President Donald Trump will host visiting Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a “working dinner” on Monday, the first for a foreign leader at the White House in his five-month term. Trump has hosted dinners for Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe at the Mar-a-Lago golf estate in Florida, but this is the first such dinner at the White House.
Officials, who are keen to portray “good optics” for the Modi visit, are projecting the dinner invite as a reflection of Trump’s personal warmth for Modi.
The PM, who is visiting the US for the fifth time in three years, will arrive Saturday evening (Sunday morning India time). Modi arrives to a vastly changed atmosphere from the time he was last in Washington DC, just over a year ago, and this is his first sit-down meeting with Trump. They have spoken thrice since Trump was elected. Their last conversation was a congratulatory call made by the US President after the BJP won the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.
Modi will stay at the 200-year-old Willard Hotel, located less than 500 metres from the White House. The hotel has hosted legends like Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr before his famous “I have a dream” speech.
As schedules stand, Modi and Trump will have their first meeting on Monday afternoon. Interestingly, while the Indian side has lowered expectations from the meeting — officials have maintained this will be a first, “get-to-know each other” kind of trip — the US side has talked up the visit. Senior Trump administration officials said on Saturday that the White House is very interested in making this a “special visit”. “We’re really seeking to roll out the red carpet,” the official said.
Striking a more pragmatic note, an Indian official said, “This meeting is about giving a new direction, setting priorities in the current atmosphere and consolidating gains from the previous years.”
The agenda is thus likely to be quite open, broad-based and partly contentious, and is expected to cover some, if not all the tricky issues — including H1B visas, Paris climate pact, Make in India etc.
For the American administration, defence partnership, trade and market access are going to be a key part of the talks. The American side would be represented in the meetings by top leaders, including Vice-President Mike Pence, National Security Advisor Lt Gen H R McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, told The Sunday Express, “This visit appears to have a heavy premium placed on getting PM Modi and President Trump comfortable with one another, as it will be their first meeting in person. I don’t believe there will be major deliverables emerging from it. Nor have major deliverables really emerged from his other get-to-know-you meetings with leaders.”
Richard M Rossow, Wadhwani Chair in US India Policy Studies at DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “My expectations are quite modest. Mainly I am hoping it goes smoothly, with little friction. So far the Trump administration has not offered much detail in terms of how it will approach India, apart from a few cursory mentions. We have seen a few instances where India has been targeted as a concern on trade and immigration matters. So I do hope that the two leaders hit it off on a personal level, even if the two leaders have a difficult time meshing their respective agendas. The relationship is simply too important to fall into disrepair.”
One of the key concerns on the Indian side is the issue of H1B visas for Indian professionals. US officials said on Friday that if the matter comes up, the American administration will respond to it.
Ayres, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia from 2010 to 2013, said, “My educated guess is that the leaders may state their respective cases on known issues of friction, then ask their staff to find ways forward. I do not expect to see any announcements of resolution on H1Bs, for example, which in any case in large measure requires legislation via the US Congress in order to make any major changes.”
In the US system, the Congress has authority on immigration law, so the executive branch can only make relatively minor changes.
Rossow believes Trump has the “less flexible agenda” between the two. “He is committed to carrying forward actions that speak to the voting base that brought him to power, and to tearing down constructs built during the Obama administration. Prime Minister Modi has shown the ability to ‘court’ the US without suffering a backlash at home; but whether he can be seen as giving concessions on tricky trade issues is another matter.”
Briefing US-based media on Friday, a US administration official said, “We’ve seen rapid growth in defence and security partnership over the last few years, and President Trump very much wants to build on that momentum. And last year’s designation of India as a major defence partner was extremely important, and I think we’ll see a concrete expression of this important designation during this visit.”
Observing that this defence trade has supported thousands of American jobs, the official said since 2008, India has signed over US $15 billion in defence contracts with the US.
As Rossow pointed out, “New US defence deals always play favourably in Washington DC.”
During the meetings, India would also look at the US for stronger cooperation on counter-terrorism and cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
“The US and India are both committed to combating all forms of terrorism and strengthening their cooperation in areas like terrorist screening, intelligence and information sharing, terrorists’ use of the Internet, and, of course, terrorist designations,” the US official told reporters here. “I think we can expect to see some new initiatives on counter-terrorism cooperation,” the official added, indicating the possibility of a terror group or individual being designated by the US, as reported by The Indian Express earlier.
Indian officials said Pakistan may figure in the discussions, as well as China, in the context of “global and regional security”, which is a big part of the agenda for discussions.
Officials pointed out that Trump has known India as a businessman and had visited Mumbai earlier. Like Modi, he is quite active on Twitter, and as an official quipped, is slightly ahead of Modi in number of followers.
Nevertheless, in a depature from the convention in Washington DC, the two leaders will not take questions after their press statements, US officials told reporters.