Trump and Modi Have Opportunity to Take the Bilateral Relationship to New Heights

Anubhav Gupta, Assistant Director, Asia Society Policy Institute

The visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi couldn’t come at a more opportune time. President Trump badly needs both an opportunity to bolster his presidency and a clear achievement to add to his win column. In India, Trump has a natural partner, and in Modi, he has a leader he can truly work with.

Modi recently completed a very successful trip to Europe, visiting Spain, France, Germany, and Russia. His visit garnered positive press as he showcased an India that was open for business, ready to take on greater global responsibilities, and embrace its European partners. Trump and Modi have an opportunity to craft a similarly lauded and productive visit.

Trump and Modi will use this first visit to build trust and get to know one another. They can begin on the right foot by communicating their desire to advance the relationship to new heights. Modi, who has steadily moved India closer to the United States in his three years in office, is well positioned to take the relationship further after consolidating political power in India through big victories in recent state elections in India. He is strongly situated to win re-election in 2019, and therefore, shape India’s path over the coming years. The United States should take advantage of his good standing.

The visit’s success will depend on whether the Trump Administration has been able to focus enough of its attention on Indiato decide whether and how it will seek an upgrade in the relationship. It will also depend on whether the White House can reassure India about some of its major concerns.

Modi is sure to bring up South Asian stability, in particular U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Administration’s recent decision to let the Defense Department determine troop levels in Afghanistan could result in a short term influx of U.S. troops there, which India might welcome. However, India will look for reassurance that the Administration is committed for the longer term in Afghanistan and has a true interest in and strategy for maintaining stability. Modi will also push the Administration for a more stern U.S. policy toward Pakistan, which continues to support militancy in Afghanistan and India. Support on these two fronts would reassure India greatly.

The two leaders should ensure that legitimate disagreements on certain issues, including worker visas and intellectual property rights, do not hold the relationship back. There is strong bi-partisan support in the U.S. Congress for a closer partnership with India. India’s fast growing and increasingly more open economy are huge opportunities for the United States. Additionally, India can serve as a vital partner for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. For all of these reasons, pursuing stronger ties with India would be a clear win for the Trump Administration.

Some areas of cooperation are clear. The countries should continue building on their defense relationship and should seek ways to enhance counterterrorism cooperation, especially as this is a major focus for the Trump Administration. On the strategic front, the United States should encourage India to enhance its engagement in the Asia-Pacific. Trump can help facilitate this by telling Modi that the U.S. will finally support India’s membership for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Finally, the two leaders can commit to strengthening economic ties by agreeing to a genuine dialogue on enhancing trade or negotiating a bilateral investment treaty.

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