Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on perhaps his most challenging foreign visit in the last three years—it is to the US to meet President Trump and his administration. In the field of foreign policy, he has displayed tremendous energy and succeeded in robustly projecting India’s aspirations as a middle power seeking a higher rung. There have been successes and disappointments. The latter spelled mainly by the China-Pakistan collusion which is working to limit India’s options.
The US visit came at an awkward time. The chemistry established with former President Barak Obama is no longer relevant; it’s a question of starting all over again. Trump, more than any US former President, has displayed a propensity to make ‘discontinuity’ rather than ‘continuity’ as his trademark with regard to strategic policy making. If a semblance of the Republican policies under George Bush Jr were to be resumed, India would be on a high and in sync with the officials who advise and execute policy in the US today. But this is not happening and thus it’s virtually into a vacuum that Modi has had to walk and gingerly assess ways things are being considered for India.
Many observers condemn the US as a declining power with who India should not look for strategic ties. However, such perceptions come and go, and the world is unlikely to be without an all-pervasive US influence for many years. Matching its economy may be possible, but it will take a period before any nation can match its innovations, research models, technology and military power. Its military hardware industry will continue to dominate the world hardware market, especially since Trump considers this as the best business opportunity.
While Modi and Trump may have been initially cautious in their approach and discussed a few generalities, the four major issues which matter for analysts are the H1B visa, strategic defence issues, global terror and the way it affects both countries and lastly the ways of dealing with China.
Trump’s obsession with limiting H1B visas stems from his perception that Americans lose jobs mainly to high-tech Indians. Over three lakh Indians work in Silicon Valley. Trump has unveiled the ‘hire American buy American’ initiative, which has put the current H1B programme under review. Reduction in visas will hit hiring of Indian IT personnel who have been instrumental in developing the US IT industry, which leads the world’s innovations in IT.
While Trump may have been extremely energetic in implementation of his campaign promises, there are areas where he has displayed his propensity to look more closely at the US interests, whatever be the perceptions on these. The recent deals with Saudi Arabia are a case in point. It is clear that the US does not produce sufficient technical manpower to power its technology growth. There is a constant need for foreign technical manpower and Indians have proved that they are sincere workers. It is, therefore, a matter of clearing the air to allow both the US and Indian interests to thrive.
The joint presser after the official talks, addressed by both leaders, gave some good indications of what may have been achieved; there was no mention of the immigration-related aspects indicating that tricky aspects may have been avoided. The advantage of such a summit lies in the fact that President Trump, who otherwise may not have had much to do with India in the past, gained focus on the issues, which drive the Indo-US relationship. Economics, trade and commerce rightfully dominated the discourse. The briefs he would have received would allow him to realise how significant a country of 1.25 billion can be for the US if the relationship is allowed to thrive on a natural course sans unnecessary impediments.
Security was the other important element of the talks. Three areas were mentioned. First was the cooperation to fight global terror, activism and radicalism. Second was the desire to see India as a close partner in the security of the Indo-Pacific region; reference to the upcoming maritime exercise in which the US, India and Japan will participate. The last was cooperation on Afghanistan.
Perhaps, one should not expect any major specifics from this summit. It was the reiteration of the mutual importance of both nations that was more important with a chance for both the leaders to get to know each other. Personal equations in such relationships matter and Modi is known for his ability to establish those. The significant aspect which must not be lost is the broad understanding that President Trump would have gained that the US and Indian vision is almost similar and they need to get over the perception that either’s interest should be gained at the cost of the other.
The pre-summit announcement by the US designating Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin a global terrorist also gains significance. This serves as an important message with China opposing the branding of JeM chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the UN.
The real gain from the summit should start showing as the details of discussions emerge. It was always unfair to expect too much from this meeting, but what has been gained is nevertheless significant for the current times.
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps