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'This is an excellent start'

June 29, 2017 09:14 IST

'Progress demands regular senior-level attention from American leaders.'
'A leaders' summit is great, but we need sustained engagement to continue to forge new agreements and find new areas of cooperation.'

US President Donald J Trump, Prime Minister Narendra Modi with their respective delegations at the White House dinner. US Vice-President Mike Pence can be seen seated to Trump's left. Photograph

Richard Rossow holds the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the respected Washington, DC think-tank.

Rick Rossow 'joined CSIS in 2014, having spent the last 16 years working in a variety of capacities to strengthen the partnership between the United States and India.'

Before he joined CSIS -- the previous Wadhwani chair was Karl 'Rick' Inderfurth, the former assistant secretary of state for South Asia in the Clinton administration -- Rossow was the director for South Asia at McLarty Associates, a political consultancy founded by Thomas 'Mack' McLarty, a close frend of President Bill Clinton (they were both born in Hope, Arkansas).

Rick Rossow, bottom, left, assessed the Modi-Trump visit in an e-mail interview with Rediff.com's Nikhil Lakshman.

Prime Minister Modi was the 28th leader President Trump met. Was the effusiveness displayed at the encounter rare by Trumpian standards?
Was Trump acknowledging the sturdiness of the India-US relationship?
Or was it the unexpected pleasure of meeting a kindred spirit?

This was a rare visit, indeed.

The substance was entirely driven by the policy team, with little indication that the political team played a role.

This is important, as some of Trump's top political advisors find concern with our relationship with India on areas including climate change, trade, and immigration.

These issues were either downplayed by the leaders, or ignored -- allowing for the substance of our emerging relationship to shine through.

What were your takeaways from the Modi-Trump summit? Do you believe it laid to rest the doubts that had set in after the Trump takeover?

The main takeaway is continuity.

The relationship is deeper than it was twenty years ago, yet still relatively thin compared to America's relationships with many other nations.

So cooperation across a wide range of areas from defence to energy is not 'mandatory,' per se. It takes vision and patience.

At a more detailed level, Delhi had to be happy with the language on Pakistan terror, as well as the US voicing support for Delhi's concerns about China's 'Belt and Road' initiative.

Washington would be pleased at the continuation of our growing defence partnership.

I would not yet 'lay to rest' doubts about the relationship, however.

Progress demands regular senior-level attention from American leaders.

A leaders' summit is great, but we need sustained engagement to continue to forge new agreements and find new areas of cooperation. Only time will tell.

But this is an excellent start.

Did the June 26 meeting impart a fresh momentum to India-US relations?
Or, like most things involving President Trump, will we have to wait and watch if a famously distracted leader is sufficiently taken up by Mr Modi and the possibility that in a world where America's allies and friends are hesitant to be involved with his administration, India appears to have no such reservations?

I would not term this summit as imparting 'fresh momentum'; instead, it feels like a surprising continuation of momentum.

As I noted earlier, only time will tell if other members of the (Trump) cabinet are willing to engage India as regularly as their predecessors had done, particularly on defence and energy.

It is not an easy task, keeping in mind the global crises both our nations face all the time.

What surprised you most about the Modi-Trump meeting? And why?

The most surprising element was the lack of visible fingerprints by the Trump political team that often seems to want to target India on trade and immigration issues.

That group has been quite active in other major relationships and summit meetings.

Yet, at least publicly, seems to have been absent in framing the summit with Prime Minister Modi.

Observers expected some fireworks over trade -- America's resentment about India's trade barriers, India's angst over the H1-B visas issues, even a clash of America First versus Make In India cultures...
Instead, as one respected observer pointed out, he was taken aback by the resolve to work closely on economic issues.
What are your own observations on the trade issues?
How can India and the US work better in this sphere?

I am not certain we have any real hope in getting our governments to see eye-to-eye on trade.

Both our governments are against trade integration, perceiving it as a risky tool that will likely result in losing manufacturing jobs.

However, here is where our private sectors are important.

Their continued engagement -- resulting in bilateral trade and investment -- is far more important than a government-to-government connection.

Richard RossowDo you believe the defence relationship is now the bedrock on which the India-US relationship rests?
Is this limited to India buying American weapons?
Or does it involve -- thanks to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement -- a security partnership as well?
Given India's reluctance to be a participant in any collaborative military adventures overseas, will this association ever transcend the limitations of an MoU?
If it does, in your considered understanding, in what circumstances?

The 'bedrock' changes over time.

Forty years ago it was the development community, wanting to help India resolve issues of hunger and poverty.

Then with economic reforms, the business community began to dominate the relationship.

Nuclear cooperation had a brief period as the shining example of potential cooperation starting in 2005.

And the Diaspora has been a strong factor throughout.

But today, yes, no areas of government-to-government cooperation is plunging further ahead than our defence relationship.

Our exercises are more complex; our military sales to India are increasing; we have framed similar policy objectives for the region; and we have initiated unique programmes to begin co-developing military technology.

As you rightly point out, we tend to equip our partners according to their operational needs.

We have not yet asked India to offer much detail in terms of what its security role might look like in the future.

Our belief that a strong India is good for Asian security was enough. But not every American counterpart is comfortable living with such vague concepts.

I personally prefer for India to lay out its own vision for its global security contributions, rather than have the US press its views.

The admonition to Pakistan in the joint statement -- was it merely inserted to keep India happy?
Do you believe the Trump administration -- given its determination to stamp out Islamist terrorism -- will be more touch with Islamabad than previous administrations?
Or will the mandarins in America's diplomatic and intelligence communities given into the realism that it is better to have Pakistan as an unreliable ally than a vicious adversary and limit the tough talk to the terror groups that threaten American soldiers in Afghanistan and not be forceful enough on the terrorists who daily threaten India?

The US shares concerns about terrorism from Pakistan, though with key differences.

Our primary concern is how that terror is conveyed into Afghanistan, while India is clearly more focused on Pakistan-based terror groups attacking India.

But the overall objective of ending State support for terror groups is shared, and it is interesting to see the US more willing to admit as much publicly.

What are the red flags that one must watch out for in the India-US relationship going forward?
Are you personally hopeful that the trajectory established by the Bush and Obama administrations will be maintained by this administration?
Will we just see consolidation during the next four years?
Or do you expect history to come knocking on this door?
What would it take for that to happen?

There are two main 'red flags' that could deter our relationship.

First, inattention.

Maintaining this trajectory will require regular senior-level engagement, often without important deliverables.

It takes patience and energy, and could easily fall off the rails if we do not see quick returns.

Second, trade frictions.

There are serious issues on both sides, ranging from potential new US immigration restrictions or outsourcing limitations; India's expanded price controls or local manufacturing rules.

Sometimes such issues seem to define our relationship, especially if our broader strategic relationship has a slow period.

Such issues are always bubbling below the surface, ready to explode.

It takes senior leadership in both nations to ensure these trade issues do not erupt and take over the relationship.

IMAGE: US President Donald J Trump, Prime Minister Narendra Modi with their respective delegations at the White House dinner. US Vice-President Mike Pence can be seen seated to Trump's left. Photograph: Reuters

Nikhil Lakshman / Rediff.com