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6 Major Takeaways From Indian PM Narendra Modi’s First Summit With Donald Trump

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The Pulse

6 Major Takeaways From Indian PM Narendra Modi’s First Summit With Donald Trump

U.S.-India ties maintain their trajectory and momentum for now.

6 Major Takeaways From Indian PM Narendra Modi’s First Summit With Donald Trump
Credit: Twitter via @MEAIndia

On Monday, U.S. President Donald J. Trump hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders in Washington, DC. This was Modi’s fifth visit to the United States since becoming prime minister, but the first encountering a president who didn’t necessarily share his two immediate predecessors’ positive predispositions toward India.

Though Modi had arrived in the U.S. on Saturday, he spent Sunday in meetings with members of the U.S. business community and the Indian diaspora, leaving a quick and workmanlike set of meetings in Washington with senior officials and Trump for Monday. In addition to spending time with Trump, Modi met Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

As I wrote in my preview of the visit, Modi’s overarching objective during this visit was to emphasize to Trump — the “America First” president — why India has mattered to the United States and why it should continue to matter. Expectations on major concrete deliverables out of the trip had been muted, with a few exceptions. For the Indian side, this meeting was largely about ensuring the sustainment of the positive momentum in ties that has been a standard feature of the bilateral relationship since Modi took office just more than three years ago. Establishing a positive working relationship between Modi and Trump would be an added bonus; the two leaders had to date spoken twice on the phone.

Keeping in line with practice in recent years, both sides released a joint statement, entitled “United States and India: Prosperity Through Partnership.” The document offers a granular readout of the major outcomes of the visit.

In what follows, I offer my thoughts on the joint statement following the first Modi-Trump summit along with analysis of their remarks in the White House Rose Garden on Monday evening.

1. Defense Dealing and ‘Major Defense Partner’ Crystallization

The U.S. Department of Defense released a short statement on the meeting between Mattis and Modi. Mattis, just weeks ago, had quoted the Indian prime minister verbatim at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier security forum, in Singapore on freedom of navigation. The Pentagon appeared to be one segment of the U.S. government where continuity regarding India’s role as a positive contributor to regional security carried over from the last administration.

Accordingly, on Monday, Pentagon chief spokesperson Dana W. White noted that Mattis “applauded India’s long-term efforts to promote stability in the Indian Ocean region.” Additionally, the statement added that both sides “pledged to continue the strong defense partnership between both nations and broaden military to military engagements.” The United States conferred “major defense partner” on India last year, giving it access to U.S. defense technology at effectively the same level as U.S. allies. The status is a bespoke designation for India, which continues to define its relationship with the U.S. as a strategic partnership and not an alliance. Neither side has any obligations to come to the other’s assistance in a conflict.

The leaders’ joint statement went into more detail on defense issues. Notably, the major expected deliverable — the sale of U.S. Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles to India — was announced and marked as a crystallization of the “major defense partner” status for India. “The United States has offered for India’s consideration the sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems, which would enhance India’s capabilities and promote shared security interests,” the statement noted.

2. The Rules-Based Order, Freedom of Navigation, and the Belt and Road

The joint statement also continued last year’s tradition of mentioning joint U.S.-India support for “freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce throughout the region.” Though, like last year, no direct references to the South China Sea or China were included, they called on “all nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.”

In a tacit reference to China’s Belt and Road Initiative that followed, the statement noted that Modi and Trump “support bolstering regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment.” India has refused to participate in the initiative while the United States has noted the “importance of” the initiative.

3. ‘America First’ Rears Its Head

Later on Monday, Modi and Trump took to the White House Rose Garden to deliver prepared remarks about the content of their discussions earlier in the day. Notably, the statements were not followed by any questions from the press.

The Rose Garden statements and the joint statement are revealing of the state of U.S.-India ties today. Though Trump began his remarks with a recognition of India as the “world’s largest democracy” and highlighted his campaign-era promises that India “would have a true friend in the White House” were he elected, he quickly moved to the topic of India’s trade deficit with the United States. “It is important that barriers be removed to the export of U.S. goods into your markets, and that we reduce our trade deficit with your country,” Trump said.

As I’d noted over the weekend, the focus on deficits is not surprising and Modi is far from the first leader to receive this treatment. Trump’s elevation of the issue — which appeared near the start of his remarks, before any other regional or global issues — was reciprocated by Modi too. Modi, after highlighting the state of U.S-India relations, noted that “I am very clear about the fact that India’s interests lie in a strong, and prosperous, and successful America” — a tacit endorsement of the “America First” credo.

He went on to highlight that “the development of trade, commerce, and investment links” between the U.S. and India would become a priority. Looking back at Modi’s remarks at 2015 and 2016 joint remarks by former U.S. President Barack Obama, this was a noticeably different approach by the Indian prime minister.

Modi, it appeared, had seen the fate to befall other world leaders, ranging from U.S. allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel to partners like Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, both of whom were berated for trade deficits. If Modi’s public remarks were any indication, he likely managed the issue of India’s trade deficit successfully in one-on-one talks with Trump.

Trump highlighted specific economic initiatives in his remarks as well. He expressed his pleasure at a “recent order of 100 new American planes” by Indian carrier Spice Jet and highlighted ongoing negotiations for a deal with India for the sale of U.S. natural gas. (Trump couldn’t resist but ad-libbing that he was “trying to get the price up a little bit.”) Finally, he added that his daughter, Ivanka Trump, would be leading a “U.S. delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India this fall.”

The joint statement devotes considerable attention to the issue of “free and fair trade.” It is mentioned at the onset as a common objective for the relationship and receives about one-third of the total word count. It notes that Modi and Trump “called on their teams to find creative ways to improve bilateral trade.” Despite this unmistakably Trumpian touch on the U.S.-India joint statement, concern about India’s trade deficit did not bog down the rest of the agenda or the summit itself.

4. Strategic Continuity for the Strategic Partnership

Despite the early emphasis by both leaders on economic matters, the more strategic aspects of the — well — strategic partnership they claim to enjoy wasn’t left out this year. Trump concluded his Rose Garden speech with a discussion of the “security partnership” between the two countries, which he described as “incredibly important.” Modi too focused extensively on security issues. The joint statement made clear that both leaders had held substantive discussions on regional and global questions.

Terrorism and Pakistan

In what will no doubt be seen as a major victory for Modi domestically in India, Trump took on the issue of terrorism head-on, highlighting that the U.S. and India would “destroy radical Islamic terrorism” (though he did not mention Pakistan by name). The joint statement devoted considerable attention to the issue of terrorism, with the notable new announcement of “a new consultation mechanism on domestic and international terrorist designations listing proposals.”

The language in the joint statement on Pakistan’s culpability for the use of its territory by militant groups and terrorist was characteristically sharp:

The leaders called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. They further called on Pakistan to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups.

Maritime and Military-to-Military Cooperation

In his remarks, Trump went on to add that military cooperation was expanding. Interestingly, he noted that the 2017 iteration of the trilateral U.S.-India-Japan MALABAR naval exercise would be the “largest maritime exercise ever conducted in the vast Indian Ocean.” (Shashank Joshi observes that this year’s MALABAR iteration would be unlikely to top TROPEX 2017, which involved  more than 60 ships and five submarines in the Indian Ocean.)

Notably, despite all the attention given in the Indian press before the summit to possible defense deals, Modi was the only one to mention defense technology at the Rose Garden. He noted that he and Trump had discussed the issue and referenced a “manufacturing partnership” that would be “mutually beneficial.” Neither leader mentioned the Sea Guardian UAV sale in their prepared remarks.

“The strengthening of India’s defense capabilities, with the help of USA, is something that we truly appreciate,” Modi nevertheless noted.


The Afghanistan issue, notably, made an appearance in both leaders’ remarks. “I also thank the Indian people for their contributions to the effort in Afghanistan,” Trump noted. The joint statement offered a more detailed look at how both sides see the issue:

The increasing instability, due to terrorism, in Afghanistan is one of our common concerns.  Both India and America have played an important role in rebuilding Afghanistan and ensuring its security.  In order to attain our objectives for peace and stability in Afghanistan, we will maintain close consultation and communication with the U.S. to enhance coordination between our two nations.

North Korea

Additionally, in a demonstration that Trump and Modi managed to keep the U.S.-India momentum on regional and global issues going during their first meeting, North Korea came up as well. Trump thanked India for “joining us in applying new sanctions against the North Korean regime.” This appeared to be an acknowledgement of India’s decision in May to suspend most types of trade with the Pyongyang regime.

The joint statement included an entire paragraph on North Korea — a sharp difference from last year’s statement:

The leaders strongly condemned continued provocations by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), emphasizing that its destabilizing pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile programs poses a grave threat to regional security and global peace. The leaders called on DPRK to strictly abide by its international obligations and commitments. The leaders pledged to work together to counter the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction programs, including by holding accountable all parties that support these programs. 

The Indian move will no doubt be seen as an important success for the Trump administration’s policy of applying “maximum pressure” on the Pyongyang regime. India is one of North Korea’s most significant trading partners; in 2015, it was Pyongyang’s second largest export destination after China. In 2015-2016, India imported $88 million in goods from North Korea while exported $111 million.

5. The Missing Issue of Climate Change

Modi’s remarks additionally were notable for what they omitted this year, too. Climate change and climate justice issues were, unsurprisingly, not present given Trump’s unilateral decision in late-May to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. If one of the goals for the summit on the Indian side was to avoid even the slightest appearance of friction between Trump and Modi, omitting any mention of climate made sense. (Modi, somewhat defiantly, had said India would go “above and beyond” the accord following Trump’s announcement.)

The joint statement noted too that Modi and Trump “called for a rational approach that balances environment and climate policy, global economic development, and energy security needs.” The formulation appears sufficiently noncommittal to neither pull India away from its existing commitments under the Paris agreement nor to recommit Trump to any about face on climate change.

6. India’s Global Governance and Institutional Aspirations

Beyond climate, Modi did not reference by name India’s aspirations for membership on the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member or the Nuclear Suppliers Group; instead, he noted that India was “extremely grateful for the continued support of the United States for India’s membership of international institutions and regimes,” which was “in the interest of both our nations.”

The joint statement addressed New Delhi’s interest in these institutions and regimes in more granular terms, referencing aspirations for India’s “early membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group,” in addition to the UN Security Council. This year’s statement made no mention of U.S. support for India’s inclusion in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.


Reading the Rose Garden transcripts, it stands out that Modi’s remarks kept coming back to the question of why the U.S.-India relationship matters. At one point, he remarked that the two sides were not “partners by chance,” but “partners in dealing with current and future challenges that we may be faced with.” He concluded: “Be assured that in this joint journey of our two nations towards development, growth and prosperity, I will remain a driven, determined, and decisive partner.”

By most measures, this first Trump-Modi summit was ultimately a rather unremarkable moment in U.S.-India relations in terms of what it accomplished, but given the uncertainties that had vexed so many in New Delhi following Trump’s inauguration, there will no doubt be sighs of relief that the broader trajectory of the bilateral relationship remains set and positive. In this sense, Modi has already succeeded in making sure that this ship stayed its course.

The conclusion of the Guardian UAV sale — a development that saw its genesis in the Obama administration’s final year — does speak to the extent to which this relationship has been deeply institutionalized and bureaucratized. Moreover, the continuity across the Obama and Trump administrations on a range of global questions additionally speaks to the maturity of the U.S.-India bilateral, which, broadly speaking, remains stable.

As the statements by both leaders and the joint statement make clear, the “strategic partnership” remains broad enough to cover the issues that had appeared previously — with the notable omission of climate change. For now, proponents of a strong U.S.-India relationship on both sides can rest easy given the admittedly low expectations that were set up going into this meeting. However, as Modi emphasized, the relationship does have a future ahead of it that won’t be free of challenges. From India’s concerns about Pakistan and terrorism to the Trump administration’s trade-deficit-obsessed “America First” agenda, there’ll be plenty of work ahead to keep this ship steady.