Donald Trump's call to Narendra Modi indicates India-US ties are set for a higher orbit

The signs were visible as soon as the US presidential elections were over.

President Donald Trump's phone call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi simply confirmed the perception that the India-US relationship is set for a closer tango and a higher orbit in at least the next four years. Tuesday night's (IST) gesture was placed as an 'ice-breaker'. But in the world of diplomacy and geopolitics where one phone call can alter the course of bilateral relations (consider Chinese heartburn over the then president-elect receiving a congratulatory call from Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen), you get an idea why the White House called India ahead of other European leaders, Beijing or even Moscow.

Few details beyond the platitudes have been released at this stage. But the sketchy information still points to the huge premium that Trump administration places on India. The US president called the Indian prime minister a "a true friend and a partner in addressing challenges around the world" and invited him to Washington later this year.

Donald Trumps call to Narendra Modi indicates India-US ties are set for a higher orbit

File images of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. PTI and AP

The conversation is consistent with the new administration's outlook towards India and takes off from Barack Obama's Pivot to Asia.

During a Senate Committee hearing earlier this month Trump's nominee for secretary of defence James Mattis had called ties with India "of utmost importance" and indicated that Washington would pursue a long-term strategic partnership with New Delhi to stabilise the Asia-Pacific region. A deeper cooperation on defence and security is driven not only by a shared mistrust of China but also, as Mattis clarified in his written submission, "shared democratic values".

“In my view, and particularly on security and defence issues, the US-India relationship has been strengthened in recent years. Cooperation on defence trade and technology has grown to the benefit of both countries under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative. I also believe that India’s ‘Act East’ policy allows it to play a greater role in contributing to security in the Asia-Pacific region," the retired marine corps general wrote in his submission, according to a Hindustan Times report.

It is quite clear that in Modi's 'Act East' policy, the Trump administration sees a meatier role for New Delhi in regional strategic affairs. It doesn't require reiteration that China poses a huge problem for India and US, albeit in different ways.

The China-Pakistan axis poses a huge security issue for New Delhi, which has also found it tough to cope with Beijing's new muscular foreign policy. For the US, a burgeoning trade imbalance and China's territorial aggression over South China Sea have proven to be areas of immense vexation.

Although he didn't take names, Modi had left little to imagination when he spoke about "rising ambition and rivalries" creating "visible stress points" in India's neighbourhood and had warned against "steady increase in military power, resources and wealth in the Asia-Pacific" that is raising the "stakes of security" during the recently-concluded Raisina Dialogue.

For his part, Trump had been quite forthcoming about a tougher policy on China. Bilateral ties are always subject to convergence on areas of mutual interest and on this regard, India and US seem destined for a closer trajectory. That this topic was discussed on Tuesday became quite clear from the statement that White House has subsequently released.

“They (both leaders) also discussed security in the region of South and Central Asia. (Trump) and (Modi) resolved that the United States and India stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the global fight against terrorism” according to the statement.

Interestingly, while India maintains that "Pakistan is the global epicentre of terrorism" and has denounced the Nawaz Sharif administration for aiding and abetting terrorism on Indian soil, Trump had, in one of his earliest tête-à-tête with world leaders, called up Sharif and termed him a "great guy" and Pakistan a "fantastic country". It isn't known to what extent these areas were discussed, but New Delhi would have noted with some satisfaction that the word "terrorism" figures quite prominently in the official White House release following Tuesday night's conversation.

Although the stage is set for a greater bonhomie between the two nations, trade, more specifically the US H1-B visa program, poses the thorniest issue for both leaders. In his inaugural address, Trump laid out the new US policy as "Buy American, Hire American", sending a chill down the spine of Indian IT services firms whose revenue comes mainly from American shores.

Once again, there are no specifics, just a broad-based statement that "the two discussed opportunities to strengthen the partnership between the United States and India in broad areas such as the economy and defence" but one can bet one's bottom rupee that the issue came up for discussion. The vibes being displayed — Modi has spoken of the warmth of the conversation in a series of tweets since — indicate, however, that things went swimmingly.

For now, it is a great start. The right notes have been hit in a bilateral relationship that may become the most crucial for both countries.

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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2017 11:09:51 IST

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