Wall Street Journal
By Michael C. Bender, William Mauldin and Niharika Mandhana
June 24, 2017
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the White House on Monday for his first meeting with President Donald Trump, a principle that has long underpinned relations will be at stake: that supporting the growth of a strong India is in America’s national interest.
Mr. Trump will use the talks to “really expand his knowledge base about India and understand the importance of the Indian relationship,” a senior White House official said. The Trump administration, the official said, will “roll out the red carpet” for Mr. Modi, setting an upbeat tone for the meeting.
But differences over immigration, trade and climate—topics that animated Mr. Trump’s “America First” slogan—have the potential to strain relations that have been prone to rough patches. If Mr. Trump takes a more transactional stance than his predecessors, ties could hinge on India’s ability to create American jobs or contribute more to maritime security.
Since the final years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, U.S. leaders have chipped away at the history of distrust with India, which leaned toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. President George W. Bush broke down barriers by championing a 2008 landmark nuclear agreement with New Delhi. President Barack Obama called the U.S.-India relationship “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century” and strategic and defense cooperation between the countries grew under him, fueled by a shared wariness of China.
Mr. Trump, in a post-inauguration phone call with Mr. Modi in January, called India a “true friend,” the White House said at the time. He sees India as a critical partner for stability in the Asia Pacific, a region being reshaped by China’s rise, and for economic growth, the White House official said.
Indian officials said the meeting would be an opportunity for the leaders to get to know each other. Both have promised economic programs rooted in increasing manufacturing in their countries, and have ridden waves of nationalistic sentiment to shake up politics at home.
“A lot depends on what sort of rapport they strike,” said Harsh Pant, head of strategic studies at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation. “If they don’t [develop an understanding], irritants that were pushed aside in recent years could just as easily resurface and overwhelm the relationship.”
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump assailed the skilled-worker visa program used by hundreds of thousands of Indians employed in the U.S. In office, he has ordered a review, saying the so-called H-1B visas should only be granted to the “most-skilled and the highest-paid” applicants to avoid crowding out American workers.
Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in March said H-1B visas help the U.S. economy to be more competitive and that India had conveyed its views on the subject to the Trump administration.
The White House official said there was no plan to discuss the visas during Mr. Modi’s visit, but that issues relating to climate change may arise. Mr. Modi backs the Paris climate agreement Mr. Trump is withdrawing from. Earlier this month, Mr. Trump said India made its participation in the deal contingent on receiving billions of dollars from developed nations, something New Delhi refuted.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Wednesday that officials were working with Indian counterparts to address U.S. concerns about India’s intellectual property standards and barriers to foreign direct investment.
“We’re hoping that we end up with deliverables,” he told the Senate Finance Committee.
Monday’s talks will have a particular focus on regional security and defense collaboration, Indian officials said. These were engines of growth under Mr. Obama as New Delhi emerged as a leading buyer of U.S. arms, and China began altering the balance of power in Asia. Although India remains opposed to a formal security alliance with the U.S., Mr. Modi, who built a personal rapport with Mr. Obama, embraced Washington more than Indian leaders before him.
Trump administration officials said they support this burgeoning partnership. “The U.S. is interested in leaning forward in providing high technology, the kind of technology that the U.S. provides to its closest allies and partners,” the White House official said.
The U.S. is working on a plan to approve India’s purchase of unarmed MQ-9 maritime surveillance drones for the visit, people familiar with the matter said. India has sought the equipment, which is made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., for use by its Navy.
Among other deals up for discussion is Lockheed Martin Corp.’s proposal to move its F-16 aircraft production line to India as part of Mr. Modi’s “Make in India” program if it wins a contract to supply the jet fighters to India’s air force.
Lockheed’s U.S. line is switching over to building more-advanced F-35 aircraft. A Lockheed official said the company has briefed the Trump administration on its proposals.
“F-16 production in India supports thousands of Lockheed Martin and F-16 supplier jobs in the U.S. and creates new jobs and other opportunities in India,” the official said. The aircraft faces competition from Swedish defense company Saab AB.
Increasing collaboration on energy projects in India is also expected to be on the agenda.
Mr. Trump is no stranger to India. The Trump Organization has brand-licensing deals involving Indian real-estate development projects.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do with India,” said Rep. Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat on the House committee that oversees trade. “I do say his investments cast a cloud over anything he does on trade.”
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Trump has said his companies wouldn’t do new business deals overseas while he is president. He has handed operations of his business assets to his sons and another executive and said he wouldn’t be involved in them, though he still receives the financial benefit of these arrangements.
Mr. Modi’s visit comes amid concerns that an inward-looking U.S. is retreating from its global leadership role, ceding space to China. India wants to forestall a unipolar Asia, as it faces territorial disputes with Beijing, China’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean and its support for India’s rival neighbor Pakistan.
India will look to enlist Mr. Trump in its international campaign to put pressure on Pakistan to stop using what New Delhi calls terrorist proxies or allow terrorists to use its soil to attack India, an Indian official said. Pakistan denies it supports anti-India terrorists.
“There are big questions over Trump’s strategic vision for Asia,” said Mr. Pant. “The future of U.S.-India ties rests on how the answers evolve.”
—Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this article.
Write to Niharika Mandhana at firstname.lastname@example.org, Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com and William Mauldin at email@example.com
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