had come into President Trump’s view, it was for all the wrong reasons—H-1B visas controversy, trade deficits, American job losses and climate change discord.” Ollapally said Modi reoriented that narrative toward a mutually favorable strategic outlook.

New Delhi and Washington both got what they wanted in the joint statement on Pakistan and terrorism, she said. She also said the U.S. went the extra mile this time in identifying Pakistan by name, keeping with Trump’s anti-terrorism agenda. New Delhi also got an endorsement of sorts for its apprehension regarding its other neighbor, China, which just launched the massive Belt and Road Initiative.

She said the U.S. decision to offer India 22 Sea Guardian drones for $2-3 billion “shows that India’s designation as a major defense partner in 2016 under the Obama administration is getting results. New Delhi’s support for the U.S. to join as an observer in the India-led Indian Ocean Naval Symposium is a growing and uneasy recognition that India needs all the friends it can get in keeping the Indian Ocean from falling under Chinese maritime dominance.” 

While Modi and Trump avoided the H-1B visa question in favor of general economic benefits between the two nations, Trump emphasized “a trading relationship that is fair and reciprocal, which Ollapally said were code words for more nationalist and protectionist economic policies.”

“He specifically noted in his speech that ‘It is important that barriers be removed to the export of U.S. goods into your markets, and that we reduce our trade deficit with your country.’ Given that Trump gave an executive order in April to review trade relations with countries with which the U.S. has a trade deficit, with a report expected in 90 days, this is not a passing topic,” she said.

“This is regrettable since a declaration of their commitment to plural democracy and good governance from the leaders of two of the world’s greatest democracies would have sent a strong signal to rising forces of illiberalism and intolerance globally, and just as importantly, on their own home turfs.”

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