The Straits Times says

Holding steady on US-India ties

Quite visibly, Mr Narendra Modi did not travel to his first summit meeting with President Donald Trump with the same elan as in his previous journeys to America as India's prime minister. Though they share several things in common, including a Twitter following in excess of 30 million, Mr Trump remains unpredictable, even for Americans. So, while the two have held three telephone conversations so far, the Indians seem to have taken their time to fix a meeting, unlike Japan, China and Britain whose leaders were faster to get onside with the real estate tycoon. It also didn't escape notice that expectations were dialled down ahead of the visit. Diplomatically, Mr Modi later described the trip as "very successful, very fruitful".

Mr Modi showed up at Mr Trump's door at a time when the US leader's early warmth towards China had changed to impatience, brought on by Beijing's inability to control the North Korean regime as well as diverging outlooks on the Middle East situation. Mr Trump had sweetened the arrival with a tweet welcoming a "true friend". For good measure, he had also labelled the Pakistan-based Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin, whose outfit has killed dozens of Indian troops, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. In addition, observers noted that Mr Trump, a germophobe, accepted two physical embraces from his guest, both initiated by Mr Modi.

The joint statement at the end of the visit had brevity at its soul, being less than half the length of recent ones. Its notable elements include a strengthened partnership to act as "responsible stewards" of the Indo-Pacific region, closer coordination in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and strong language on Pakistan for its alleged tolerance of militant groups on its soil.

It also was agreed that the US would offer India, which already operates front-line Poseidon P8-i maritime reconnaissance planes, its Sea Guardian drones. These are in addition to the Predator drones previously cleared for sale. Predictably, this has upset Islamabad, but China seems less wary over the joint statement, possibly because there was no mention of the South China Sea or of ensuring freedom of navigation in those waters.

Strengthened ties between the world's biggest democracies, which have progressed steadily under successive presidencies, bode well for Asian security. New Delhi's challenge is to develop this relationship without dropping its established record of being a centrist power. India is too large a nation to be anyone's camp follower.

At the same time, for Asia to fulfil its destiny, it is important that its two tectonic plates - China and India - are able to work on a mutually enhancing relationship, and not trigger insecurity in the other when one of them collaborates with the US. All help is welcome to underwrite regional peace.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2017, with the headline 'Holding steady on US-India ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe