President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would seem to be kindred spirits. But despite a lot of sweet talk as Modi arrived in Washington for a White House meeting Monday, the question remains whether his dalliance with Trump will be a one-night stand or will blossom into a full-on romance.
Trump and Modi are alike in many ways. They both came to power on populist, nationalist waves with promises to confront Islamist terrorism and stand up to China. Both rule large democracies with a clear interest in increasing their security and economic and diplomatic cooperation. Their social media followings currently rank first and second , respectively, among world leaders.
“Under a Trump administration . . . we are going to be best friends,” Trump told the Republican Hindu Coalition a month before the election. “There won’t be any relationship that will be more important to us.”
Yet that close relationship has yet to materialize, due to a mix of transition dysfunction, the distractions of the urgent and a shortage of senior Trump administration officials with India experience. The Modi government, unlike some other Asian powers, has not pushed itself in front of the Trump team, instead pursuing a dual-track policy of cautious engagement mitigated by hedging.
Trump’s first-ever meeting with Modi comes after his meeting dozens of other world leaders, including the prime minister of Montenegro. Monday’s meeting is intended to break through the malaise and get the U.S.-India relationship back on an upward trajectory.
“This is an opportunity for President Trump to reaffirm India’s importance to the United States, the fact that the U.S. supports India playing a larger role in the Asia Pacific,” a senior administration official said. “President Trump believes a strong India is good for the U.S.”
Trump’s commitment to building on the momentum in U.S.-India ties established by his two predecessors is significant, as far as it goes. The two sides are working on a joint statement meant to codify shared values and pledge increased strategic cooperation. The fact that Modi will have dinner, not lunch, with Trump is meant to signal respect, officials said.
But don’t expect a lot of deliverables. The meeting was scheduled before the Group of 20 meeting in Germany next month so that Trump and Modi could develop some rapport before seeing each other there.
One big potential announcement is that, after weeks of deliberation, the Trump administration has agreed to sell India almost two dozen Guardian drones, a deal worth more than $2 billion that would represent the first such U.S. sale to a non-NATO ally.
Even that deal is symbolic of how cautiously the U.S.-India relationship continues to be viewed in New Delhi. Modi’s government has also been negotiating with Israel to buy drones in case the United States doesn’t come though. Modi will visit Israel next week.
“Modi has invested a huge amount of political capital in the U.S. since he took power,” said Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. “The Indians still believe that the U.S. leadership in this part of the world is crucial, and they would not prefer any other leaders [in the region]. But they are deliberately keeping their options open.”
There are some positive signs coming out of the Trump White House on India. White House official Kenneth Juster will soon be named U.S. ambassador to India, a choice welcomed in New Delhi. Lisa Curtis, the top National Security Council staffer working on South Asia, is a strong supporter of a strong U.S.-India relationship.
The NSC is coordinating a broad interagency South Asia policy review, the goal of which is to regionalize issues such as counterterrorism and the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Those steps, along with the sure-to-be-positive Trump-Modi meeting on Monday, are probably enough to sustain the relationship for now. At some point, for real progress to be made, the two sides will have to tackle their differences, including on H1-B visas, trade irritants and India’s approach to intellectual property.
The Trump administration also must settle on its own foreign policy for India to be reassured that strategic interests remain aligned. Does Trump share India’s concern about Chinese expansion in South and Central Asia? It’s hard to tell. Is Trump prepared to aggressively confront Pakistan on its support for radical groups? Nobody knows.
Modi’s task is to convince Trump that spending more time and attention on India fits into his America First agenda. Trump’s job is to convince Modi that his bet on the United States will pay off in real ways long after their dinner is over.