When Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister in 2014, very little was known about his views on the country’s international relationships. His attitude toward the U.S. was one of the biggest unknowns. The Bush State Department blocked him from visiting the U.S. in 2005, citing sectarian violence in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, when he was the top elected official there. The Obama administration quietly dropped the ban when Modi became Prime Minister. When Modi was sworn in to office in May 2014, many wondered how his personal history would impact what had become an increasingly important bilateral relationship over the years. As it turned out, Modi and Obama struck up a warm rapport, and the two countries deepened their defense and trade links.
Now, the future of ties between the world’s most powerful democracy and its biggest one is once again a matter of debate, as diplomats and analysts on both sides await the first face to face meeting between Modi and Donald Trump on June 26.
This time, the big question mark is over the current U.S. leader’s view of American ties with India. Just weeks ago, Trump accused India of seeking to profit from the Paris climate accord, as he announced his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the global agreement. “India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries,” he said—a claim that was rubbished by New Delhi. Another potentially thorny issue: the Trump administration’s review of the visa program for bringing to the U.S. highly skilled foreign workers. Indians are among the biggest beneficiaries of the program. Meanwhile, amid rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., Indians in America have been the subject of a string of hate crimes that have generated negative headlines in India. And beyond policy issues, there is the question of personal chemistry between the two leaders. Will they get on? Here’s what to watch out for when Modi meets Trump.
Setting the right tone
At the top of the agenda for Modi will be convincing Trump that India’s rise is in America’s interests, which could mean that some of the thornier issues are put on the back burner. “The meeting is about setting the right tone for the relationship moving forward,” says Dhruva Jaishankar, a Delhi-based expert on U.S.-India ties as the Brookings Institution. As Modi seeks to grow the Indian economy, he will seek to emphasize “ways in which India is there to help make America great again, that Indians are optimistic and positive about the U.S., and there are ways in which American investment in India will actually be a good deal for America by creating jobs in America and making the U.S. more competitive.”
“I suspect we will see a lot of the big troublesome issues swept to the side, because that could lead to a backlash from Trump. It would be like waving a red flag in front of a charging bull,” says Jaishankar.
Topics like the visa program for skilled workers will likely be addressed, he says, but not at the leaders’ level. “A lot of these issues involve Congress and other agencies. And if India can avoid it, it won’t bring them up at the top level.” Ditto with climate change. The week that Trump announced his decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord, Modi was in Europe, where he reaffirmed India’s commitment to the agreement. “It wouldn’t be in India’s interests to bring it up,” says Jaishankar.
American regional priorities
As Washington weighs sending more troops to Afghanistan, India, like other countries in its neighborhood, is closely tracking the ongoing U.S. review of its policy toward the region. For New Delhi, Modi’s U.S. trip presents an opportunity to try and understand the Trump administration’s priorities for South Asia, including its policy towards Pakistan, India’s main foe in the region and a country Kabul has repeatedly accused of waging an “undeclared war” on Afghanistan by harboring Taliban militants.
Trump’s views on China also matter to India, which has long been concerned about Beijing’s rise. A former senior Indian diplomat recently summed up the problem from New Delhi’s point of view. “Trump’s views on dealing with China have not crystallized,” Ashok Sajjanhar, a former Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, wrote. “His position has swung from one end to the other. He has already created a vacuum by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving the way open for China to expand its presence. By reneging on the Paris Climate Change Agreement, he has allowed China to assume a leadership position on this vital issue.”
As New Delhi watches China deepen its relationship with its neighbors‚ including Pakistan, Modi will want to know where the U.S. stands on Beijing’s growing regional clout. “Above all, India will seek some clarity from the top about what America’s Asia policy is, and where India fits into that,” says Jaishankar.
It is telling that Modi is only visiting the U.S. for two days, and keeping a relatively low profile. His first trip to the U.S. as Prime Minister featured a spectacular Madison Square Garden rally with thousands of Indian-Americans. This time, the focus is on the White House meeting. “It’s a very short trip. It stands in contrast to his previous visits. There is no big diaspora event, although there is a small meeting in Washington,” says Jaishankar. “It is pretty businesslike.”
The idea is to avoid doing anything that might upset Trump. “That he [Modi] is getting a sense of the changed U.S. administration may be clear from the decision not to hold any large gatherings of the Indian-American community this time, presumably in deference to the prevailing sentiment in Washington over immigration,” said a recent editorial in Indian newspaper The Hindu.
As they depart the U.S. after the meeting, Modi’s officials will be keeping a close eye on Twitter to make sure that the President doesn’t foil their plans for a controversy-free trip. “Trump has this habit, sometimes even after a bilateral meeting has gone well, of a parting shot,” says Jaishankar. “He did this with [China’s] Xi Jinping, he did this with [Germany’s Chancellor Angela] Merkel, You can see for example a meeting that goes well, Modi gets on a plane to head out and Trump tweets something about, you know, ‘Great meeting with Modi but India needs to reduce its tariffs and stop taking money on climate change,’ or something like that.”