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Indian PM Modi arrives in the US

Murali Krishnan
June 25, 2017

Indian PM Narendra Modi has arrived in Washington for his first official meeting with US President Donald Trump. The two leaders seek to build on growing ties and move beyond disagreements over the Paris climate pact.

Indien Premierminister Shri Narendra Modi
Image: PIB Govt. of India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Washington D.C. on Sunday carrying a long list of problems affecting US-Indian relations, but analysts say the Indian premier will need to first strike a personal rapport with US President Donald Trump. 

Expanding ties depends on dispelling some of the concerns that have emerged about a drift in relations. 

Partnership between the two countries strengthened under the administration of former US President Barack Obama, but since taking office, President Trump's sharp rhetoric has created uncertainty about the status of key bilateral issues. 

"The two leaders have spoken over phone three times. We have to observe the body chemistry of the two and how they plan to take the relationship further," G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian diplomat, told DW. "This will be more than just a familiarization visit. Strategic aspirations of bilateral relations will be discussed," he added. 

After the US pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump accused India of trying to extract "billions and billions" of dollars in foreign aid in exchange for signing the accord.

Bild-Kombi Modi Trump
It remains to be seen whether India is on the Trump administration's priority list

There is also the controversy over US H1-B skilled worker visas, which Trump has said he would review under an executive order called "Buy American, hire American." According to the US Department of State, the vast majority of H1-B applicants in 2016 came from India.

Read: For India's extremist Hindus, Trump is a hero

Dealing with 'America first' 

"What Modi will confront on his US visit is Trump's 'America first' doctrine in action," Bharat Karnad, a research professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, told DW. "But Modi can leverage this visit by allowing the US to access the vast Indian market."

Trump has been outspoken about the US losing out on bilateral trade deficits. The US trade deficit with India is among those Trump has tasked the US Commerce Department to investigate and recommend corrective policy.

India-US trade ballooned from $19 billion (17 billion euros) in 2000 to $115 billion (102 billion euros) in 2016, but India enjoys a trade surplus and figures in Trump's "black list."

A far greater concern for the Indian IT industry is the H1-B visa program that brings high-skilled foreign workers to the US. Trump's review of the program threatens Indian firms such as Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, which advise large companies on tech issues and carry out a range of tasks for them, relying heavily on the visa program. 

But it is still unclear if Modi, during his meeting with Trump, will bring up this vexing issue that is agitating captains of India's booming IT industry. 

"The IT industry has been key to American corporate innovation and competitiveness, and a majority of the top 500 US companies use Indian IT services. The time to talk is now," R. Chandrashekhar, president of Nasscom, the Indian IT industry's trade body, said in a recent interview. 

Defense deals cleared for takeoff 

President Trump cleared Saturday the sale of 22 unarmed "Guardian" drones worth more the $2 billion (1.8 billion euros) to India. The Indian Navy said the drones would help monitor the Indian coastline and the Indian Ocean, which is more frequently being patrolled by the Chinese Navy.  

Defense deals are a major area of bipartisan cooperation between the US and India. According to the Reuters news agency, Vivek Lal, the chief executive of global strategic development at General Atomics, which produces the drones, is expected to attend a roundtable meeting with Modi on Sunday.

Additionally, the American aerospace company Lockheed Martin and India's Tata Advanced Systems Limited, signed an agreement to produce the F-16 Block 70 fighter jet aircraft in India.

Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, will also meet Modi. According to Reuters, the Lockheed deal would be the biggest defense deal between the US and India since bilateral defense ties were scaled up more than 10 years ago.

Climate change concerns

On the issue of climate change, US withdrawal has weakened the Paris Agreement. Prime Minister Modi is expected to raise the issue in civil society meetings or in meetings with US CEOs and individual lawmakers.

Afghanistan U S Air Force F 16 Kampfjet
Lockheed Martin will soon produce F-16 fighter jets in India Image: Imago/StockTrek Images

"The positions are well-known. It is a conflict area. It will make sense if Modi raises the issue in outside forums," Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi, told DW.

"He should emphasize that India is slowly getting into renewable energies and technology transfer is important," added the expert.

Maintaining diplomatic posture 

Despite talk of an ever closer relationship between the two countries, it remains to be seen whether India is on the Trump administration's priority list. Modi's only agenda for now seems to be trying to play a constructive role in reaffirming their shared interests, values and goals.

According to a statement from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the discussions will provide a "new direction for deeper bilateral engagement" and "consolidation of a multidimensional strategic partnership" between India and the US.  

The White House said the leaders can be expected to set forth a "common vision" for expanding the US-India "partnership" in an "ambitious and worthy way."

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that President Trump was looking forward to advancing "common priorities" like fighting terrorism, promoting economic growth and expanding security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region." 

This inaugural meeting between the two leaders will test the waters, but Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University told DW that given the "inward-looking policies" of the Trump administration reflected in the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate deal, Modi's visit would "likely include specific bilateral issues," adding that "larger strategic issues would possibly not appear in the public domain."

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