Underlining that the security partnership between United States and India is “incredibly” important, President Donald Trump, after his first face-to-face with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said the two countries, struck by the “evils of terrorism”, are “both determined to destroy terrorist organisations and the radical ideology that drives them. We will destroy radical Islamic terrorism”.
And in a clear and direct reference to Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism, the joint Indo-US statement said the leaders “called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries”. They said Pakistan must expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai strikes, the Pathankot airbase attack and other “cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups”.
Stepping into the warm afternoon sun at the White House Rose Garden after their meeting Monday, Trump said he was looking forward to work with Modi. It was then that a sudden gust of wind sent some pages of the Prime Minister’s prepared text flying. There was a brief moment of panic among Indian officials. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Reenat Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission, sprang from their seats to retrieve the pages from the lawns and hand it back to Modi. After all, they knew the importance of those pages.
Reading from the text, Modi said their meeting marks a “very important page in the history of the collaboration and cooperation between our two nations”. And he used a new description in the Indo-US discourse — of developing a “mutually beneficial strategic partnership” — different from the previous Obama administration. Modi, who spoke for more than ten minutes, gave importance to counter-terrorism cooperation and said they discussed “terrorism, extremism and radicalisation”, the major challenges facing the world today. “Fighting terrorism and doing away with safe shelters, sanctuaries and safe havens will be an important part of our cooperation,” he said, Trump by his side.
Since these statements were made hours after Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin had been designated by the US State Department as a global terrorist, the two sides decided to set up a new “consultation mechanism on domestic and international terrorist designations listing proposals” — something which will be useful to work on listings like that of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar.
“With respect to our common concerns on terrorism, we will also enhance our sharing of intelligence, and exchange information to deepen and expand our policy coordination as far as possible,” Modi said. The meeting of minds on counter-terrorism cooperation became the big takeaway, and was reflected in the three bear hugs between Modi and Trump during their interaction. The entire first family, including wife Melania Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, sat through the media statements, along with senior Cabinet members.
Moving ahead, the two leaders also developed a common position on China’s assertiveness, and this time it went beyond South China Sea to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In a sub-section of the joint statement, “Democratic Stalwarts in the Indo-Pacific Region”, it said that Modi and Trump support bolstering regional economic connectivity through 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 — a clear reference to the CPEC.
This came almost a month after India boycotted China’s Belt and Road Initiative — the US had sent a mid-level delegation to Beijing for the BRI summit, hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Continuing with their common position on the South China Sea issue, the leaders reiterated the importance of respecting “freedom of navigation, overflight and commerce throughout the region” and called upon all nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.
While there was no specific mention of the divergence on the contentious issues of H1B visas and climate change in either leaders’ statements or the joint statement, officials said the leader-level meeting was to give a strategic direction to ties. In fact, on Trump’s America First vs Modi’s Make in India, the Prime Minister made a comment which made Trump smile: “I consider the USA as our primary partner for India’s social and economic transformation in all our flagship programmes and schemes. I am sure that the convergence between my vision for a “new India and President Trump’s vision for ‘making America great again’ will add new dimensions to our cooperation”.
Trump too made a reference to the rollout of the GST regime: “In just two weeks, you will begin to implement the largest tax overhaul in your country’s history”. And then added “we’re doing that also, by the way”. The two sides agreed on “free and fair trade” and said that they plan to undertake a “comprehensive review” of trade relations and their teams to find creative ways to improve bilateral trade.
“I look forward to working with you, Mr Prime Minister, to create jobs in our countries, to grow our economies, and to create a trading relationship that is fair and reciprocal. It is important that barriers be removed to the export of US goods into your markets, and that we reduce our trade deficit with your country,” Trump said, adding that India is creating “thousand and thousands of jobs” by buying aeroplanes.
On Defence ties, India agreed to build on Obama administration’s recognition of India as a Major Defense Partner, and the joints statement confirmed that the US has offered the sale of “Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems” — commonly known as drones. In his typical style, Trump said “thank you very much for the equipment, ordering equipment from the United States. Always makes us feel very good. There’s nobody makes military equipment like we make military equipment. Nobody even close, so we want to thank you very much”. And they talked about the upcoming MALABAR exercises, and also agreed to to expand engagements on shared maritime objectives and to explore new exercises.
In a concession to the Trump administration, the Indian side also agreed to a strong paragraph on North Korea, condemning its pursuit of the nuclear programme. “The North Korean regime is causing tremendous problems and is something that has to be dealt with, and probably dealt with rapidly,” Trump said, thanking India for supporting sanctions imposed by the US. And the US reiterated its “strong support” for India’s “early” membership into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, along with other multilateral export control regimes and reaffirmed support for India’s permanent membership on a reformed UN Security Council.
On another major concern for India about its civilian nuclear cooperation with the US, which was hampered by the Westinghouse bankruptcy, the US side conveyed to India that the company has said it will “rework” its internal structures by the end of the year — implying they will set their house in order — and will go ahead with setting up of six power plants in India.
The joint statement captured this commitment: “Prime Minister Modi and President Trump looked forward to conclusion of contractual agreements between Westinghouse Electric Company and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India for six nuclear reactors in India and also related project financing.”