The White House is rolling out the “red carpet” for Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his first meeting with President Donald Trump on Monday. The two leaders will discuss the deepening of defence and security ties, launch new initiatives on counter-terrorism and thrash out trade issues of mutual concern.
They are also expected to discuss climate change, an uncomfortable issue after Trump took an ill-informed shot at India (and China) in remarks announcing US exit from the Paris Accord, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region, in other words China, in the context of the South China Sea dispute.
There were no plans for discussing the issue of H-1B visas, a senior White House official previewing the visit for reporters said, adding “if it’s raised”, the US will note that while Trump has ordered a review, “there have been no immediate changes in visa applications and issuance procedures”.
At the end of hours of one-on-one and delegation-level bilateral meetings attended by members of Trump’s cabinet, the two sides will break for a cocktail reception and then proceed to a working dinner, which will be a milestone: Modi will be the first foreign dignitary invited to dinner at the Trump White House.
“The White House is very interested in making this a special visit,” the official said, adding: “We are really seeking to roll out the carpet.”
Expect a “concrete expression” of US designating India a major defence partner — by the Barack Obama administration in 2016, the official said, refusing to confirm or deny reports the US had cleared the sale of 22 high-tech unarmed drones to India. The designation allows America to extend India the same benefits as it would to its “closest allies and partners” in matters of defence trade.
Trump wants to build on the momentum of increasing defence trade between the two countries in recent years — up to $15 billion in contracts since 2008, the official said, adding the US wants to facilitate India’s defence modernisation and help it “enhance its role as a leader in Asia-Pacific”.
Also high on the agenda for the two leaders would be counter-terrorism. Apart from the usual discussions about terrorist screening, information sharing, terrorists’ use of the internet and terrorist designation, the official said, “we can expect to see some new initiatives on counter-terrorism”.
Discussions will include “global cooperation and burden sharing”. The official referred to India’s ongoing efforts in Afghanistan where it has spent $3 billion on development projects and areas to help grow its democratic institutions.
Modi and Trump will also discuss trade and investment, areas of mutual interest to both leaders and disagreement between their bureaucracies. The White House appears prepared to raise all its concerns and listen to those aired by India. “Both sides are looking to increase market access,” the official said, adding, the US expects “stronger Intellectual Property Rights” and tariff reduction.
These trade issues were raised with unrelenting persistence also by the Obama administration, which was close to marking India for punitive measures, but held off because of Modi’s election and then subsequent efforts by him to address those issues, including formulating a new intellectual property policy, which, however, does not go as far as the US and other western nations wanted, especially on pharmaceuticals.
Also on the agenda will be China. Though the official did name it, the reference could not have been clearer in the assertion that the two sides will “re-state their commitment to common principles in a strategically vital and important region, the Indo-Pacific, and this includes the freedom of navigation and overflight”, an unmistakable nod to China’s increasing aggression in the disputed South China Sea.
Though it wasn’t clear if Pakistan will figure in the talks, the official said, in response to questions from reporters, the United States views its relations with India and Pakistan mutually exclusive of each other — “it’s not a zero sum game”.
The official went on to address a view being pushed — recycled, actually — lately seeking US role in resolving India-Pakistan dispute. “We very much encourage India and Pakistan to engage in direct dialogue wth each other, a a bilateral dialogue” to reduce tensions in the region, the official said.