By Seema Sirohi
The meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump went better than expected. Both leaders conducted themselves with a certain amount of efficiency that relations between the two important democracies demand and deserve.
Modi showed patience as he sat and Trump did his stream-of-consciousness thing. A meeting free of obvious stumbles is an achievement, given the nature of the US president. But more importantly, a new desire on both sides to cut down the “noise” about disputes was clearly visible. It helped ease the simmering tensions on both trade and strategic issues for now.
That doesn’t mean the problems have been sorted out. Far from it. But there is an agreement to manage the differences and make a real effort to resolve issues going forward. The key appointments in Modi 2.0 were the first signal that this time around delivery is important, something the Americans well understand.
The apparent success of the Modi-Trump meeting should be credited to the productive groundwork done two days earlier by their respective sherpas – External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The two men committed to working through the contentious issues while being guided by the “big picture” drawn by Modi and Trump in their first bilateral meeting in 2017. The success of the Pompeo-Jaishankar interaction was central to the success in Osaka.
The clarity – in articulating India’s red lines on some issues and flexibility on others – will help as the two sides get down to real business with a hugely empowered government in New Delhi. It already showed in Osaka. Modi was clear on what he wanted to discuss with Trump, listing four topics in front of the cameras in a rather unusual step. The four topics were Iran, 5G, bilateral relations and defence relationships.
Modi seemed unruffled by Trump’s typically nasty tweet a day earlier, demanding that India withdraw its retaliatory tariffs. The tweet was most likely unleashed before Pompeo had a chance to brief Trump about his visit to New Delhi and the potential breakthroughs. Post Pompeo’s briefing, Trump was effusive when he actually met Modi. He hinted at big deals between the two countries. However, neither Trump’s combativeness nor his affection should be taken to heart. Bilateral relations and strategic partnerships are far too important to pivot on a tweet, however negative or positive.
But Trump loves “winners” and Modi’s election victory has clearly impressed him as he prepares for his own re-election. If the two meet again soon – election strategies would be a definite conversation starter. However, Both sides need to work on fixing dates for a substantive bilateral meeting before the end of the year. Modi needs to play his Trump card sooner rather than later and before the US president gets busy with election rallies.
Noticeable in the interactions over the last few days has been the clarity in New Delhi’s policy positions vis-à-vis Washington – whether on the need to avoid conflagration with Iran, or the autonomy of decision making on the Russian S-400 air defence system or the idea to leverage India’s large market and Silicon Valley’s tech prowess in the unfolding drama over 5G.
Modi, armed with a huge mandate, is more assertive and confident about India’s importance, role and position in the world. This was evident in S. Jaishankar’s public comments as he stood besides Pompeo for the press conference. “We will do what is in our national interest, and again, part of that strategic partnership is the ability of each country to comprehend and appreciate the national interest of the other,” he said while commenting on India buying the Russian S-400 and potentially coming under US sanctions.
The signal was strong – Washington can’t limit or determine India’s strategic choices. While India has been diversifying and buying more and more US defence equipment over the years, “the key point here is that if that is to continue to grow, it’s important that we display trust and confidence in each other,” Jaishankar said pointedly.
The use of the word “if” by Jaishankar was noted by some US experts on Twitter with a degree of consternation but it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the two can play the transactional game. Pompeo’s remarks in various interviews shows that he understands the “history” between India and Russia. The impression he left was that the S-400 issue can be worked out. Jaishankar also noted the “deep and broad convergences” between India and the US and the need to take “a very integrated view” of various issues – trade, energy, defence, investment concerns and people-to-people contacts.
As both teams go back to work, expect some progress on trade issues, especially if Pompeo can restrain and calm US Trade Representative Robert Lighthzer who is expected to meet Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal in the near future. It will also be a test of Pompeo’s influence within the administration. Similarly on Iran too, Pompeo got a clear message from Jaishankar – India has too much at stake in peace and stability in the region for another devastating war to break out. Modi also reinforced the same message when he met Trump.
Fortunately, Trump doesn’t want to get into new wars but his hawkish deputies are another matter. Their belligerence has heightened tensions in the region, raising concerns on Capitol Hill. On Russia, Trump again is more sympathetic to the need to normalize relations than almost anyone else in Washington. Modi has to find ways to use this sympathy without seeming to endorse Russian interference in US domestic politics. The coming months will show how well the Indian navigation system works.