Modi and Trump: The Virtue of Low Expectations
Next week will mark Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fifth visit to the United States as prime minister and his third official audience with a U.S. president. His last four visits occurred against a backdrop of more than a decade of bipartisan political support in Washington and New Delhi for increasing strategic engagement between the two countries.
But this time, things are different on the American side. There is yet no publicly articulated U.S. policy toward India from the Trump administration and no appointed ambassador to India. Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the U.S. government can boast only one short visit by a U.S. senior official — the national security advisor — to India and it was on the back-end of a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan. India sees a drift, apathy, or both creeping into the bilateral relationship. Modi will be looking to allay these fears.
He has a scheduled short, “no frills, business-only” audience with Trump on Monday, June 26. While an important meeting, it should not be oversold. Expectations for this meeting and Modi’s overall visit should remain low.
Instead, Modi’s visit should be seen as the first in a series of upcoming one-on-ones between Modi and Trump. For example, two weeks after Modi leaves Washington, the two leaders will meet at the July G-20 Summit in Hamburg. We can expect Modi to try to build a personal relationship and gradually use that relationship to educate the American president on the merits of a growing India-American partnership geared toward long-term benefits and looking beyond short-term transactions.
Modi has his work cut out for him. His well-known charm and business-oriented acumen bode well for a positive relationship with Trump. However, India’s prime minister will face challenges when it comes to negotiating the topics of greatest interest to the new U.S. administration.
The Trump administration has signaled its interest in talking to India about a, “vision that will expand the U.S.-India partnership in an ambitious and worthy way.” The White House has indicated plans to discuss economic growth, increasing U.S.-India trade, the fight against terrorism, and expanding defense cooperation. Each of these topics are intertwined with the mantra of “Make America Great Again,” and Modi will need to find a way to paint his three-year “Make in India” economic program as compatible with the U.S.-centric and transactional themes that seem to guide Trump’s international engagement framework. Modi will best meet his limited aims by taking an indirect approach on economic opportunities and a direct — but limited — approach toward framing bilateral security and defense futures.
Modi will need to side-step the many tension-filled trade and investment issues that could threaten strong U.S.-India relations in the Trump era. In January — just before Trump’s inauguration — Modi publicly spoke to his concerns about the rise of “parochial and protectionist attitudes” and the increased “sentiment against trade and migration” in the world today. He would be well-advised to let these remarks stand without additional comment in Washington. He also should finesse — or totally avoid — the understandable Indian concerns with the ongoing Trump-ordered review of the U.S. H-1B business visa program. H-1B visas are heavily used by major Indian firms. Modi also should avoid any mention of the latent — but still unrealized — administration threats of increased tariffs on Indian exports to the United States as well as large penalties on U.S. firms outsourcing work or moving work to India. Each of these are best left for quiet, behind-the-scenes conversations.
Instead, Modi should paint India as a compatible partner for broader and deeper American economic interests. This will not be easy. Modi will not come armed with bilateral economic offers or concessions to rival those reportedly underpinning Trump audiences with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April or Saudi Arabia’s former deputy crown prince in March. Instead, Modi should deftly make the case for India’s economic value to America in general and the Trump administration in particular. He can do this by tapping into the rapidly expanding Indian relationships with key American businesses that grow jobs in the United States and in India. Here, Modi has an opportunity to generate good press with Trump by capitalizing on his planned visit with top U.S. and Indian business executives set for June 25. If Modi can secure Indian commitments for business expansion in the United States and corresponding U.S. business expansion plans in India, then he will have a modest but important announcement for his meeting with Trump the next day. Unlikely to be a blockbuster offering, such an announcement still can secure an upbeat photo opportunity and set the table for a positive future trajectory in U.S.-India economic interactions.
On the bilateral defense and security portfolio, Modi might take a more direct approach during his brief initial interaction with Trump. He need not talk directly about Indian concerns with a rising China. Instead, Modi should talk about the positive role played by the U.S. military in securing free trade and commerce across the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. While offering Indian support for continuing U.S. primacy into the foreseeable future, Modi can re-state India’s decade-long commitment to playing an enhanced defense and security role in the Indo-Pacific. He can link India’s growing role as a security partner for the United States to the tangible need for India to upgrade its military capacity. Modi can talk-up the future for U.S. defense sales and co-production opportunities in India as a way to create “good” defense manufacturing jobs in the United States, setting the stage for future engagements with Trump on this topic. He can remind Trump that India is the world’s largest weapons importer and made the United States its top armaments procurement source for the first time in 2013 ($1.9 billion), and a top-three weapons procurement partner ever since. Modi might reinforce India’s strong potential as a customer for the U.S. armaments manufacturing base by highlighting, as but one example, his government’s commitment to purchasing several hundred Predator drones just as soon as the U.S. approves India’s standing requests..
A Trump-Modi meeting free from any hint of the drama that tinged Trump’s phone call with the Australian prime minister in January or his engagement with NATO allies in May will be a good one for the bilateral relationship. Modi will succeed if he can charm his way to the start of a cordial personal relationship with the new U.S. president. This modest beginning will be most important to Modi’s chances of commencing an iterative set of future personal meetings that will enable the past positive trajectory of the U.S.-India strategic partnership — a partnership of vital importance to the future of both countries — to move forward seamlessly into the future.
Thomas F. (Tom) Lynch III is a distinguished research fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The opinions expressed here represent his own views and are not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.