When Narendra Modi played the Trump card

U.S. President Donald Trump (R) greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

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Editor's note:

This article first appeared in Live Mint. The views are of the author(s).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first meeting with US President Donald Trump was, by most accounts of Raisina Hill and Washington, DC beltway watchers, a success for both countries. From an evenly matched handshake to the deft signature Modi baby bear-hug (a notable feat given Trump’s germ phobia) to the joint statement, the “no frills” summit, contrary to predictions of gloom, advanced the pace of India-US relations, but only modestly. Even the timing of the visit—early in the Trump administration—signals the growing bilateral engagement. In doing so, it shows continuity rather than dramatic change from previous top-level interactions. And that’s good news for India.

Consider the following: The joint statement declared that both sides “resolved to expand and deepen the strategic partnership between the countries and advance common objectives”, especially in “combating terrorist threats, promoting stability across the Indo-Pacific region, increasing free and fair trade, and strengthening energy linkages”. This is boilerplate language from previous statements and the emphasis on specific issues underlines the key areas of concern for both.

In geopolitical terms, the Indo-Pacific region—stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific Ocean—and concern over a more assertive China is centre stage and the joint statement makes several references to its significance: The US and India will be “joint stewards” to ensure “peace and stability in the region”, uphold international law, freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce, and the peaceful settlement of territorial and maritime disputes in accordance with international law; the importance of the Malabar naval exercises and the sharing of “white shipping” data in achieving these objectives; and, as a corollary, the sale of the naval unarmed version of the Predator drone and support for India’s entry into various non-proliferation groups, notably the Nuclear Suppliers Group. While the statement also makes geopolitical references to Afghanistan, India’s “Think West” policy, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations, it is clear that China (without being mentioned) is the primary focus.

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