Bonhomie at Biarritz: Modi charms Trump but can he keep him on India's side

US President Donald Trump meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, August 26, 2019. Photo: Reuters
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in the United States at the end of September, for a bilateral visit as also to address the UN General Assembly and then to address non-resident Indians at a much-publicised event in Houston.

Modi’s meeting with US President Donald Trump on Monday on the sidelines of the just-concluded G7 Summit held in the French coastal town of Biarritz is a good precursor to his September-end visit to the US. The two leaders not only seemed to share much bonhomie, but Trump agreed with Modi that Jammu and Kashmir was a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan.

The White House on Monday claimed helping reduce India-Pakistan tension was one of the five big takeaways from the just-concluded G7 Summit. “In his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, President Trump reaffirmed the need for dialogue between India and Pakistan and also worked to build on the great economic relations between our nations,” the White House said.

At his meeting with Trump, the PM categorically rejected any scope for third party mediation on Kashmir. He said it was a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, and "we don't want to trouble any third country".

Trump, who over the past month has made ambiguous, even alarming-- from New Delhi’s point of view--statements on the issue, backed what Modi said. In a tweet, the White House said during the meeting with Modi, Trump also acknowledged India's role as a critical partner in Afghanistan. The accompanying two photos the White House released showed a jubilant mood in the meeting room in Biarritz and the handshake between the two leaders.

The Afghanistan issue

However, the PM and his team would be wary that their win over Pakistan and its Prime Minister Imran Khan at the current juncture could turn out to be short-lived. The US wants Islamabad’s cooperation as it negotiates with the Taliban to exit from Afghanistan.

Trump, as he has shown in the past, can be unpredictable. Much would also depend on the prevailing situation in Jammu and Kashmir, whether it remains peaceful after the lifting of the restrictions, and whether the Central government eases these before the PM’s visit to the US.

Pakistan is likely to continue to exert pressure on Washington, and had earlier indicated that the Kashmir issue would have a bearing on its ability to get the Taliban to the negotiating table.

But as Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has told his domestic audience in the recent past, India is a much bigger market and trade partner for the US and New Delhi looked determined to leverage this in the coming months.

According to India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, during his meeting with Trump, the PM spoke about India importing $4 billion worth of fuel from the US and that it could step this up.

Modi also told Trump that with elections over in India, “this was something we could have a constructive approach to," said Gokhale. Commerce and industry minister Piyush Goel is likely to travel to the US ahead of Modi’s visit next month, which could see irritants on the trade front ironed out, he said.  The US presidential elections are due next year.

According to a statement from Trump’s office, “The two leaders discussed ways to broaden their strategic partnership and greatly increase trade between the United States and India.”

It said, “President Trump reaffirmed the need for dialogue between India and Pakistan to reduce tensions and acknowledged India’s role as a critical partner in Afghanistan.”

India would hope the bonhomie between Trump and Modi survives beyond the PM’s visit to the US, and that Washington does not spring a surprise in the coming months.

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