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'The first hint Trump will be tough on Pakistan'

Last updated on: June 30, 2017 16:13 IST

'In the past the US has been reluctant to name Pakistan directly in an US-India joint statement.'
'Whether the United States is actually prepared to put real pressure on Pakistan, especially after a future terrorist attack in India, likely originating from Pakistan, we will only know when we see it.'

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the White House, June 26, 2017. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the White House, June 26, 2017. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Marshall Bouton has followed the US-India relationship, and at times helped shape it, for 53 years.

Currently the Senior Fellow at University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Advanced Study of India, Dr Bouton is President Emeritus, Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Dr Bouton -- who served as assistant to the Vengurla, Maharashtra-born US ambassador to India Robert Goheen from 1977 to 1980 -- discusses the Narendra Modi-Donald Trump summit with Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

You have closely watched, and also participated, in the growth of the US-India relationship for decades. What are your impressions of what transpired at this summit?

My overall impression is largely of continuity -- which given the tectonic changes occurring in this country (the US) and in US foreign policy around most of the world -- is actually quite remarkable.

A lot of the communiqué could have been written during the Obama administration or even the Bush administration, with just the details somewhat different.

I am happy seeing that the emphasis has been very heavily on the strategic partnership.

Elsewhere in the communiqué, it is called the close partnership. But they've stuck overall to the lingo of a strategic partnership, emphasising the shared interest in a stable and prosperous Asia, which has been the strongest part of the relationship for the last 15 years.

Economic and commercial ties have been the weaker leg of the relationship.

Nothing in the communiqué suggests to me that will change any time soon. Rather it may still be weakened further.

But, properly, the emphasis or focus, is on the shared interest in Asia, on cooperation on terrorism and in the defence sector.

There are a number of places, where the shared concerns about Chinese behaviour in the region is alluded to, without mentioning China by name, by, for instance, the references to 'freedom of navigation' and 'respect for other nations' sovereignty.'

The two leaders call upon other countries to observe these same principles.

This is not unusual language. But the fact that it is here is important.

It appears to me that Prime Minister Modi has gone along with the preference of the Trump administration to focus on bilateral cooperation.

There's a lot that needs to be done for the bilateral economic relationship. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It could be problematic in dealing with trade issues.

There are no sharp edges in any section of the economic partnership.

Soft edges diplomatically smoothed over, perhaps. That's my overall take.

So basically you held your breath before the summit, but were then quite happy to see, post summit, that continuity was the main message?

Yes, continuity is the message. Continuity, frankly, with the last two administrations' approaches.

Given Trump's departures from precedent on so many other fronts, that's quite remarkable.

But you held your breath?

I was not seriously holding my breath because I think there is a lot that the two countries can work on, without necessarily getting into difficult territory.

I recognise that immigration issues could have been problematic, in particular the question of H1-B visas for Indian IT workers and the potential effect on the profitability of Indian companies.

But I never thought that Modi would hold the rest of the relationship hostage to India's position on the H1-B issue.

My guess is that whatever the Trump administration eventually decides in relation to H1-Bs, in the end they will, somewhat, take into account India's concerns.

The more serious question is trade.

There is quite a bit of language in the communiqué about finding ways to improve the bilateral trade relationship.

That's going to be a lot harder done, than said.

The Indian trade surplus with the US is miniscule compared to China's or Japan's trade surplus. So we'll see.

Frankly, it is in India's interest to liberalise its trade policies and allow greater access for US and other foreign products and services.

Do you think Donald Trump and Narendra Modi hit it off on a personal basis?

Yes. That's hard to read.

Positives here are the absence of the negatives.

It wasn't the kind of meeting like Trump had with (Angela) Merkel, where they were visibly upset with each other, where he refused to shake her hand -- that was one of the worst meetings yet.

It didn't have the same tensions as the awful relationship with European leaders, so evident at the NATO and EU meetings.

Everybody is emphasising the bear hugs. It appears it was the prime minister's initiative. While the President reciprocated, to me he looked visibly uncomfortable.

The fact that they spent four hours together and issued a pretty upbeat statement is most important, of course, perhaps as good a result as you can expect from a first meeting between these two leaders.

Do you see personality similarities between Trump and Modi?

Yes, sure, there are similarities.

They are both nationalists.

They are both men with a very personal leadership style.

They both are pro-business in their orientation and experience.

They are both first and foremost about their own nation's interest.

I recently wrote that Trump's America First is matched by Modi's India First.

If and when difficulties arise in the relationship, they are likely to lie more in the policy inconsistencies of the Trump administration.

Will economic differences eventually trump -- forgive the pun -- cooperation on security and other issues, which are frankly the more important issues in the relationship with India?

That appears not to have happened yet. Rather both leaders have chosen to accentuate the positive.

IMAGE: Dr Marshall Bouton receives the Friend of India Award in 2014 from then Rediff-owned India Abroad.
The trophy was presented to him by Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, right, background.
Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/India Abroad

So the results of the summit were not historic. And fairly bland, right?

I wouldn't call it historic. But I wouldn't call it bland either.

This is a first meeting, so let's see what happens.

It seems the chemistry between the two men was on the whole positive. They managed to come out with a statement that largely is one of continuity.

Then we will wait and see. But it is a good start.

On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate this meeting and its outcome?

(Laughs heartily) Compared to what?

Just by itself.

Compared to what might have happened, and what has happened in US relations with a number of other countries over the last four months, I would give it, say, a seven or a six.

Compared to the past, compared to the Modi-Obama relationship I would give it a three or four.

Why?

Because (Barack) Obama and Modi did achieve a genuinely close equation and broke new ground in India-US relations, especially on climate issues.

They were both pursuing their own national interests, but some something clicked between them.

It would not be reasonable to have expected that kind of result for this first meeting.

It doesn't seem to me that the Modi-Trump encounter could be described as warm, although many of the sentiments expressed were warm.

You don't get the same feeling of the personal equation that developed between Modi and Obama.

Now that didn't happen overnight.

It started to happen in Washington in September 2014.

The Republic Day invitation and Republic Day visit by President Obama really cemented the relationship.

Do you think Trump rolled out the red carpet for Modi?

Well, the red carpet from the White House means a State dinner and all that sort of stuff. No, I don't think that was a red carpet.

But again I would not have expected the red carpet for this first meeting.

That's not a reasonable expectation?

No, it is not a reasonable expectation.

Do you think President Trump will come to India?

Yes, I do. I don't know when.

I thought he was very tickled with Modi's invitation to Ivanka.

I think a lot of leaders have figured out that to curry favour with this White House, they should engage Ivanka and Jared Kushner.

The prime minister decided he was going to do all he could reasonably do, to reach out to Trump and try to make this meeting work.

It seems to me that he has succeeded in that.

The communiqué reflects the willingness of India to put down on paper some things it might have been very reluctant to put down on paper earlier.

On the other hand, so was the Trump administration.

For instance, the sections dealing with Pakistan and terrorism were very strong.

It is good to put it down on paper and easy to put it down on paper, but...

Good question. The United States does not yet appear to have a strategic approach to South Asia.

We don't have a final decision on the troop levels in Afghanistan.

The decision was almost made about six weeks ago and pulled back at the last moment.

We haven't made clear what our approach to Pakistan will be.

This is the first hint that the administration will try to be tough on Pakistan on the terrorism issue.

In the past the US has been reluctant to name Pakistan directly in an US-India joint statement.

By comparison the communiqué does not name China in expressing concerns about freedom of navigation and respect for sovereignty, whereas the terrorism section of the communique singles out Pakistan repeatedly.

That's a good sign?

Well... yes, it is reality. Often diplomatic statements don't step up to realit,y but this one does.

Whether the United States is actually prepared to put real pressure on Pakistan, especially after a future terrorist attack in India, likely originating from Pakistan, we will only know when we see it.

Do you think Trump gives India the importance she deserves in his own scheme of things?

Yes. For all the reasons we just discussed.

First of all, it is important that this summit occurred as early as it has.

A couple of months ago the administration was letting it be known that there was no possibility of a summit before the fall.

Secondly the results, overall, have been reasonably positive ones.

At least not negative, when there were many issues in the relationship that could have made trouble.

Three, the emphasis seems to be in the communiqué is on the right things.

The emphasis is on US commitment to a partnership with India in Asia, on the defence relationship, and on cooperation on counter terrorism.

Most of the communiqué is given over to those subjects.

From India's point of view, what is the best that Trump can possibly offer, being Trump?

Being Trump, he is not going to lessen the pressure on trade issues.

That pressure will continue.

How far he is prepared to increase the pressure on India is another matter.

Practically, the administration is clearly prepared to move forward with a defence supply relationship.

There is an extensive discussion about that in the communiqué.

The question here is not whether there will be another big project in US-India relations.

Rather, the question is one of continued consultation and cooperation on a variety of fronts in the security realm, ranging from regional security to counter-terrorism.

There is an interesting reference in the communiqué to US support for regional economic connectivity in Asia.

You could perhaps read that as support for Indian membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the leading forum on economic development and trade.

The Asia Society Policy Institute and others have been pushing for years to get India into APEC.

I had a faint hope that APEC and US support for Indian membership might have been mentioned, perhaps a vain hope because of the Trump administration's stances on trade.

I now don't think that will be happening any time soon.

What do you think Modi's next move should be, to take this relationship along a bit?

To engage seriously with the United States in a discussion of bilateral economic issues. Not too late for path-breaking work on that front.

The question is now whether it will happen.

The United States has been trying for years to get India to engage seriously in discussion of a bilateral investment treaty and/or a trade-in-services agreement.

India has consistently avoided or blocked such a discussion.

The United States has a whole series of trade and market access concerns in sectors such as agricultural and dairy products, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing.

If these difficulties and the frustration they produce in US boardrooms and Congress continue, they could stand in the way of progress in other areas.

Frankly, many people think it is time India started to engage more seriously with the global trading system for its own good.

Modi could do to a lot to make this happen.

Any revisions in estimations, that you, personally, have had, now on either Trump or Modi as leaders?

First on Modi. Let's think back to 2014 and the run-up to the Indian elections.

Knowing Modi's history with the United States -- the expectation that he would not be granted a US visa when he was Gujarat chief minister -- gave him ample reason to resist engagement with the United States.

But when he became prime minister, one of the first things he did was to emphasise the relationship with the United States.

So, Modi put India's national interest above his personal feelings.

This first meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump is very consistent with his earlier behaviour.

Modi knows that a relationship with the United States is central to India's interests and he is going to do as much as he reasonably can, within the boundaries of India's national integrity and interests, to make sure the relationship with the Trump administration gets off to a good start.

So he's a constructive leader?

Yes, at least in this respect.

On Trump. We didn't know frankly what to expect because he made contradictory statements about India during the election campaign last year.

As recently as a few weeks ago, in a statement about the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, he struck out at India as an unfair beneficiary of that pact.

It is true, however, that during the campaign India was alone among the major powers in the world that candidate Trump did not attack.

He attacked the Japanese. He attacked the Koreans. He attacked the Chinese. He attacked all the Europeans.

He never really struck out at India in the same way.

So we had contradictory evidence in his past statements, about his attitude towards India and certainly his position on economic issues caused great concern on how he would approach the relationship eventually.

In this respect, in this summit, the relationship has been put in its own box.

With the pros and cons still all there, but pros very much in the box with the cons.

Now Trump is notoriously inconsistent, volatile even, and often mistaken in what he believes and what he says.

It appears this time, he has contributed to putting together a meeting, and an outcome from a meeting, in a form of a communiqué, for whatever it is worth, that is much more in the normal mode of relationships between States.

Any disappointments with the outcome of this summit for you?

Very optimistically, I would like to have seen the two leaders turn the challenges of the economic bilateral relationship into an opportunity for the next major breakthrough in India-US relations.

They might have committed themselves to creating a new economic partnership to rival the security partnership.

Clearly, that would have been a big stretch for both countries.

It is hard for me to know how much this meeting was crafted inside the White House or the State Department or both.

This communiqué looks more like something that would have been written by State in consultation with other agencies because there is so much continuity in it.

Of course, the White House would have had to be involved in the process at some point, but perhaps did not drive it.

The Trump administration needs to have a strategy in South Asia and Asia as a whole.

It is not clear that there is such a strategy. Once we have a strategy, we need to sit down with the Indians and shape a common strategic view for our two countries, a view that takes into account the ways we are similar and different in our thinking about the world.

At a time of great unrest and threat to the post World War II liberal world order, there is a historic opportunity for the world's oldest and largest democracies to work together to protect and help ensure the survival of that order in the interest of the two countries and the world.

That would be a joint venture worthy of the two great nations.

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com