Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Washington for his first meeting with President Donald Trump, when his host was enmeshed in a series of foreign policy and domestic controversies. Trump’s handling of relations with NATO allies and his partisan approach to rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Qatar had evoked widespread domestic criticism. His unrestrained and unwarranted criticism of India on climate change raised misgivings in Indian minds.
Contrary to expectations, the visit turned out to be a huge success, thanks to some deft handling by both sides. Foreign secretary S Jaishankar, who arrived earlier, had detailed discussions with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and precisely spelt out India’s position on a wide range of issues, including Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
But, ultimately it was the candour and readiness of PM Modi to address American misgivings and perceptively understand Trump’s thinking, that led to India proving those sceptical of new and increased Indo-American understanding wrong. There were clear misgivings in Indian minds, as the Prime Minister prepared to leave for Washington. His visits to European capitals indicated his determination to widen options in a rapidly changing world order.
The Trump dispensation had treated NATO allies peremptorily. American policies in East Asia changed significantly. Its approach to countries in the Islamic world was strongly polarising. China was being treated by Trump almost differentially and controversy surrounded relations with Russia.
There were misgivings in India about how the Trump Administration, obsessed with challenges posed by ISIS, would deal with Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India and Afghanistan. India was also mulling over how to reconcile Modi’s “Make in India” with Trump’s “America First”.
It was wise that before meeting President Trump, Modi met with his two key advisers on foreign and security policies – Secretary of State Tillerson and defence secretary Mattis. While the vexed issue of H1B Visas was discussed in his meetings with the top honchos of American business, it is clear that the new visa regime will ultimately be crafted in the US Congress. It was evident that a large cross-section of American business realises the importance of the present H1B visa regime.
India will, therefore, have to avail of all resources, particularly from American and Indian business, for effective lobbying in the US Congress, where New Delhi enjoys a measure of bipartisan understanding on a wide range of issues.
This will, however, remain an issue requiring sustained attention. It was also made clear to the Trump Administration and US businesses that there is a huge market in India for lucrative business in a vast number of areas, including defence equipment and passenger aircraft, which Trump personally alluded to.
Energy will remain a key area of cooperation, with India ready to import large amounts of natural (shale) gas, along with nuclear energy and multilateral financing of clean coal projects. “Make in India” and “America First” could become mutually reinforcing.
There is little doubt that New Delhi’s greatest success in the Washington discussions emerged from the readiness of President Trump and his aides to not have any illusions or doubts about the pernicious impact of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism on Afghanistan and India.
Going beyond just alluding to the role of known villains like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Trump administration readily imposed sanctions and declared Syed Salahuddin, the Pakistan-based leader of the Kashmiri Hizbul Mujahideen, as an international terrorist. This is a path-breaking event.
It is a signal to stone-pelters and those who back Pakistan-trained terrorists, whether Kashmiri or Pakistani, that they can expect no international understanding. It is also time for New Delhi to respond to Pakistani references to a so-called Kashmiri “freedom struggle” by expressions of support for the oppressed people of Balochistan and the Pashtuns in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
The Trump Administration has strongly backed Indian economic assistance and military training to Afghanistan. This should continue, especially at a time when China is seeking to mediate between Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort which will involve “understanding” of the Taliban. It is important to ensure that this Chinese effort, clearly directed against India, does not succeed.
Modi has also succeeded in obtaining continued American commitment for tripartite — India, Japan and US — naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, a message has been sent to China by India and the US, calling on all nations “to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law”.
Clearly alluding to the China-Pakistan economic corridor, the Modi-Trump Joint Statement refers to the need for projects for regional economic connectivity ensuring “respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”, thereby questioning the rationale of the CPEC being routed through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
A word of caution is needed here: All this does not mean that Trump will necessarily avoid backing Chinese moves on Afghanistan, even while escalating drone attacks on Taliban and Haqqani network targets across the Durand Line. India and Afghanistan will have to closely coordinate their policies on dealing with such Chinese duplicity. After a series of diplomatic gaffes, Trump was clearly pleased with the personal chemistry that he had established with Modi.
This was reflected in the remarks he made about his shared fondness with the Indian PM, for Twitter messaging. It was not just the US President who was pleased with the meeting. I arrived in California’s Silicon Valley the day before the summit meeting. The Indian community was depressed with our defeat in the Champion’s Trophy final.
There were smiles on the faces of most of them when I met them after the summit!