High on Pak, low on rest

Terror thrust in joint statement but Modi tiptoes around Trump thorns

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 28.06.17

New Delhi, June 27: India today persuaded the US to use some of its toughest language against Pakistan in recent years on terrorism but a cautious Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to yield the lead to President Donald Trump on bilateral niggles at their first meeting.

India agreed to a "comprehensive" - and unprecedented - review of its trade relationship with the US, implicitly acknowledging it was not "fair" at present. The friction in economic ties is emerging as the partnership's biggest test under Trump.

Interspersed by at least three hugs and handshakes each, the meeting between Modi and Trump avoided the tense moments that have marked many of the US President's engagements with other key world leaders.

Trump and his senior officials, in a one-to-one meeting with Modi and in delegation talks, hinted at continuity on many key pillars of bilateral ties, allaying worries of any major rupture, officials said.

But while Trump articulated key US concerns - on trade imbalance and market barriers - Modi desisted from directly airing key Indian bilateral concerns, including hate crimes and a review of a crucial worker visa programme, the officials confirmed.

Even the highlighting of Pakistan in the bilateral joint statement could return to haunt India, some analysts cautioned, because it may strengthen Islamabad's argument to also seek US influence on other bilateral disputes like Kashmir. India insists that all disputes with Pakistan must be settled bilaterally.

What emerged clearly, officials from both sides said, was the hint of rare chemistry between Trump and a leader who counted the President's predecessor Barack Obama as his closest international friend.

"During my campaign, I pledged that if elected, India would have a true friend in the White House," Trump said, speaking in the White House Rose Garden alongside Modi. "And that is now exactly what you have - a true friend."

"There was a great deal of ease between the President and the Prime Minister," Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar said. "They were really very, very comfortable with each other."

Indian officials identified the US action and words on terrorism over the past two days as the biggest diplomatic takeaway from Modi's visit, which culminated in a dinner Trump hosted for the Indian Prime Minister on Monday.

Hours before the Trumps greeted Modi at the entrance of the White House, the US state department designated Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin as a global terrorist.

The US agreed, in the talks that followed the one-to-one chat between the leaders, to set up a bilateral mechanism for the two countries to coordinate efforts to push for "international terrorist designations" against commonly agreed upon individuals.

Such designations make it harder for terrorists to gain funding and weapons' access, and increase pressure on countries to arrest them.

But China has repeatedly blocked the United Nations' designation of key Pakistan-based terrorists, and Indian officials said the new mechanism with the US might help the two countries jointly nudge Beijing into changing its stance.

The state department's statement on Salahuddin controversially referred to "Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir" - a description India has in the past opposed at international platforms.

But Indian officials downplayed what one diplomat called an "error" that the US would correct. American officials too indicated there was no change in the US policy on Kashmir.

Modi and Trump, in a tightly worded joint statement, "called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries".

"Terrorism was identified as a key challenge to which the two countries would be responding: separately, together and with other nations," foreign secretary Jaishankar said at a media briefing just before Modi flew out of Washington.

The joint statement echoed India's concerns with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a crucial part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative that New Delhi has so far boycotted - without mentioning either China or the projects.

Modi and Trump "support bolstering regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment," the statement said.

They also "call on other nations in the region to adhere to these principles".

Almost as though in exchange for the criticism of Pakistan, India agreed to its harshest language against North Korea yet in a joint statement with the US, accusing Pyongyang of "provocations" and of "destabilising actions".

But it was on some of India's key bilateral concerns with the US that Modi maintained silence. He did not articulate New Delhi's worries about any clampdown on the popular H1B temporary work visas, used mostly by Indian information technology workers and companies.

Nor did Modi speak to Trump about the fear within the Indian American community over the growing attacks on its members coinciding with the President's political rise.

Modi's silence, Indian officials said, was tactical and not indicative of the government's approach to these concerns.

Both on work visas and crimes against Indian Americans, the Indian embassy and diplomats from New Delhi are in consultation with their US counterparts, they said.

The meeting between Modi and Trump was principally aimed at building personal chemistry, they suggested, and the guest did not want to rake up issues that might have unnecessarily upset his host.

Still, Modi's reluctance to directly broach these concerns with Trump contrasted with the US President's approach with the Indian leader.

Trump insisted - in private with Modi and then in public - on the need for India to remove market barriers for American goods to enter the country, and for a reduction in the trade deficit between the nations.

The Indian Prime Minister pointedly invited Trump's daughter Ivanka to lead the US delegation to an entrepreneurship summit in New Delhi later this year, and she accepted. Modi also invited the Trumps to visit India together, and they too accepted.

Trump ensured Melania joined him in greeting Modi. The Trumps together took Modi for a tour of the White House, including their residential quarters.

Melania hosted a cocktail reception for the Prime Minister. The Trumps saw the Indian leader off together.