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Defense Deals on the Agenda for First Trump-Modi Talks

Modi's White House Visit to Set Tone for US-India Ties
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The bearers of two potentially clashing slogans, “Made in India” and “America First,” will finally meet Monday at the White House.

“It’s going to be a robust discussion,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said of what will be the first face-to-face talks between India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump.

“We’re really seeking to roll out the red carpet,” a senior U.S. official said of the visit, which will feature the first dinner Trump will host at the White House for a foreign dignitary.

“It’ll be a long interaction and lots of time for the two leaders to get to know each other,” the senior official told White House reporters Friday.

“These are two very populist leaders,” with aspirations for transformation, notes Satu Limaye. He is director of the Washington office of the East-West Center, an American nonprofit group dedicated to promoting public diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Both are 'professional dealmakers'

Their origins are not only separated by a distance of 12,000 kilometers: Modi helped his father sell tea from a Gujarat street stall, while Trump’s tutelage was in property development.

“Their personal backgrounds don’t matter at this point,” Limaye tells VOA. “They are professional dealmakers.”

While Trump likes to set the tone with a very firm handshake, the barrel-chested Indian leader breaks the ice with bear hugs.

What they have both embraced is enthusiasm for Twitter, and they are among the most followed political figures on social media. Both will surely want to tout the success of this visit in 140 characters or less.

The news from Modi's and Trump's tweets is likely to come from their announcement of transactions, rather than geopolitical agreements.

“The U.S. wants to treat India as a major defense partner in concrete terms [on a par] with our closest allies and partners,” says the senior White House official.

FILE - India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to the media inside the parliament premises in New Delhi.
FILE - India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to the media inside the parliament premises in New Delhi.

Billion-dollar drone deal expected

A California drone-maker, General Atomics, confirms a deal is imminent for the sale of 22 Guardian (MQ-9) unarmed drones to India’s navy for maritime patrolling. The deal, estimated to be worth up to $3 billion, originally raised concerns at the State Department about putting such sophisticated surveillance capabilities in the Indian Ocean, where tensions could arise between India and its rival Pakistan.

“We don’t believe they represent a threat to Pakistan,” counters the U.S. official. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”

Also highlighted will be a tentative deal between Lockheed Martin and Tata Advanced Systems to produce F-16 fighter jets in India.

A senior White House official notes these defense deals support “thousands of American jobs,” but that may not be enough to appease some U.S. commercial sectors. With a $24 billion trade surplus in India’s favor, American manufacturers want action by Washington on a range of issues, including tariffs and localization, intellectual property and eliminating price controls on medical devices.

“I think this is an opportunity for the prime minister and President Trump to sit down and figure out ways that both sides can grow their economies through the right set of trade policies,” the vice president of international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, Linda Dempsey, told VOA.

India's values, ideas are close to US

On the other hand, a former high-ranking U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to India in the early 1990s under President George H.W. Bush, Thomas Pickering, says he is concerned the two leaders will focus on short-term economic gains, at the expense of nurturing a longer-term strategic relationship.

Pickering tells VOA the Trump administration should see that India “espouses values and ideas that are much closer to ours than the other dominant country in Asia” - China.

A focus on commerce rather than geopolitics may come as a relief to traditionally nonaligned India.

“India doesn’t want a relationship with the U.S. built on an anti-China policy,” says Limaye.

The two governments are working on a joint statement about fighting terrorism, and a senior White House official says: “We can expect to see some new initiatives on counterterrorism cooperation."

FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump takes the stage for a rally at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S.
FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump takes the stage for a rally at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S.

India expects more attention from US

There is angst in New Delhi that Trump has not paid adequate attention to India, especially in contrast to his repeated praise for China and its leader, Xi Jinping.

For Trump, “Foreign policy, on the whole, is not a priority, with the exception of the hot-ticket issues generating the headlines: Russia, Syria, ISIS, and the like,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center. “In that regard, India has indeed been left in the lurch.”

“There have been two very good (Trump-Modi) phone calls,” a senior White House official rebuts. “It would be wrong to say this administration has been ignoring or not focusing on India.”

Trump has generally been positive about India in public messaging. He previously visited Mumbai as a businessman, and he has Trump-branded properties in the country.

“He’s not new to India,” says the senior White House official, who also emphasizes that the president appreciates the contribution Indians have made to the U.S. economy, in particular through their embrace of innovation and entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley.

Both Trump and Modi enjoy support from a significant portion of the 3.5 million-member community of Indian-Americans.

“This is the ballast in the relationship,” says Limaye. “But I don’t think it’s a determiner.”

Trump has named several members of the community to important positions. Nikki Haley is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Ajit Pai is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and Seema Verma runs Medicare and Medicaid programs under the Department of Health and Human Services.