The first face-to-face meeting between US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sealed with a bear hug Monday, as the two leaders looked to publicly underscore their new found friendship.
Speaking after their meeting in the White House Rose Garden, Trump recalled his previous campaign pledge, that if elected, India would have a true friend in the White House. “And that is now exactly what you have — a true friend,” said Trump.
Declaring the official meeting a success, Trump went on to describe the relationship between India and the United States as having “never been stronger, has never been better.”
Trump also took time to praise Modi’s Twitter prowess, we are “world leaders in social media,” said Trump, who has 32.9 million followers on his personal Twitter account, compared to Modi’s 31 million followers.
Modi meanwhile, described his White House visit as being “filled with friendliness” from the “opening tweet to the end of our talks.”
The apparently jovial tone was in contrast to what had been predicted to be a tough meeting.
Both Trump and Modi have tried to boost domestic manufacturing in their own country.
Modi, under a program titled “Make in India,” has been looking for foreign companies to set up production in India. That runs counter to Trump’s “America First” messaging, where Trump is looking to punish American companies who ship jobs and production overseas.
Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, signed in April, overhauled the H-1B visa program primarily used by Indian engineers and developers.
While, earlier this month, Trump singled out India during his announcement declaring the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Trump accused India of receiving “billions” of dollars in return for signing the accord, an allegation that India strongly refuted.
A joint statement issued by both leaders did not mention either issues directly, and instead focused on the two leaders’ pledge to “expand and deepen the strategic partnership between the countries and advance common objectives” by providing “strong leadership to address global challenges.”
Seeking to downplay potential policy conflicts, Modi suggested that economic growth was not a zero-sum game. “India’s interests lie in a strong, and prosperous, and successful America,” said Modi during their press briefing. “In the same way, India’s development and its growing role at the international level are in the USA’s interest.”
Elements of the Indian media will undoubtedly play this as a largely successful visit, said CNN’s New Delhi Bureau Chief, Ravi Agrawal. “Fears that Trump would not be an ally to India, like at least three of his predecessors, have proved unfounded.”
The White House did not provide a detailed account of the meeting, however, the official joint statement did make several references to Pakistan, notably a call for the country to “ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries,” and to “bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks.”
Prior to the meeting, senior US administration officials said Trump was aware of the delicate balance with India and Pakistan, but would look to treat the 1.3 billion person country like the defense ally it is: “I want to make a point here that US relationships with India and Pakistan really stand on their own merits and terms,” a senior administration official said.
While the Trump administration hopes to “deepen” its relationship with India, the official added that they are “also interested in continuing our cooperation with Pakistan” and are “concerned about tensions between Indian and Pakistan.”
The statement also announced increased cooperation to “prevent terrorist travel and to disrupt global recruitment efforts by expanding intelligence-sharing and operational-level counterterrorism cooperation.” Such moves are likely to be welcomed by US foreign policy chiefs, who have underlined the need for additional information sharing in the ongoing fight against ISIS.
Monday’s meeting pointed to other regional security concerns, with both leaders emphasizing the importance of Indian-US relations in helping to stabilize Afghanistan. “Both India and America have played an important role in rebuilding Afghanistan and ensuring its security,” read the statement. “In order to attain our objectives for peace and stability in Afghanistan, we will maintain close consultation and communication with the US to enhance coordination between our two nations.”
The two leaders also “strongly condemned” continued provocations by North Korea “emphasizing that its destabilizing pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile programs poses a grave threat to regional security and global peace,” according to the statement.
In May this year, India halted all trade except for food and medicine with North Korea. Prior to the ban, India had been North Korea’s second largest trading partner after China. India exported $111 million worth of goods in 2015-2016 to North Korea, and imported about $88 million, according to Indian government data.
Monday’s White House visit was Modi’s fifth trip to the US since becoming prime minister in 2014.
Unlike the feverish anticipation over past meetings between Modi and former President Barack Obama, expectations for Modi’s relationship had been lukewarm.
However, the Indian Prime Minister appeared determined to bolster relations, at one point, inviting the President’s daughter Ivanka Trump “to India for the Entrepreneurship Summit,” scheduled for later this year.
Addressing Trump directly, Modi offered his “deep appreciation” for the President’s “strong commitment to the enhancement of our bilateral relations.”
“Be assured that in this joint journey of our two nations towards development, growth and prosperity, I will remain a driven, determined, and decisive partner,” said Modi.