BY M.R. JOSSE
GAITHERSBURG, MD: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in the United States on a two-day official visit Sunday; on Monday, he will hold talks with American President Donald Trump, who is hosting a working dinner at the White House in his honour.
While a comprehensive appreciation of Modi’s visit must await next week’s column – due to publication deadlines, a full assessment is not possible yet – I believe a preliminary essay on his maiden diplomatic foray into Trump country would not quite be wasted effort.
Quite apart from the fact that the Modi ‘yatra’ to Washington comes more than five months after Trump’s inauguration as US president, for people in Nepal what is perhaps even more noteworthy than the low priority granted to the Modi mission is that it was preceded by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s much-hyped official two-day sojourn to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort/residence in Florida, nearly three months ago.
Aside from such notable differences in timing and setting of the respective palavers, there is the revealing detail that there was virtually no serious American media attention on Modi’s arrival, unlike that showered on Xi’s visit in early April, which I had observed in Kathmandu before coming over to America in May.
But, perhaps more substantially, the Trump-Xi confabulations ignited not merely a personal rapport or chemistry between the two principals but led to some very solid bilateral strategic agreements, including those relating to North Korea’s nuclear/missile programme.
Besides, at the conclusion of the Mar-a-Lago summit, to recall, four high-level mechanisms were established. The first: a diplomatic/security dialogue, the inaugural session of which was held at the US State Department the other day, attended among others, on the American side, by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis and, headed on the Chinese side, by State Counselor Yang Jaichi.
The other three mechanisms deal, respectively, with economics; law enforcement and cyber security; and social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
Before moving on, it is also important to note that a whole phalanx of world leaders has been hosted by Trump before Modi, including Prime Minister Teresa May of the UK, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu of Israel, President Mohamoud Abbas of Palestine, President Abdel Fattal el-Sisi of Egypt; King Abdullah of Jordan; and Australian Prime Minister Turnbull. A few days after Modi’s departure, Trump will be hosting South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
It may be useful, besides, to remember that Modi, not only visited the US four times in two years during the Obama administration, including that during the US presidential election season, but had rather recklessly signaled in manifold ways that India supported Hillary Clinton, believing – like so many others – that Trump was something of a joke.
What may be pointed out, too, is that Modi, on his present US tour, made his journey to Washington not directly from New Delhi but from Lisbon, after a visit to Portugal – a subtle diplomatic hint that perhaps reflects his displeasure that his latest America trip was not accorded state visit status.
Notably, news reports out of India indicate that while defense ties between India and the United States flourished under the Obama administration they have drifted under Trump, who has courted China instead of India, as he seeks Beijing’s help to contain North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Quite aside from the general unease in South Block because of the considerations enumerated above, there are other important differences between Trump’s America and Modi’s India.
For example, the United States is vexed by the growing US trade deficit with India and, as is well known, Trump has called for reform of the H-1B visa system to save American jobs. Hitherto, the H-IB visa, he maintains, has unduly benefited Indian tech firms. Modi, of course would like it to continue.
It will, in any case, be fascinating to see how Trump’s “America First” doctrine, with its preponderant priority on saving/creating jobs in America, plays out/against with Modi’s “Made in India” endeavour.
The other important sticking point relates, of course, to the Paris climate accord of 2015 from which Trump has signaled not only America’s formal withdrawal but has even accused New Delhi of negotiating unscrupulously to walk away with billions in aid. In a previous column, I have drawn attention to the fact that Modi, speaking publicly in Berlin after Trump’s pull-out decision, traduced Trump bitterly for doing so.
It remains to be seen, as of this writing, if India’s desire for high-tech drones for use of her Navy will be satisfied; attention has been drawn to a news report saying that the State Department is concerned about the prospect of their destabilising impact in South Asia “where tension is simmering with Pakistan, particularly over Kashmir.”
Interestingly, one is just informed by National Public Radio reporting from New Delhi, that former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran indicated that Modi would be primarily in a “listening mode.”
Saran believes that the key component of formal talks will centre on how the US views India and China. Speculatively it is here that Nepal could figure: it is doubtful, however, if discussions on Nepal, or Tibet – if they did happen – would be publicly acknowledged.
It is interesting all the same that, according to Reuters, bilateral talks would be followed by statements to the press from the two parties – without any questions being entertained! That’s very intriguing, given that both Trump and Modi love to publicly advertise their views!
More arresting is that, according to a 26 June item in Hindustan Times, “Chinese troops enter Sikkim sector, jostle with Indian Army”, while an earlier story had it that “Chinese Army dismisses New Delhi’s concern over it violating Indian air space” in Uttarakhand’s Chamouli area.
Could this be related to Modi’s US visit – perhaps to underline Chinese threats to India? Fake, or legitimate news? Who really knows?