Lot of Trump-Modi chemistry, but little maths over bilateral trade deal

US President Donald Trump’s 36-hour visit to India did not see any deadlocks broken on the bilateral trade deal, but he seemed to nudge New Delhi to keep Chinese 5G network providers away from India. Trump said 5G should “be a tool for freedom, progress and prosperity” and “not a conduit for suppression and censorship”.

The visiting leader did not alter his views on Kashmir, and even reiterated his offer to mediate between India and Pakistan. There were no assurances forthcoming on India’s concerns on H1B visas and a totalisation agreement.

He also brought up the issue of religious tolerance in India, but said it was “up to India to deal with” the reported violence against Muslims in Delhi.

However, both sides ended the day satisfied. New Delhi termed it a “very extraordinary visit”, alluding to the chemistry between Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and “lots of interest” the visit had generated in the US.

If the visit was a personal triumph for Modi, with Trump praising him as a “tough”, “terrific” and a “nice man who is doing a fantastic job”, it seemed more so for Trump, who is preparing for re-election.

In the course of the day, Trump on several occasions referred to the grand welcome he received in Ahmedabad on Monday, stating that he had on good authority that he was given the biggest welcome ever accorded to a visiting foreign leader in India.

At the joint press conference, the US president confirmed the two sides signed defence deals worth $3 billion, with India’s military to purchase Apache and MH-60 Romeo helicopters. In the meeting between Modi and Trump at Hyderabad House, the two leaders said there had been “tremendous progress” in negotiations between India and the US for a “big and comprehensive” trade deal which will be of great importance to both the countries.

The two sides signed three other agreements, including those on the safety of medical devices and energy cooperation between Indian Oil Corporation, Exxon Mobil India LNG, and Chart Industries. Later in the day, at an interaction with the media, he hoped to bridge the $16.9-billion trade deficit his country had with India and appreciated investment by Indian business in the US.

However, the president repeatedly said India was the “highest tariff country” in the world, the US “has to be treated fairly”, and how during his tenure the trade deficit had narrowed. 

Trump said the two sides were working on the trade deal and could agree on it towards the end of the year, but if a deal fell through, they might do “something else” that was “satisfactory”. He suggested if he could get China to agree to a trade deal, he would with India as well. At a briefing with industrialists in India at the US Embassy, Trump spoke of the importance of a secure 5G wireless network and the need for this emerging technology to be a “tool for freedom, progress, prosperity, not to do anything with where it could be even conceived as a conduit for suppression and censorship”.

The US and its allies have banned Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from participating in 5G networks. On his position on Pakistan sponsoring terrorism in India, Trump said the US could not be counted upon to take action because it was 8,000 miles away. He said Modi “is perfectly capable” of dealing with the situation. He also said he was good friends with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Kashmir issue had “two sides” to it, and offered to mediate between the two South Asian neighbours.

At the joint press conference, Modi underlined India and the US raising their partnership to the level of a “comprehensive global strategic partnership” as the highlight of the visit. He said this was his fifth meeting with Trump in the past eight months. Modi said the two countries were increasing their homeland security cooperation to hold terror supporters responsible. “Our energy trade has been around $20 billion in the last four years,” Modi said.

US oil supplies to India have jumped 10-fold to 250,000 barrels per day (bpd) in the past two years, US Energy secretary Dan Brouillette said at the business meeting that he addressed alongside the president.

Trump said India and the US were keen to revitalise the Quadrilateral Initiative (Quad), which also comprises Australia and Japan. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said Modi and Trump decided to move towards what was referred to as a “big deal” in trade. He said the two leaders had decided to conclude the ongoing discussions on bilateral trade as soon as possible and give it a legal framework and the text could be finalised with legal vetting as soon as possible. “There is appreciation that trade has increased year-on-year over the last few years. US exports to India have increased dramatically and there is a noticeable decline in the trade imbalance,” Shringla said. He said the trade imbalance was eroding with a greater number of acquisitions in oil and gas and the purchase of commercial aircraft. Indian officials said the contentious, amended Citizenship Act did not come up for discussion during the meeting of the two leaders, and they talked about religious harmony in a “positive way”.

Trump was forthright about not answering questions on the issue and violence in Delhi at his press conference at a city hotel. “I’m gonna be not at all controversial ... I don’t want to blow the two days plus two days of travel on one answer, one little answer ... So I will be very conservative in my answers if you don’t mind,” Trump said.

“We did talk about religious freedom. Prime Minister Modi wants people to have religious freedom in India ... If you look back India has worked hard for religious freedom,” Trump said. Democratic presidential front-runner Senator Bernie Sanders on Monday criticised Trump for selling weapons to India, saying that the US should instead partner New Delhi to fight climate change.

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