In the face of considerable uncertainty, Prime Minister Modi’s first meeting with President Trump appears to have come off well. Setting aside the teeming crowds and spectacles of past visits, the Prime Minister settled for an intimate set of meetings focused on shoring up the US-India partnership and finding common ground with a President who has demonstrated a more unstructured and impulsive style of policymaking than his predecessors.
Prime Minister Modi faced three imperatives in making this visit a success. The first was establishing a personal rapport with President Trump. Although the leaders hail from starkly different personal backgrounds, they brought to their initial meeting a shared impatience for bureaucracy and preference for communicating directly through social media; an unapologetic attitude about advancing their peoples’ economic interests in a competitive global marketplace; and a commitment to dealing with the menace of global terrorism.
Judging from their warm public comments — and multiple embraces — it is fair to conclude that the leaders established some personal chemistry. But this is only a start. I observed first-hand how President Obama developed a real rapport with Prime Minister Modi, forged not simply through consultations on bilateral issues, but frequent conversations about global challenges from climate change to maritime security. To build a strong relationship, Trump and Modi will need to move beyond their early affinity and similarly identify a basket of global issues on which they can seek each other’s advice and support.
The Prime Minister’s second imperative was to use this visit to signal that the US-India relationship remains on solid footing. For well over a decade, the United States and India have been describing the bilateral relationship in increasingly florid language. This rhetorical escalation has reflected deepening ties between the two countries, but has also been a means by which both leaders have prompted their bureaucracies to overcome Cold War hesitations about engaging the other. It was a way of reaffirming that the relationship was special.
It has, however, become abundantly clear that in Trump’s America, ‘special’ is no longer good enough. The new administration’s litmus test seems to be whether a country can prove ‘useful’ to the President’s priorities of job creation and economizing the defense of America’s borders.
On this count as well, the visit modestly exceeded expectations. The Rose Garden statements nicely recapitulated the common values that bind the two countries. And building on the Joint Strategic Vision of 2015, the joint statement reaffirmed an emphasis on cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, particularly maritime collaboration; articulated a common understanding of the terrorist threat; highlighted deepening defense ties, including a significant offer of Guardian UAVs that required the administration to overcome a ‘presumption of denial’ under its MTCR obligations; noted cooperation on a surprisingly wide range of energy initiatives, from ‘clean coal’ to renewables; and, in a nod to Trump’s focus on deficits, committed to ‘further expanding and balancing the trade relationship’.
Taken together, the positive rhetoric and these incremental outcomes helped reaffirm that the relationship remains on a steady trajectory.
Modi’s third and final imperative in meeting President Trump was to shape the new administration’s view of India’s regional challenges, particularly those relating to China and Pakistan. Here the fruits of the summit are somewhat less clear. US policy toward China remains inchoate, pegged unrealistically to Chinese support on North Korea. This administration’s China hawks — who are pointedly critical of Beijing’s trade practices and soft expansionism in Asia — may well gain the upper hand in the coming months.
China was something of an unspoken apparition in the leaders’ public remarks. The joint statement reaffirmed the US-India strategic convergence in Asia, highlighting a shared concern over North Korea and posed a thinly-veiled critique of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But it did not resolve the longer-term question of whether India and the United States will arrive at a similar view of the challenge that China poses to our shared interests in Asia. Without that common view, the institutional energy behind US-India defence cooperation could eventually wane.
Neither is it entirely clear to what extent Modi was able to shape the President’s views on Pakistan. The White House is in the final stages of developing a South Asia strategy that, in part, seeks to address the problems of cross-border militancy that flow from Pakistani territory. Indeed, the leaders made the most explicit reference ever in high-level US document to Pakistani cross-border militancy, even more forceful than the strong statement issued by National Security Advisor Susan Rice in the wake of the Uri attacks last September.
These statements, bolstered by the US designation of Syed Salahuddin, might suggest that Trump is moving inexorably toward Modi’s view of Pakistan. The reality, however, is more complex. The United States still has numerous equities with Pakistan, and can little afford to alienate Pakistani leaders precisely when it is considering reinvesting in an Afghan peace process. New Delhi may continue to hear a tougher rhetorical line on Pakistan, but so far there are few indications that Trump would be willing to use America’s limited leverage with Pakistan to press for action against India-focused groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, rather than groups like the Haqqani Taliban network that directly target US forces in Afghanistan. That may well change in the aftermath of another cross-border attack into India, but observers should be realistic about how fast and how far the United States will be willing to stress its relationship with Pakistan outside of a crisis environment.
These uncertainties notwithstanding, both leaders can feel good about this summit. But they must not become complacent. What makes for a successful first visit is not enough to make for a successful relationship. There are still substantial irritants, particularly on economic issues. And more than ever before, both sides will face pressure to show that the partnership is not just ‘special’ but ‘useful’ to the other.
For the US, that might mean finding ways to more assertively address India’s regional security concerns; ensure that trade disputes are handled respectfully and creatively; and advocate energetically for India’s leadership role on the global stage. For India, that might mean finding areas in which to make substantive contributions to the global counter-terrorism fight; continuing to purchase US equipment and defense goods, and demonstrating its ability to be a ‘burden-sharing’ defence partner in the Indian Ocean; and making good on its pledges to gradually expand market access to US firms in protected sectors.
These are achievable goals for the US-India relationship under this new administration. Reasonably assured of each other’s commitment, both sides now face the task of sustaining sufficient bureaucratic energy to advance nuts-and-bolts cooperation outside of the public glare. These are not ordinary times. But the foundations of a stronger partnership have ably been laid.
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