By Gurmeet Kanwal —
The joint statement issued at the end of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first meeting with President Donald Trump in June 2017 resolved to “expand and deepen the strategic partnership between the countries and advance common objectives… (including) combating terrorist threats, promoting stability across the Indo-Pacific region, increasing free and fair trade, and strengthening energy linkages.” It recognized that “a close partnership between the United States and India is central to peace and stability” in the Indo-Pacific region.
The joint statement included a solid section on counter-terrorism cooperation. The two leaders agreed that “terrorism is a global scourge that must be fought and… committed to strengthen cooperation against terrorist threats from groups including Al-Qa’ida, ISIS, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Tayibba, D-Company, and their affiliates.” In an unprecedented development indicative of the growing U.S. frustration with Pakistan’s proclivity to play double games, they “called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries.”
On other international issues, the two leaders affirmed their support for a UN convention on international terrorism that will advance and strengthen the framework for global counter-terrorism cooperation. The United States once again expressed its support for “India’s permanent membership on a reformed UN Security Council” and “early membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group.” China has been holding up India’s membership for the NSG on flimsy grounds when India has already been given a waiver for trade in nuclear materials and technology.
Strengthening the Strategic Partnership
Underlining the growing significance of “defense cooperation” that is the principal driver of the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership, Prime Minister Modi and President Trump resolved to “deepen defense and security cooperation”, “expand their maritime security cooperation”, enhance “collaboration on maritime domain awareness” and work together on “advanced defense equipment and technology at a level commensurate with that of the closest allies and partners.” In its final year in office, the Obama administration had recognized India as a “major defense partner” making it eligible to receive state-of-the-art defense technology. A few days before the meeting, the U.S. government had cleared the sale of 22 Predator Sea Guardian hi-tech unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to India.
In de facto endorsement of India’s position on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the two leaders affirmed their support for “bolstering regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment.”
While the reiteration of the mutuality of interests and the level of understanding reached on cooperation for energy and cybersecurity also made a positive contribution to taking the relationship forward, there was no mention of India’s misgivings on the issue of H-1B Visas and other non-tariff barriers in the joint statement. However, President Trump urged Prime Minister Modi to do more to reduce the obstacles to U.S. exports to India so as to achieve greater balance.
There is no reference in the joint statement to the Joint Strategic Vision that was approved during Prime Minister Modi’s summit meeting with the then U.S. president Barack Obama, nor is there any mention of the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). Perhaps the failure to mention these initiatives reflects the lack of substantive progress on these key issues. It is noteworthy that so far not a single contract for the supply of U.S. weapons and equipment to India has included a clause for the transfer of technology.
A surprising inclusion in the joint statement was that of the U.S. hope that contractual agreements between Westinghouse and NPCIL for the purchase of six nuclear reactors will be finalized early despite the fact that Toshiba, the Japanese company that owns Westinghouse, has filed for bankruptcy. A surprising omission was the lack of any reference to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), unlike in the previous Obama-Modi meeting.
The two leaders spent several hours together. They appeared to be comfortable with each other. At the delegation level talks, President Trump led a high-level team that included the Vice President, the Secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, and Commerce. Trump assured Modi that India had a “true friend” in the White house. Most members of the Indian and U.S. commentariat declared the Indian prime minister’s visit to have been a very successful one.
Describing the visit as having gone off better than expected, Kanwal Sibal, former Foreign Secretary of India, has written approvingly that the two sides named Pakistan and called on it “to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries.”
According to Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary of India, the visit had many positive vibes and was successful: “…the frame of Indo-U.S. relations is undergoing a change… it is clear that the strategic dimension driving these relations… diminished in salience. The transactional elements in the relationship… have become more prominent.”
C Raja Mohan, director of Carnegie India, is of the view that Modi senses a new opportunity for India to play a larger role in the Indo-Pacific: “The effort to construct an India-U.S. strategic partnership in the last two decades was based on the assumption that the American unipolar moment will endure. As Trump challenges the traditional assumptions about America’s global role, there is an opportunity, slim though it might be, for Modi to explore a new framework for strategic cooperation with the United States… Modi has talked up the idea of India as a leading power that must take greater regional and international responsibilities.”
Brahma Chellaney, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, views the visit positively, but does not see long-term congruence in the security relationship: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a good first-ever meeting with Trump, although it yielded few deliverables.” However, he warns: “Trump… has little space to fundamentally revamp U.S. foreign policy, including on Pakistan and China… India has no choice but to address the security dilemmas — and the regional threats — on its own.”
Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director, Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote: “An implicit implication from the joint statement is that U.S.-India ties are invested with enough goodwill to overcome any new irritants that may have crept into the relationship in recent months.”
Limited Forward Movement
Given President Trump’s adverse remarks in recent months regarding India’s position on climate change and his views on work Visas, Indian expectations from the visit were low. However, it did not quite turn out that way. This is the first time that the U.S. government agreed to make a reference to “cross-border terrorist attacks” emanating from Pakistan in a joint statement. A Pakistani spokesperson called the joint statement “singularly unhelpful“. China disagreed with the naming of Pakistan and instead opted to applaud Pakistan’s frontline role in combating terrorism. As an implicit warning to India to not go too far in cozying up to the United States, China went public with details of a military stand-off near at the India-Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction near the Chumbi Valley even as Prime Minister Modi was meeting President Trump.
Shorn of the rhetorical flourishes in the joint statement and the warmth-inducing optics, it was a workmanlike get-to-know-each-other visit and, in as much as that, it was an unqualified success. The outcome will be to make India-U.S. relations deeper and stronger. Besides enabling the two countries to fight international terrorism in a more coordinated manner, it will facilitate the establishment of a cooperative security framework for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and for the security of the global commons in conjunction with other strategic partners.
The two leaders must now work together to take the defense cooperation element of the strategic partnership to the next higher trajectory, which involves joint threat assessment, joint contingency planning and the conduct of joint operations when the vital national interests of both countries are threatened. This will make the strategic partnership a truly indispensable one.
Mr. Gurmeet Kanwal is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi and an adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @GurmeetKanwal.