Five hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed at the Andrews Air Force Base, there was palpable excitement among Indian diplomats in the lobbies of the Willard Hotel, though they were trying hard to keep the visit low-profile and moderate expectations from the meeting.
US President Donald Trump had set the optics for the visit by tweeting, “Look forward to welcoming India’s PM Modi to @WhiteHouse on Monday. Important strategic issues to discuss with a true friend!”
With Modi airborne, on his way from Lisbon to Washington DC, Indian diplomats waiting in the Nest lounge of the hotel, where Modi is staying, caught on to the “positive vibes” tweet, and within minutes, the Indian embassy tweeted, “And @POTUS has spoken! All set for a Historic Summit Engagement”.
After he landed, Modi responded, “Thank you @POTUS for the warm personal welcome. Greatly look forward to my meeting and discussions with you @realDonaldTrump.” He was welcomed and cheered by a group of Indians waiting outside the hotel, after being received by Indian ambassador Navtej Sarna and US acting envoy MaryKay Loss Carlson.
The warm exchange of tweets, Indian diplomats said, reflected the “positive attitude” and the “warm welcome” by the US President. Trump is in DC over the weekend and went to the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia in the morning — usually he likes to spend time away from DC on weekends. Later, he and Melania Trump attended the wedding of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at Mellon Auditorium, near the White House, just a couple of hours before Modi landed.
The lobbies and rooms of the Willard Hotel, booked by the Indian embassy for the Prime Minister and his official delegation, were teeming with officials and experts, aware of the potential challenges ahead and the possible tough conversation between the two leaders. In fact, to not have Modi and Trump contradict and voice their differences in public on a range of contentious issues — from climate change to H1B visas — and queer the pitch, the White House has decided, in consultation with the Indian embassy, that there will be no questions after their press statements — a departure from convention for the US media.
While efforts were being made to present the meeting “low key” in a city known for hit decibel levels and political heat generated by the Trump administration’s policies, statements and the President’s tweets, sources said that the two sides were negotiating hard for a productive joint statement and a factsheet.
Speaking to The Indian Express, an American official quoted an Indian diplomat as telling him, “We want a no frills, no thrills and no spills visit” — indicating the cautious approach adopted by New Delhi for Modi’s first bilateral face-to-face with Trump.
According to top Indian and American officials, the two sides are coming to an understanding on a new joint mechanism to deal with trade deficit and market access, in tune with Trump’s ‘Buy American and Hire American’ mantra. This is something that New Delhi and Washington are likely to announce after his meeting with the Prime Minister.
The US is concerned about the $31-billion trade deficit, and in tune with the current administration’s approach, they are keen to push for what they call “fair trade”. “We understand there can never be a balanced trade, but there can be fair trade. That is the conversation, we are going to have with the Indian side,” a US official said.
Also, a “robust language” on counter-terrorism cooperation is being worked out by the two sides as NSA Lt General H R McMaster, the only top US official to have visited India, is “personally involved” in the negotiations, sources said. He is keen to appreciate India’s role in Afghanistan, especially in the economic and development sectors, and will acknowledge the Indian supply of military choppers to Kabul, sources said.
The designation of a terrorist group or an individual by the US administration, sources said, is being considered, and an announcement is expected during the visit.
The H1B visa issue, Indian diplomats reasoned, would not be brought up by the Indian side during the bilateral meeting with Trump, although it will depend on the flow of the conversation. “It’s their first meeting… the idea is to develop a rapport, a strong relationship between the top leaders. So, there will be talk of the big picture, and strategic direction of the relationship,” an Indian official said.
The US side is going to make its commitment to build the civilian nuclear plants by Westinghouse and that is expected to be reflected in the joint statement and the factsheet. For India, the issue of US position and support for India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the UN Security Council are some of the key takeaways in the joint statement.
American officials also indicated that there could be announcement of the next US envoy to India, Kenneth Juster, during the visit. Juster is a top official on the White House National Economic Council. He has chaired the US-India High Technology Cooperation Group when Republican George W Bush was president, and is known to the Indian diplomats here in DC.