Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inaugural visit to the Trump White House this week was fraught with uncertainty, with recent irritations in the relationship (visas and climate change), a softening in US policy on China, and tension between Trump’s transactional instincts and the longer-term approach taken by his two predecessors on the US-India relationship. But in the end, the visit proved straightforward, hurdling the low bar set in advance.
A substantial joint statement released on Tuesday stressed a slightly different order of priorities to previous such documents, highlighting – in this order – terrorism, stability in the Indo-Pacific, free (and, notably, 'fair') trade, and energy. While the South China Sea wasn’t mentioned in a passage on freedom of navigation, as it was three years ago, this is hardly surprising: it’s been dropped before, and the Trump administration has walked a fine line on the issue, to avoid jeopardising Chinese support over North Korea.
Far more important was the language used on regional connectivity, where both sides underscored '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'. This was an obvious rebuke to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and these specific points – transparency, sustainability, and sovereignty – directly echoed India’s searing attack on the project last month.
This diplomatic subtweet is especially notable given that the Trump administration, unlike India, sent a delegation to Beijing’s flagship BRI summit in mid-May, headed by the National Security Council’s senior director for East Asia, Matthew Pottinger. While Tuesday’s statement shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the US is following India’s hard-line approach it may well help create a coherent narrative that can be taken up by US partners in Asia – notably Japan and Australia – who wish to engage with the scheme, but remain wary of its longer-term security implications.
There was also notable language on Afghanistan. Trump 'welcomed further Indian contributions to promote Afghanistan's democracy, stability, prosperity, and security'. In the US-India joint statements of 2014 and 2015, Afghanistan had been raised in far more general terms, without any suggestion of wider Indian involvement, while it was omitted altogether from last year’s statement. This was not quite a request to send troops, as one Indian newspaper had suggested might occur, but it could lay the ground for India to expand its security assistance, parallel with Trump’s anticipated troop surge. I would not be surprised if this took the form of additional Indian training for the Afghanistan National Security Forces or further arms provision, although this is likely to remain modest.
Another Trump priority was evident in the strong condemnation of North Korea’s 'continued provocations'. India is the regime’s second-largest trading partner, and the issue has been kept largely off the table, mentioned only in far softer terms two years ago. Modi was on stronger ground this week, because of New Delhi’s decision in April to enforce harsher sanctions on Pyongyang, including curbs on all police and military training. Here, as in several other sections of the joint statement, China was the unnamed but unmistakeable presence ('holding accountable all parties that support these programs'), serving as a sort of strategic glue in the relationship.
Unsurprisingly, given both leaders’ instincts and policies, terrorism was given considerable prominence. Most notable here was a specific and unprecedented reference to 'cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups'. There was also announcement of a new 'consultation mechanism' on terrorism designations, expansion of intelligence-sharing, and other counter-terrorism measures. Josh White, an official in Obama’s NSC, has also noted, in a sharp and useful Twitter thread, that the endorsement of a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism – something that India proposed to the United Nations more than 20 years ago – was especially important because the Obama administration had been 'very reluctant' to back it.
Though modest overall, these terrorism-related measures should be read in the context of reports that the Trump administration is considering a tougher line on Pakistan. Days before Modi’s arrival, the State Department moved the designation of Syed Salahuddin, leader of the Pakistan-backed and Kashmir-focused Hizbul-Mujahideen, as a Specially Designation Global Terrorist (SDGT). However, despite Trump’s press conference boast that 'we will destroy radical Islamic terrorism', there was little indication of whether India would be doing more on American priorities, other than a single cursory mention of ISIS as part of a list of largely India-focused terrorist groups.
Some of the most important progress in US-India relations in recent years has been on Indo-Pacific issues, with the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in 2015 serving as a milestone. While this year’s joint statement hit the right notes, promising to 'expand their engagement on shared maritime objectives', there was a more eye-catching promise by Trump in his personal remarks. 'Next month', promised Trump, 'they [the US and Indian militaries] will join together with the Japanese navy to take place in [sic] the largest maritime exercise ever conducted in the vast Indian Ocean'. While it’s entirely possible this was his usual hyperbole, it does imply that this year’s Malabar exercises will surpass the 16-ship peak seen a decade ago (there were 26 ships involved in the second phase that year, though not in the Indian Ocean), or the 15 ships of the multi-national Milan exercise of 2014. This could imply a significant contribution from New Delhi, Washington, and Tokyo – which in turn would provoke a sharper-than-usual response from Beijing. It would also raise further questions about why India has chosen to block Australian participation in Malabar this year (it has instead focused on bilateral exercises with Canberra).
The remainder of the joint statement, occupying more space than security issues, concerned economic ties. Without going into great detail, it’s worth highlighting the promise of a 'comprehensive review of trade relations', with a view to 'increasing market access in areas such as agriculture, information technology, and manufactured goods and services'. This reflects long-running American complaints about Indian trade barriers in key sectors, but it’s interesting the sensitive issue of multi-brand retail – access to foreign supermarkets – wasn’t mentioned at all. The awkward issue of climate change, where just weeks ago Trump had blasted India for demanding 'billions and billions and billions of dollars', was tiptoed around, with bland calls for a 'rational approach' that balances the environment and growth. More significant was that the two leaders 'looked forward to the conclusion of contractual agreements between Westinghouse Electric Company and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India for six nuclear reactors in India'. This deal is in a less than healthy place, buffeted by the US company’s severe financial woes. In general, most difficult economic issues were either set aside or kicked down the road, which is reasonable enough at this early stage.
All in all, this was a strong start to the relationship between Trump and Modi. Trump’s erratic, outspoken style means that any act of personal diplomacy is hostage to fortune, as we saw with Angela Merkel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and, of course, Malcolm Turnbull. Not only were there no gaffes or clashes, but the joint statement also reiterated and built on key areas of the relationship that has been nurtured over the past decade. With Modi in a commanding political position at home and bipartisan support for India in the United States, this may point to a higher degree of continued convergence than many expected or feared.