Narendra Modi-Donald Trump meet: PM did better than Angela Merkel, but played it safe like Theresa May
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi met US President Donald Trump on Monday evening (early hours of Tuesday in India), he was the fifth major leader of the world to call on the newly-elected US chief executive since the changeover of power happened in January this year.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi met US president Donald Trump on Monday evening (early hours of Tuesday in India), he was the fifth major world leader to call on the newly-elected US chief executive since January's handover of power.
How was Modi and (by implication) India treated by Trump's America? On the face of it, there were some positives. The United States rolled out the red carpet for our prime minister. The White House also laid out an official dinner at the end of the summit meeting: A first for a visiting dignitary in the last five months of the Trump administration.
Even Trump sent out a warm message on social media welcoming Modi when he landed. In his tweet, Trump described India as a "true friend". That put at rest the speculation that our leader would face a torrid time with Trump, who last month assailed India for "demanding billions and billions and billions of dollars" while pulling America out of the Paris Agreement.
The post-confabulation press meet (it was not a press conference in the sense that both leaders decided not to take questions from reporters), also belied apprehensions, if there were any, about carrying forward the dialogue between the two countries in earnest.
The visit had one concrete outcome: The US vindicated India's stance on Pakistan-backed terrorism by designating Syed Salahuddin — leader of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen which had vowed to turn Kashmir "into a graveyard for Indian forces" — as a global terrorist, just hours before the Modi-Trump meet. The rest was routine. Modi and Trump's press statements largely reiterated their intentions to carry forward the India-US relationship to new heights.
It would be interesting to compare the outcome of Modi's first meeting with Trump with that of other top world leaders who visited the president in the last five months.
One of the first foreign dignitaries to visit Trump in White House was British prime minister Theresa May. This meeting occured just a week after Trump took office. As expected, the going was smooth, as Trump was not critical of the United Kingdom or May during the run-up to the US election. In fact, Brexit elicited an overwhelmingly positive response from candidate Trump.
Trump reiterated the same sentiment when May visited him on 28 January. Trump told her that Brexit would be a "wonderful thing" for Britain and would open the door to new trade deals. In a joint press conference at the White House, Trump said: "Great days lie ahead for our two peoples and our two countries."
Barely 10 days later, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe came came calling. Candidate Trump had spewed invective against Japan and America's European allies, saying they "do not pay us what they should be paying us, because we are providing a tremendous service (for their security) and we are losing a fortune."
However, post election, the tone of the Trump administration changed, at least vis-à-vis Japan. When the US defense secretary James Mattis visited Tokyo in the first week of February, he stumped everyone by saying that "Japan has been a model of cost-sharing, of burden-sharing."
Trump echoed the same sentiment when he said in the joint press conference with Abe that the US-Japan friendship was the "cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific region".
In a bid to show his warmth to his Japanese guest, Trump even flew down with Abe to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida to play a round of golf and spend some quality time.
But Angela Merkel, the powerful German chancellor, was not so lucky. Her 18 March visit is perhaps best described as "frosty." After all, Merkel had taken flak from candidate Trump for over a year.
Trump was critical of Merkel's handling of the refugee crisis, called her behaviour "insane" and warned the German people that she was "ruining Germany".
Given this background, Merkel's visit to the US could not possibly elicit the same warmth that May's visit or Abe's visit generated. That there was no bonhomie was evident in Trump and Merkel's joint press conference, which deeply contrasted the Trump-May or Trump-Abe meet.
The body language and the gestures said it all.
Before the joint press conference, when Trump and Merkel sat down for the customary photograph and the photographers asked them to shake hands, Merkel turned to Trump and asked him if he was interested in shaking hands.
Trump looked straight ahead, keeping his hands clasped together. His face was glum. It was a rather public snub. And it isn't as if Trump does not enjoy shaking hands with leaders, especially female leaders. There was, in fact, a contrasting sight when May visited in January. While walking down from the Oval office, Trump took May's hand and had posed for photographs with her, which went viral.
Tense body language apart, even the joint Trump-Merkel press conference had its strained moments. In fact, Merkel chose to put all issues concerning Germany's national interest on the table, even though she knew that much of it would irk Trump.
Merkel stuck to her position regarding her refugee policy and treatment of minorities while Trump reiterated his concern about "radical Islamic terrorism" and keeping potential terrorists out.
Merkel made her stance on globalisation and free trade forcefully. Trump spoke about his nationalist "America First" policy that would take precedence over all "unfair" trade deals.
Merkel emphasised the importance of NATO and the responsibility of the US in this regard; Trump insisted that the economic burden of the NATO must not be borne by the US alone and the allies must pay a fair share for the cost of the collective defence.
For all practical purposes, Merkel's visit to the USA turned out to be a disaster. It was not for nothing that she later told her countrymen that Germany and the rest of the European Union must look beyond traditional allies such as the US and look after themselves, economically and militarily.
Chinese president Xi Jinping's visit to the USA in April was a shade better, compared to Merkel's, in terms of the public reassertion of the nature of the US-China relationship.
After all, China was another country which Trump lashed out at during his campaign. In meeting after meeting, Trump spoke of America's huge trade deficit vis-à-vis China (it was more than 300 billion dollars in favour of China in the last few years; US had a trade deficit of 347 billion dollars against China in 2016).
But Trump did not hammer home this point in the meeting. He hoped that US and China would be able to jointly negotiate to put an end to the unfair trade practices. A 100-day plan was worked out to put the trade negotiations on a new keel.
Trump, of course, accorded an extraordinary personal welcome to Xi by hosting him at the Mar-a-Lago resort at Florida (where he had played golf with Abe). But the bonhomie was overshadowed by a US strike on Syria at the same time Trump was laying out a lavish dinner for Xi.
Chinese media restrained itself while Xi was on American soil, but as soon as he said goodbye to his host, the Chinese state agency came down heavily on the US for its unilateral action aimed at ousting Syrian president Bashar-al-Assad, a Chinese ally.
How does Modi's visit to Trump's USA compare? Well, our prime minister did not get the treatment that Xi received during his maiden visit to Trump's America. Perhaps Trump's cordiality towards Modi was on the same plane as May or Abe.
But Modi's approach in the joint press conference with Trump was strikingly different from that of Merkel. Modi was not as forthcoming in putting across the larger issues affecting India's national interest in the public domain — as Merkel did, even if it rubbed Trump the wrong way — Modi played safe.
Whether that is good or bad diplomacy is a question that will be debated in the days to come.
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