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Can Modi Turn India From a ‘True Friend’ to the U.S. to a Friend Forever?

The two men know deal making. Whether they understand how to forge lasting U.S-Indian relations is another matter.

modi in dc
modi in dc

In Washington, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is out to answer to one question: “Is India the lynchpin of America’s strategic pivot to the east, or is it merely a helpful acquaintance?”

That’s how Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie Endowment described the visit on the BBC World Service, echoing many, including, in a certain sense Modi himself, outlining the stakes for New Delhi and Washington in the Indian premier’s White House visit. Modi’s goal is to convince U.S. President Donald Trump that India is important not just for a photo opportunity or business transaction, but for a long-term, strategic partnership -- or, to quote the president’s official Twitter account, “Important strategic issues to discuss with a true friend!”

https://twitter.com/POTUS/status/878695978601254913

In Washington, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is out to answer to one question: “Is India the lynchpin of America’s strategic pivot to the east, or is it merely a helpful acquaintance?”

That’s how Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie Endowment described the visit on the BBC World Service, echoing many, including, in a certain sense Modi himself, outlining the stakes for New Delhi and Washington in the Indian premier’s White House visit. Modi’s goal is to convince U.S. President Donald Trump that India is important not just for a photo opportunity or business transaction, but for a long-term, strategic partnership — or, to quote the president’s official Twitter account, “Important strategic issues to discuss with a true friend!”

In one realm at least, it should be an easy lift. India is the world’s biggest arms importer and has been deepening defense cooperation with Washington in recent years. A senior White House official briefing reporters on Friday stressed that the United States wanted to help India advance as a defense partner, pointing in particular to counter terrorism and ensuring free navigation in the Indian Ocean region.

And, indeed, Modi on Monday met with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, just as the State Department announced it was designating as a terrorist Mohammad Yusuf Shah, otherwise known as Syed Salahuddin, for leading Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant group responsible for attacks on Indians in the disputed province of Kashmir. “Salahuddin,” the State Department’s statement said, “vowed to block any peaceful resolution to the Kashmir conflict” between India and Pakistan. And, indeed, Trump thanked Modi for buying U.S. military equipment, which he said “always makes us feel very good,” adding that nobody makes military equipment like the United States.

But defense is only one tie that binds, and there are plenty of other issues that could tear them apart. There’s trade, where Trump’s America First approach to economics seeks to squeeze out gains from U.S. partners. While India was never part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Trump pulled out of, it is part of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a 16-nation trading bloc taking shape now.

“I’m nervous … looking at this trip, you’ve got the leader of the world’s wealthiest country expecting the leader of one of the world’s developing countries to come here and give us benefits and gifts,” said Richard Rossow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies before the visit. And, indeed, in his statement in the Rose Garden, Trump said Modi’s India needed to remove barriers to American exports, and that the United States needed to reduce its trade deficit with India. 

There’s the rash of hate crimes against Indian-Americans since Trump’s inauguration. There’s immigration — and, in particular, the issue of skilled worker H-1B visas. The Trump administration wants to shrink the number of those visas, which is of concern to India, a big beneficiary. The White House official said the question of visas were not specifically on the agenda.

There’s China, which India could use some help hedging against. But it’s not clear under Trump if the quest for smoother relations with Beijing to solve problems like North Korea will mean chillier ties with other Asian giants.

And then, of course, there’s climate change. After withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, Trump lashed out in particular at India, insisting that it made its “participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries.”

On the BBC, Vaishnav said he expected the two would trot out some sort of deal or announcement to the Rose Garden for their post-meeting statement later Monday (the two did indeed express warm words, with Trump lauding Modi as a good prime minister and Modi calling the president “honorable,” and Modi invited Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and White House advisor, to lead U.S. delegation to global entrepreneurship summit in India this fall). But to focus on that, he said, would be to miss the point.

“The real question is whether Modi and Trump can look beyond quotidian transactions,” he said. “The ultimate payoff in U.S.-India relations will come when both sides are prepared to help the other without immediately demanding something in return.” That will be a test indeed in dealing with an administration which has made transactional diplomacy the focus of its early months in office.

Update, June 26, 2017, 5:44 pm ET: This post was updated to include Trump and Modi’s statements from the Cabinet Room and Rose Garden.

Photo credit: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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