When Modi meets Trump: Where do U.S.-India relations stand?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Dmitri Lovetsky/Pool - RTX38IZU
Editor's note:

Also read what Tanvi Madan wrote on what to expect from the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Modi and President Trump.

On his fifth trip to the United States as Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi will find a very different Washington than the one he visited a year ago. Where does the relationship stand six months into the Trump administration?

The good, the bad, and the uncertain

Trump’s election brought uncertainties for India. Given the investment it has made in the U.S. relationship, the Modi government reached out swiftly to the president-elect and his transition team. It has since kept up that outreach, including with three phone calls between Modi and Trump.

On visits to the United States, the Indian finance minister, petroleum and natural gas minister, national security advisor, and foreign and commerce secretaries have met their counterparts, as well as the secretaries of commerce, defense, homeland security, and state. U.S. national security advisor H.R. McMaster, in turn, has traveled to India. In addition, Congressional engagement has been more of a priority. Indian officials have been meeting regularly with members of Congress, particularly those in leadership positions, and welcoming delegations of members and staffers to Delhi.

Working-level cooperation has continued in a number of spheres. And while a number of India-related positions await nominees, the appointment of Lisa Curtis as senior director at the National Security Council and the potential nomination of Kenneth Juster as ambassador to India—both familiar faces, who know the region—are welcome in Delhi.

Nonetheless, in the absence of a crisis or of Indian relevance to key immediate U.S. concerns (North Korea, Syria) or of a cabinet member with a keen interest in India, it has largely been off Washington’s radar. When the country has been in the American spotlight, the attention has been of the unwanted kind: related to attacks against Indians, criticisms from Trump himself over climate issues, or reports on the president’s businesses in India. There has been some sense of relief that the country has been missing from presidential tweets, but being missing from the priority list is problematic.

Issues at play

The upcoming trip has been action-forcing to some extent, and brought India some attention; Delhi will also hope it’ll bring greater clarity on certain bilateral, regional, and global issues where there is continued uncertainty—and in some cases greater concern—about the administration’s approach.

On the bilateral front, the Indian government is having to adapt to President Trump’s more transactional approach, rather than the more strategic one that prevailed towards India in previous administrations. On economic issues, there continue to be differences on trade, investment, and immigration policies. The Trump administration has highlighted concerns over the trade deficit with India (which, at $30.8 billion is a tenth that with China, but nonetheless is under administration review), tariffs (referring to a country with a 100 percent tariff on motorcycle imports), intellectual property concerns, and market access for American companies. Complaints on these fronts have also come from some members of Congress and the private sector. India, in turn, is concerned about standards and technical regulations that affect its exports to the United States, and potential changes to the high-skilled visa programs (particularly, but not only, H-1Bs). The safety of Indians and, to some extent, Indian Americans in the United States has also been an issue, particularly after the killing of an Indian engineer in Kansas.

On the regional front: To its west, India has been following the administration’s review of Afghanistan policy. Delhi is concerned about the security situation there, the Ghani government’s stability, and what it sees as a China-Pakistan-Russia-Iran tactical tag-team, particularly vis-à-vis the Taliban. It wants to see Washington remain engaged in Afghanistan, but will also be wary if this means a carrots-heavy approach toward Pakistan. In the past, this has meant military aid for Rawalpindi, but also what Delhi has seen as attempts to push it to make concessions to Islamabad. After comments from U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley about the United States potentially taking a more “proactive” role to de-escalate tensions between India and Pakistan, Delhi stressed that this was a bilateral problem for Delhi and Islamabad to resolve. The State Department subsequently clarified that it encouraged “direct dialogue.”

Indian officials will closely follow the interagency review on Pakistan. They will watch for further indications that the administration is willing to press Pakistan (such as the reported drone strike against targets in Pakistan). Delhi also wants clarity on whether the U.S. counterterrorism approach in the region will be group-specific (against groups like ISIS or the Haqqani network) or more all-encompassing (i.e. including Pakistan-based terrorist groups targeting India, like Lashkar-e-Taiba).

Also to its west, Indian officials have concerns about the deteriorating Iran-U.S. dynamic, which has affected its plans for developing the port of Chabahar (policymakers in Delhi are relieved, at the same time, that the Iran deal has not—yet—been jettisoned).

To India’s east, questions about the U.S. role in the Indo-Pacific remain, and there are concerns about the administration’s approach to China—strategic convergence in this area has been a major driver for the U.S.-India relationship. Delhi was not pleased by the bonhomie on display during and after the Trump-Xi summit, statements by Secretary of State Tillerson on his visit to China, the apparent upgrading of the U.S. delegation to the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing (which the Indian government declined to attend), and the perceived utility of China vis-à-vis North Korea. More reassuring was Defense Secretary Mattis’ speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, which quoted Modi on freedom of navigation and acknowledged India’s role in the Indian Ocean region, as well as some recent signals on U.S. freedom of navigation operations. The two sides also went ahead with their maritime security dialogue in May, and the joint India-Japan-U.S. Malabar exercise is scheduled for July.

On the global front, the administration’s attitude on multilateral trade, climate change, and terrorism have raised questions. But more broadly, potential global U.S. disengagement—or as the foreign secretary put it “changes in the terms of engagement between the United States and the world”—will raise crucial challenges, and some opportunities, for Indian policymakers.

Even those in India who had been optimistic about Trump have expressed concern about his approach to countries like China and Saudi Arabia, and his recent criticism of India, as well as the lack of what they’d hoped would be a U.S. rapprochement with Russia, and the prevailing atmosphere in the U.S. for immigrants and minorities. In this context, the upcoming visit is being seen as a chance to reinvigorate the relationship.

Tomorrow, I’ll provide an assessment of what to look for when the two leaders finally meet face to face.