From China to Pak terror, Trump-Modi meet affirms US-India security ties

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hug at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (Photo: PTI)
Leading into Monday’s meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump, both sides had conspicuously pitched expectations low, portraying it as a “getting-to-know-each-other” summit.

Surprising many, the joint statement, issued by New Delhi and Washington after one-on-one and delegation level talks, turned out to be an assertive endorsement of shared security interests and an expanding strategic partnership.

Whether on cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, on combating Pakistan-backed terrorism, regional issues like Afghanistan and North Korea or US-Indian defence sales, there was convergence enough to compensate for the mild divergences in trade and commerce.

The Indo-Pacific

Trump’s blow-hot-blow-cold vacillation on China had observers anticipating a downgrade in Washington’s formerly vigorous cultivation of New Delhi as a strategic hedge to China. However, that was put to rest in the very first section of the joint statement.

Echoing the “Joint Strategic Vision” spelt out during Barack Obama’s January 2015 visit to New Delhi, the document “agreed to take further measures to strengthen their partnership”. This was outlined in the statement as a set of principles that regional countries were urged to adopt.

These included the Chinese bugbears of “respecting freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce throughout the region”; and a call to nations “to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law”.

This is directed at Beijing and its aggressive assertion of claims over territory and waters in the South and East China Seas. Beijing has also rejected the ruling of an international court of arbitration that rejected China’s “historical claim” over most of the South China Sea, as expressed by its so-called “Nine Dash Line”.

Former White House staffer, Josh White, has noted that a joint statement’s structure is designed to send a broader message. He tweets: “In this case, leading off with a section on the Indo-Pacific sends a signal that the emphasis embodied in the [Joint Strategic Vision 2015] is still operative....”

In another broadside directed at Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint statement supports the creation of infrastructure for boosting regional economic connectivity, but only “while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment".

India has ostentatiously rejected the BRI on the grounds that its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) violates India’s territorial integrity, being unilaterally routed through Gilgit-Baltistan, which India claims as part of Jammu & Kashmir.

Pakistan-backed terrorism

Another Indian gain is the strong statement against terrorism, especially that originating in Pakistan: “The leaders called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. They further called on Pakistan to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups.”

The joint statement resolves to cooperate in combating “terrorist threats from groups including Al-Qa’ida, ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria], Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, D-Company [Dawood Ibrahim’s group], and their affiliates.”

Leading into the summit, there were Indian apprehensions that Trump’s anti-terrorist preoccupations were restricted to West Asian groups like ISIS. As it turned out, Trump ticked all the Indian boxes, calling out Pakistan unequivocally.

Also gratifying to India was the US administration’s designation, just prior to the summit, of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.

China, in contrast, continues to block India’s bid to place Azhar Masood, the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, on a UN terrorist threat.

In last night’s US-India statement, “the leaders welcomed a new consultation mechanism on domestic and international terrorist designations listing proposals.”

While Obama had been reluctant to do this, Trump agreed to affirming “support for a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that will advance and strengthen the framework for global cooperation and reinforce the message that no cause or grievance justifies terrorism".

“Major defence partnership”

Putting meat on the bones of America’s recent designation of India as a “major defence partner”, the joint statement equated India with the closest US allies. “The United States and India look forward to working together on advanced defence equipment and technology at a level commensurate with that of the closest allies and partners of the United States.”

As expected, the joint statement noted that the US has offered India the sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems, to “enhance India’s capabilities and promote shared security interests". The over $2 billion sale proposed is for 22 Guardian systems.

Also in the delivery pipeline are four Boeing P-8I Poseidon maritime aircraft for a billion dollars; about $3 billion worth of helicopters, including 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy lifters; and a $700 million order for 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers.

Separately, on Monday, the US Congress was notified about a proposed sale to India of a C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift transport aircraft for an estimated $366 million. 

As Business Standard had revealed (“No F-16 deal during Modi’s visit to US), the proposal by Lockheed Martin to transfer its production line from the US to build the F-16 in India was discussed, but not included in the joint statement.

Votaries of the F-16 would take heart from Modi’s remarks to the media, in which he said: “President Trump and I have also spoken about strengthening bilateral defence technology and our trade and manufacturing partnership, which we believe will be mutually beneficial to us.”

While the two countries’ navies already exercise together in the annual Malabar exercise, which will be held next month, the US could also be joining the biannual Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which is restricted to littoral countries.

With India already admitted to the Missile Technology Control Regime, the joint statement expressed strong support for India's “early membership” to the other three global proliferation regimes – the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group.

Trump also reaffirmed American support “for India’s permanent membership on a reformed UN Security Council".