This is not because of the absence of any outstanding issues between the two countries. There are a number of areas of mutual interest and common concern. These include advancing defence and strategic cooperation, trade surplus/deficit, international terrorism – issues on which Trump has expressed strong opinions in the past, although not specifically with respect to India-US relations.
The environment in In contrast to Prime Minister Modi’s previous visit to Washington for meeting President Obama, which was high profile in character with lots of advance publicity and hype, his forthcoming trip to the US to meet President Trump is being projected as business-like with very little hype. Almost all, if not all, of the analysts’ expectations on the outcome of the meeting are low to modest and not without reason either.
These talks will be held is also different. Earlier, one of the primary motivations for the US to strengthen strategic cooperation was the long-term prospect of India emerging as a major economic and military power and the need for crafting a viable Asian security architecture given the uncertainties about the evolution of China’s long term goals. In contrast, the Trump administration – largely reflecting the President’s ideology – is more concerned with short term results and gains for the US. Hence the US withdrawal from the Paris Convention, abandonment of the TPP, calls for renegotiation of NAFTA, demands on NATO members to increase spending, etc. Given this, the long term projections of India emerging as a major power after a couple of decades is not likely to play a major role in Trump’s approach towards India.
Further, much of the earlier advances in India-US strategic cooperation was directed primarily by the non-White House executive branch – primarily senior level political and career officers in the bureaucracy. Unfortunately, at the present moment, much of this bureaucracy at senior levels is understaffed with many of the appointees either still to be named or confirmed by the Senate. This is likely to seriously affect any new proposals being advanced either in the forthcoming talks or in the near future.
For example, the National Defence Authorization Act 2017, which formally named India as a Major Defence Partner, had required the Executive to “designate an individual within the Executive branch who has experience in defense acquisition and technology – among other things – to reinforce and ensure, through interagency policy coordination, the success of the Framework for the United States-India Defense Relationship.” Even nearly six months after the passage of the NDAA, no such person has been designated by the Trump Administration. The position of the Department of Defense (DoD) lead for the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) – the major vehicle for advancing India-US defence cooperation, was initially held by the then Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. After Carter became Defense Secretary, the then Under Secretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology & Logistics) Frank Kendall, who had worked closely with Carter and was already working many of the DTTI actions, became the DoD lead. That position is currently vacant after the departure of Kendall, when the new administration took office. As of now, there is no one in a position to be designated as the DoD lead for DTTI. In addition, NDAA 2017 had required the executive to submit to Congress a report on how the United States is supporting its defence relationship with India. That report, which was required to be submitted before June 23, 2017, is yet to be submitted.
For these reasons, there is unlikely to be any new initiatives from the Modi-Trump meeting on the defence cooperation front. It is not even clear whether some sort of a pro forma statement about the reported Tata-Lockheed agreement for joint production of F-16s may be made, given that there is no report of any notification having been made – a mandatory requirement under US law – to the US Congress about any such programme.
On the trade front as well, there is not much reason to be optimistic. Trump is known to be exercised about the trade deficit the US has with many countries including China, European Union, Japan, South Korea, Mexico and India. There is, however, a unique aspect as far as India is concerned. While the US suffers a trade deficit in goods with all these others countries, it enjoys a trade surplus in the services sector with each of them. But in the case of India, the US trade deficit spans both the goods and services sectors. Further, the US trade deficit in services is driven primarily by the deficit in the Information sector and principally because of outsourcing and H1B visas. Therefore, it is unlikely that Indian complaints on this issue will be addressed by Trump.
The Indian urban myth about US unfairness on H1B visas with respect to India cannot be sustained on the basis of the available data. All the latest data – in respect of H1B petitions approved, H1B visas issued, H1B admissions into the US – show that, far from being at a disadvantage, India has gained substantially at the expense of other countries. Between FY2011 and FY2016, the number of H1B visas issued to Indians increased from 129,314 to 180,057. Moreover, the Indian share in such visas increased from 56.1 to 70.4 per cent. In the current year, the share is even higher at more than 75 per cent. In respect of approved H1B petitions, the number increased from 156,317 in FY2011 to 195,247 in FY2015, with the Indian share increasing from 58.0 to 70.8 per cent. And the number of H1B admitted into the US increased from 147,290 in FY2011 to 253,377 in 2015, with the Indian share increasing from 29.8 to 47.1 per cent. Given all this, it is extremely unlikely that Indian complaints about the unfairness of H1B visas will fall on receptive ears in the current administration.
However, on the issue of international terrorism, there may be some common ground. Given Trump’s strong views on this subject, Modi may find some common ground on the issue of Pakistan’s sponsorship of international terrorism in India and Afghanistan. Further, there are reports suggesting that the Trump administration is reviewing its policies towards Pakistan. While this is a positive development from the Indian perspective, it is quite possible that Trump may ask India to increase its footprint in Afghanistan with some military presence there.
On climate change, given Trump’s views on the subject, it is highly unlikely that Modi will be able to influence him on his decision to withdraw from Paris Convention.
Under normal circumstances, and given the earlier statements of Candidate Trump, India’s approach towards Russia may have found some resonance with Trump. However, given the current US discourse and agitation about Russian interference in the electoral process, there is unlikely to be much support for India’s views on Russia. Similarly, while China will figure in the talks in a general context, there is little chance of any convergence.
All in all, while there will not be any setbacks on the India-US strategic cooperation front, there is unlikely to be any new initiatives. This may not be an unwelcome outcome given the erratic character of Trump’s policies.