That no dramatic agreements were unveiled at the end of the talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump does not mean the encounter was all optics and no substance. The two leaders have signalled a strong personal and political commitment to turn the existing strategic partnership into a “comprehensive” and “global” partnership. The focus has been on expanding cooperation in a number of areas including defence, counter-terror cooperation, energy, trade, technology and regional security including the Indo-Pacific. Sceptics might dismiss talk of a “comprehensive and global strategic partnership” as mere wordsmithery. But to lend their ambition credibility, Modi and Trump have laid out a broad set of markers for progress.
On trade, which has emerged at the top of the bilateral agenda, the two sides have agreed to look beyond the “small potatoes” they have been talking about for the last two years — such as the restoration of GSP for Indian exports and market access to US dairy products and medical devices — and aim for a “big trade deal”. Unlike the current negotiations based on the MFN framework, the new framework will be bilateral. Delhi finally appears to be emulating other major trading partners of the US in seeking bilateral solutions to trade problems. Rapid expansion of Indian energy imports from the US is not only helping bridge the trade deficit in favour of Delhi but providing a new anchor for strategic cooperation. On defence, Trump is promising to sell India the most advanced weapons and Delhi now appears more open than ever before to promoting interoperability between the two armed forces. At Motera as well as in Delhi, President Trump underlined his administration’s good relations with Pakistan and his efforts to deal with terrorism emanating from there. At his press conference in Delhi, Trump did refer to the Kashmir problem. He also renewed his offer to mediate but not in a manner that would displease Delhi.
What has stood out in the last two days is the Modi government’s organisation of a massive and unprecedented welcome to the US President. While Delhi has a long tradition of putting up a good show for visiting dignitaries, it has outdone itself in receiving the US President. Trump certainly appears touched by the warm reception. The two leaders were also uninhibited in their expressions of mutual praise. Underlying the bonhomie is the recognition that they can help each other’s political fortunes. Trump is facing re-election in November and would be happy to see his warmth towards Modi and India translate into valuable support from the Indian American community. Trump, too, is lending some political cover for Modi, who is facing considerable international criticism for his government’s recent moves on Kashmir and the amendment of citizenship laws. That Trump avoided any direct criticism of Modi on these issues will be noted around the world. In their investment in each other’s political success, Modi and Trump are also elevating the bilateral relationship to a higher level.
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