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India experts say first bilateral Trump-Modi meeting will be more about building a personal relationship, Ela Dutt reports.
Marshall M. Bouton, senior fellow for India with the Asia Society Policy Institute, says all variables point to the Trump administration “seizing the opportunity decisively” to strengthen ties with India on shared interests vis-a-vis China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the economic front. In a recent paper entitled “The Trump Administration’s India Opportunity” argues both President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are “highly nationalist and pro-business” with their ‘India First’ and ‘America First’ slogans. They consider themselves dealmakers. Couple that with bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for a strong relationship with India, and you have a recipe for success at the bilateral talks scheduled for June 26.
However, experts acknowlege the lack of India expertise in the Trump administration which to-date has not named an ambassador to India, leave alone an assistant secretary of state for South Asia to replace Nisha Desai Biswal, who stepped down when President Trump was elected.
“Clearly they don’t know each other and the major purpose is to develop a personal relationship,” said Walter Andersen, director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in Washington, D.C. in the first one-on-one meeting at the White House. Plus of course, reviewing important issues, he added.
“It certainly is a get-acquainted meeting and a personal one, an aspect important to both men,” concurs long-time South Asia specialist and former State Department official, Ambassador Teresita Schaffer. Trump puts a great deal of importance to how he is seen and treated,” she said. The two leaders see themselves as having certain similarities – being outsiders to the traditional political power system; being sneered at by many political observers; yet managing to win. Nevertheless, Modi has traveled around the world and established personal relations, even with a person as different from him as former President Barack Obama, which is not yet an opportunity Trump has grasped, if anything, to the contrary.
However, both Trump and Modi are showmen who “go with the gut. and both are expecting a good relationship,” Schaffer opined.
Andersen even speculated that in the few days left for the June 26 meeting, Trump would appoint an ambassador or even an assistant secretary of state for South Asia.
Bouton sees a convergence of U.S. and Indian security interests in his perceived similarities between the two leaders, qualities that have potential benefits for both nations. “President Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both highly nationalist and pro-business in their orientation, are likely to find common ground,” Bouton says. Especially as each prides himself as a dealmaker, and somewhat of a rebel within their party folds. Add to all these, the bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, for strong U.S.-India ties.
Bouton urges in his May essay that Trump first of all, develop a common strategic view of the U.S.-India relationship, especially as it relates to shared interests in China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; then make India a clear strategic and diplomatic priority; demonstrate American commitment to India’s expanding role in Asia; develop new avenues for U.S.-India cooperation on defense and security; and lastly, manage economic relations, especially on trade and immigration issues, positively while looking for ways to expand ties.
A Brookings Institution paper published this month authored by Dhruv Jaishankar, foreign policy fellow at Brooking New Delhi, urges Modi to continue to engage with Washington, even if it is more difficult in a Trump administration, in the areas of trade, investment, immigration, technological cooperation, the Asian balance of power, counterterrorism, and global governance.
Schaffer does not see a difference in the level of difficult. She believes India is in a good place with the U.S. as the bilateral takes place. Defense cooperation is the strongest factor, though a couple of worries hang around the H-1B visa and the trade relationship. Trade is an area the Trump administration has been re-examining to right what it sees as an imbalance with countries. India has a trade surplus even if lower down the list of countries, says Schaffer, and might be touched by this re-evaluation. She has heard speculation about the two countries thinking out how they could craft a trade agenda where both could move ahead.
On Pakistan, South Asia, security and terrorism, India’s stand is clear New Delhi has left Pakistan out of its approaches to all its neighbors, Schaffer contends. But Washington, before and after Trump took over, remains ambivalent on Pakistan, and while there is some talk, Schafer says, about reviewing the Pakistan policy, no change has taken place yet.
It is apparent Washington is pushed in two opposite ways on Pakistan – wanting to be strong on terrorist havens and support, but seeing a need for Islamabad’s support as it moves out of Afghanistan.
“I suspect the conversation on Pakistan will be inconclusive,” as in the past, Schaffer said. “But certainly Mr. Trump will come away with a sense of how important this issue is to India,” she added.