Modi and Trump Meeting Will Set the Tone for US-India Relations


Modi and Trump Meeting Will Set the Tone for US-India Relations

Jun 23rd, 2017 6 min read
Walter Lohman

Director, Asian Studies Center

As Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, Walter Lohman oversees the think tank’s oldest research center.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the wedding reception of Ishani Sharma and Sachin Sharma, on June 20, 2017 in New Delhi, India. Hindustan Times/Newscom

Key Takeaways

On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Washington, D.C. to meet President Donald Trump face-to-face for the first time.

Positive US-India relations are essential to America servicing its interests abroad.

Mondays meeting will be an indicator of US-India relations potential and focus going forward. 

On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Washington, D.C. to meet President Donald Trump face-to-face for the first time. While one cannot expect too much in terms of “deliverables,” there are specific things that should be discussed by the leaders, if not for any other reason than to establish a sense of direction and priority in the relationship. US-India relations have been on a relatively positive trajectory through the last three American administrations. This meeting will point to its potential and focus going forward. 


Washington’s outreach to India has been facilitated by a geopolitical calculation that a strong India is good for regional stability, and therefore, good for U.S. global interests. The perfect case in point is the 2008 US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. Business opportunity may have been an important engine behind its approval by Congress, but this was secondary to the Bush administrations’ interest in bringing India into the global nuclear regulatory regime. It is unclear whether President Trump will make the same calculation. Will he be as patient as the previous administration on issues like the lack of actual American access to India’s nuclear sector or on his own trade priorities in exchange for a geopolitically favorable environment? With US-China relations in an upswing since the Trump-Xi summit in April, does President Trump recognize the stabilizing effect a strong India can have on geopolitical picture dominated by China’s rise as a major power? The answer to the latter will go a long way to determining India’s enthusiasm for close US-India relations as New Delhi is always suspicious that an overly close US-China relationship will slight their own interests in relations with the U.S. 

Quadrilateral Dialogue

A good indicator for how both sides see the geopolitical value of their relationship is the extent to which they are able to talk about expanding it in explicit ways. Back in 2007, officials from the foreign affairs ministries of the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia formally met at an assistant secretary level to compare notes on the common challenges they face in the Indo-Pacific. Largely due to complaints from China that the effort amounted to “containment,” the initiative was dropped. Trump and Modi should revive the idea in their conversation. The four countries are already engaged in various trilateral discussions. A quad would be both more efficient and comprehensive way of addressing common interests across the Indo-Pacific. Ways can be found to assuage Chinese concerns, albeit never completely. But a failure to even discuss the idea would be an indication from both sides that Chinese sensitivities over form trump the need for substantive coordination. This would bode very ill for the future geopolitical balance.

Trade, Investment, and Labor Mobility 

The trade debate in Washington has taken a decidedly protectionist turn since the start of the year. The administration is divided internally, and free traders in Congress are largely in hiding. But there are several looming deadlines that will provide clarity on Washington’s policy. The outcomes of several pending actions could result in action adverse to American interests–and that of its partners–in the free flow of trade and investment. Among these are a report on redressing trade deficits with 16 priority countries, including India; a report from federal agencies on ways to promote “buy America(n)” policies; recommendations for an overhaul of the granting of H1-B visas for high-skilled workers; and determinations on the national security impact of steel and aluminum imports, as well as potentially other sectors including vehicles, aircraft, shipbuilding and semiconductors.

There are also market access issues on the Indian side. On Wednesday of this week, United States Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Robert Lighthizer identified intellectual property rights and “pricing on pharmaceuticals and medical devices” and an unspecified list of other “irritants” that he hopes will be discussed in the meeting between Trump and Modi. USTR’s annual trade estimates report contains a detailed list of what these issues may be. There is very little doubt that President Trump will bring up the topic of India’s trade deficit in his conversation with Prime Minister Modi. The question is which issues among those USTR and American business have identified will the administration highlight in order to promote and support more American exports. 

There are positive initiatives that could be tabled. India has an interest in joining the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). President Trump has indicated his intention to attend the APEC leaders summit this fall in Vietnam. He should offer to carry with him a proposal to admit India. If observers are looking for concrete indicators of American interest in US-India relations, this would be an ideal one. Commitment to reaching a Bilateral Investment Treaty would be another. And at any rate, the two sides should commit to continuing strategic and economic dialogue at least at the level it was carried out by the previous American administration. Especially given the array of such mechanism in US-China relations, any diminution would be keenly felt in New Delhi.   

Afghanistan-Pakistan and Counterterrorism 

The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years. From an American perspective, this is a very long time. But Afghanistan is in India’s neighborhood, and shares a border with its subcontinent rival, Pakistan. So of course, it is intensely interested in what goes on there. A new American Afghanistan strategy, now expected in mid-July, has been pending for months. President Trump’s delegation of authority to Secretary of Defense James Mattis to set troop levels was a welcome development as that is likely to shade decision making in favor of the commanders on the ground. However, Prime Minister Modi will be interested to get from President Trump a clear signal as to what exactly American staying power is likely to be going forward. He will also be interested to get a feel for how US-Pakistan relations are developing. Is the U.S. willing to lay more on the line in its relationship with Pakistan–assistance and cooperation–in an effort to break the pact with the devil Pakistan has made with terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan? 

More direct to India’s concerns, how far is the Trump administration willing to go to deal with Pakistan-supported terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba which may have as their principal targets India, but are parts of larger global terrorist networks that could threaten the U.S. President Trump has elevated counterterrorism cooperation’s place in U.S. foreign and security policy. For India, this is tied up in its relationship with Pakistan. American business as usual with Pakistan would be a clear indication to New Delhi that the U.S. does not take seriously its specific concerns in the global struggle against terrorism.     

Cyber Security Cooperation 

Stemming the threat of malicious cyber activity from state and non-state actors is a priority the U.S. shares with many countries in the world. It is a particularly promising area of cooperation in its relationship with India. In 2014, The Heritage Foundation and a New Delhi–based think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) produced a research study titled “Indo-U.S. Cooperation on Internet Governance and Cyber Security,” which made the case that India and the U.S. build a foundation of mutual trust and cooperation in the cyber field. There is a great deal that the U.S. and India can do together to address this challenge, from  internationalizing the SAFETY Act to encouraging the creation of cyber supply chain security ratings and promoting the development of a viable cybersecurity insurance system. A head nod from the two leaders would provide the relevant agencies the room to move forward and help plant US-India relations firmly in the future.  

Defense Cooperation

This has been one of the fastest growing parts of the relationship. Over the last decade, India has purchased approximately $14 billion in U.S. military equipment, including C-130J, C-17 transport aircraft and P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft. They are moving toward deeper defense industrial cooperation under the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), and the U.S. has designated India a “major defense partner,” a designation unique to India that is intended ease its access to American defense technology that the Trump administration already appears intent to continue. The countries two militaries co-operate extensively, most prominently, in the annual Malabar naval exercises, which includes Japan’s Self Defense Forces.  Trump and Modi can give an indication how much farther this sort of cooperation will go. Front and center in this regard is India’s continuing need for new advanced fighter aircraft. American companies have offered bold ways to compete for this, including locating production lines in India. The political/security benefits of this level of industrial cooperation are clear if one buys the basic geopolitical proposition discussed above. The economic benefits, however, require a broad appreciation for global supply chains and the positive impact that production in India can have on subcontrators at home. That benefit is certainly reduced if the contract goes to an American competitor. Trump’s meeting with Modi may help us understand whether he can see these benefits of American defense investment abroad.   


Positive US-India relations are essential to America servicing its interests abroad. Similarly, India has found a growing relationship with the U.S. in its interest. The question at stake when Trump and Modi meet next week is how well they understand that, and if they do understand it, what shape will their leadership impart to the US-India partnership going forward.