News analysis

Trade expectations likely during Modi's US visit

Analysts say Indian leader will be hoping to push back against Trump's protectionism

WASHINGTON/NEW DELHI • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be looking to build rapport with US President Donald Trump, push back against US protectionism, and sell India as a stable trade and security partner on his two-day visit to Washington, said analysts.

The duo, who will meet for formal talks on June 26, have had three phone conversations but this will be their first face-to-face meeting.

Mr Modi is coming from a position of strength at home and a successful tour of Europe, while Mr Trump is somewhat embattled on the home front.

Their phone calls went well, noted Ms Nisha Biswal, who was assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs in the Obama administration. She is now with the consultancy Albright Stonebridge Group. "But I think there is a little bit of tension in the atmosphere, particularly of late, with the President taking a surprising swipe at India in justifying the decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which has taken the Indians by surprise."

Mr Trump had accused India of taking billions of dollars to sign the climate pact, a charge which India has dismissed as untrue.

The larger question, Ms Biswal said, was whether there would be mutual reassurance that American and Indian views on the Indo-Pacific region remain convergent.

Bilateral ties under previous US administrations had deepened on the back of mutual concerns about the rise of China, which have spurred greater military engagement and a promise to work closely in the Asia-Pacific.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just had a successful tour of Europe where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. Mr Modi will be hoping for a similar good outcome when he meets President Donald Trump in the US later this month. PHOTO: REUTERS

Yet Mr Trump has injected uncertainty with a greater outreach to China, while criticising Indian software firms for taking away American jobs.

The US' goods and services trade deficit with India, which was US$30.8 billion (S$42.3 billion) last year, has also come up for scrutiny.

Indian analysts said Mr Modi - who has made deepening ties with the US a priority - has his job cut out.

"There are many contentious issues like Trump's assumptions about IT companies taking away jobs,'' said Mr Naresh Chandra, a former bureaucrat and Indian ambassador to the US. "But at the same time, there is alignment of interest in terrorism," he added.

Bilateral cooperation in defence is "reasonably good" and "what we have heard from the US on defence has been encouraging", he said.

India would like the US to boost its troop presence in Afghanistan, where Taleban forces have struck the Afghan army with increasing effectiveness. Indian security analysts and officials often stress that the Taleban has a safe haven in Pakistan - which they maintain is a source of cross-border terrorism in India.

India hopes Mr Trump will have more sympathy for their concerns, analysts said.

In the build-up to the visit, both governments have expressed optimism about India-US ties.

India's Ministry of External Affairs, in a statement, said the visit would "provide a new direction for deeper bilateral engagement" .

The White House said the meeting would advance common priorities such as fighting terrorism and security cooperation.

But analysts warn against unrealistic expectations.

"We shouldn't overstate the significance of this meeting," said Mr Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington. "I see it mainly as a getting-to-know-each-other moment for both leaders, and... the tone of the discussion will be more exploratory than deal-focused," Mr Kugelman added.

Professor Mohammed Badrul Alam of Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi said: "Trump is so unpredictable. So it is good for Modi to get to know him better and develop a personal rapport."

One way for the two countries to move forward, said Carnegie India director C. Raja Mohan, was to focus on areas of convergence. "There is a need to look at areas of economic convergence and consolidate what is going on in defence cooperation. Mr Modi will have to highlight that there is value in economic cooperation with India," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2017, with the headline 'Trade expectations likely during Modi's US visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe