Compared to three Modi-Obama summits, Modi-Trump moves ties forward in several fields

This article originally appeared in Broadsword

Compared to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three substantive summit meetings with former president Barack Obama between 2014-16, there are notable departures in the joint statement that was issued on Monday after the Indian PM met President Donald Trump.

The departures relate to the prioritization of strategic relations; US support for India on China pushing an economic corridor through Jammu & Kashmir (J&K); naming Pakistan as a source of terror; and an Indian role in Afghanistan.

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*  DTTI: Defence Trade and Technology Initiative

In Modi’s three meetings with Obama, the joint statements – which can be assumed to mention higher priorities ahead of lesser preoccupations – all led off with economic growth and clean energy. Lower priority was accorded to defence, homeland security and terrorism.

In Monday’s joint statement the order of priority was: partnership in the Indo-Pacific, terrorism cooperation, strategic cooperation, free and fair trade and, finally, energy.

While the Indo-Pacific partnership was dealt with at some length, and the statement called on “regional countries” to uphold freedom of navigation, it avoided mention of either China or the South China Sea. This would not be the first time such a reference was dropped; the June 2016 joint statement too had no such mention.

Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Service Institute assesses: “The Trump administration has walked a fine line on the issue, to avoid jeopardising Chinese support over North Korea.”

Previous joint statements unreservedly back infrastructure creation for Asian regional connectivity, but Trump has backed India’s opposition to China’s landmark Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Hewing to New Delhi’s line that the CPEC violates India’s sovereignty over Gilgit-Baltistan, which is a part of J&K, the joint statement supports regional connectivity “while ensuring respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law and environment.”

On terrorism, the US has supported India with a clearly tougher line. Leading up to the summit, the US State Department designated Hizbul-Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. Monday’s joint statement saw the unprecedented mention of “cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups.”

Monday also saw Washington supporting an Indian role in Afghanistan far more unequivocally than in previous summits. Earlier, Washington pandered to Islamabad’s concerns, which feared that New Delhi was “outflanking” it in Kabul. Pakistan, therefore, arm-twisted Washington into keeping India away, dangling the carrot of its influence over the Taliban and Haqqani Network that were fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan.

New Delhi, in turn, allowed in far stronger language on North Korea, which currently is one of Trump’s top priorities. In April, the Modi government had enforced sanctions on North Korea, as its second-largest trading partner. But, here too, the joint statement took a shot at China, noting that “all parties that support these (North Korean) programs” would be held accountable.

In defence, the statement spoke of deepening cooperation between the “major defence partners”, and the unprecedented US offer of Sea Guardian unmanned aerial systems. The agreement for sharing “White Shipping” data, which relates to commercial liners plying the Indian Ocean, was proposed to be expanded.