May 27, 2018, 11:05 pm IST
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Arms deal sets positive tone for Modi visit

Arms deal sets positive tone for Modi visit

T.P.Sreenivasan, Jun 25, 2017

"Look forward to welcoming India's PM Modi to White House on Monday. Important strategic issues to discuss with a true friend", tweeted President Donald Trump a few hours ago. Together with a briefing given by the White House earlier, the stage seems set for Trump and Modi to start off where Obama and Modi left off. "White House is very interested in making this visit special and really seeking to roll out the red carpet....  It will be wrong to say that this administration is ignoring or not focusing on India. President Trump realizes that India is a force for good and that will come through in the visit on Monday", said a White House spokesperson. At least the staff work done for the visit so far appears hopeful for continuity in relations. While the earlier indications from the White House stressed only bilateral relations, Trump has also spoken of strategic issues to be discussed. This is a good sign.

The reported nomination of Kenneth Juster as the next US Ambassador to India is also a good omen. He is presently Deputy Assistant to the US President for International Economic Affairs and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council. He is well known in India because of his professional involvement with India and is known to be a balanced and shrewd diplomat. This development has set the speculation at rest about Trump's choice of his Ambassador to India. Of course, the appointment requires Senate confirmation and he may not be in position for a while.

The news that came a little earlier that the United States Government had approved the sale of a naval variant of the Predator drone may have contributed to the warmth. India has been looking to buy 22 of the unarmed surveillance aircraft, MQ-9B Guardian, worth more than $2 billion to keep watch over the Indian Ocean. "We are pleased that the US Government has cleared the way for the sale of the MQ-9B Guardian to the Indian Government," said the manufacturer, though the transaction has not been confirmed by the two Governments. Perhaps, the wisdom gained earlier that the way to Trump's heart is through purchase of weapons has turned out to be accurate. The supply of drones is seen as a key decision to continue the close defense partnership declared by Modi and Obama. Significantly, the deal is the first such purchase by a country, which is not a member of NATO. Congressional approval is necessary for this transaction and a notification  will be submitted to the Congress subsequently.

The unpredictability of President Trump had given reason for both optimism and pessimism as his actions and pronouncements had not followed a particular trajectory. Though it is too early to predict the outcome, it appears now that several areas have been identified for fruitful collaboration. Defense cooperation will be accelerated and enhanced, cooperation in energy, particularly natural gas, will be a new thrust in bilateral ties. New areas of anti-terrorism cooperation are also likely to be announced during the visit. Surprisingly, there are indications that the cooperation between India and the US will continue even in climate change, though the US has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. On the whole, the focus is on the benefits that will accrue to the US in terms of jobs, trade and protection of intellectual property rights.

The devil will be in the details, which have to emerge after the meeting of the leaders. On terrorism, the US side is likely to emphasize the dangers of IS and downplay cross border terrorism, which is the major concern of India. If cross border terrorism is mentioned in the joint statement, it will be a matter of satisfaction for India as it would refer directly to Pakistan. How the dissonance between 'Make in India' and 'America First' will be resolved is yet to be revealed. The two sides seem to have decided that the sensitive issue of H1-B visa will not be discussed. The reason given for such a decision is that though Trump has made various suggestions in this regard, no action has been taken so far. If there is a hint here that nothing prejudicial against Indian interests will be done, it may be better not to open up this issue on which Trump seems to have extreme views.

It is not clear yet as to what "the important strategic issues" in Trump's mind are. On China, the two sides can identify common positions on South China Sea and the whole question of domination of China. Similarly, it is possible to find a formulation on the lines of stabilizing the situation. India's efforts to help Kabul will be noted, but it remains to be seen how much importance the US will give to Pakistan and China in resolving the Afghan issue. Any indication for a role for the Taliban will be anathema to India.

There is no dearth of sticking points, but the atmospherics are positive and continuity rather than change is on the cards in India-US relations.

PM Modi has already arrived in Washington in an atmosphere of optimism that the visit will be productive. But the final outcome will emerge only after the summit is over and the joint statement is issued.

T.P Sreenivasan is Former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA and reputed author.

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