Narendra Modi to get red carpet welcome at Donald Trump's first ever White House working dinner

Modi and Trump meet at 'around 3.30 pm' EST ( 1 am IST, June 27) for the first time and the entire evening after that is different formats of the Indo US engagement.

Nikhila Natarajan June 24, 2017 05:41:32 IST
Narendra Modi to get red carpet welcome at Donald Trump's first ever White House working dinner

The United States is rolling out the red carpet for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who will meet US president Donald Trump at the White House on Monday. The two leaders are expected to cap their meeting with a working dinner — Trump's first evening meal with a visiting head of State in the White House since he took office in January 2017.

Modi and Trump will meet for the first time on Monday afternoon, and the entire evening after that is different formats of the Indo-US engagement.

'Defence, defence, defence' — that's what will get top billing during the one-on-one between Modi and Trump as well as the bilateral delegation level talks on the same day.

Details of the Modi-Trump meeting have been nearly two months in the making, and clearly, senior White House staff who have a deep understanding of India's and Trump's priorities have worked hard to line up the ducks. Sample this statement at the White House background briefing: "Defence trade has supported thousands of American jobs. Since 2008 in fact, India has signed over $15 billion in defence contracts with the US."

This highlights the value of an India willing to buy military equipment for the Trump administration. As Dhruva Jaishankar told us in an in-depth interview ahead of this briefing, deals like these are offer clarity, they are short gestation, give quick results and don't get trapped in complex bureaucratic engagements with low visibility.

Although India is not a formal ally of the US — which means India is not a signatory to any military treaties with the US — the background briefing underlined that Washington treats India "on par with our allies".

Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund spoke with Firstpost over two weeks ago, and said meetings with Asian leaders have gone well and Modi is likely to be added to this list.

A senior White House official (who holds a key position in Trump's innermost circle and who specifically asked not to be named) held a 40-minute background briefing on Friday evening in a media room packed to capacity with reporters from major Indian and American news networks tossing questions on all the hot buttons, including H1B visas, tensions with Pakistan, Chinese reaction to the official bonhomie with Modi, and potentially thorny negotiation on tariffs and trade.

Narendra Modi to get red carpet welcome at Donald Trumps first ever White House working dinner

Narendra Modi will meet Donald Trump for the first time on Monday. Reuters

"The US is very much interested in facilitating India's defence modernisation, and is helping enhance its role in the Asia Pacific. We believe that a strong India is good for the US. Now of course we've seen rapid progress in defence and security partnership over the last few years and president Trump very much wants to build on that momentum. Last year's designation of India as a major defence partner was extremely important and we'll see a concrete expression of this important designation during this visit," said a White House official, who has worked extremely closely on India and South Asia for years.

Important excerpts from the off-camera White House background briefing, lightly edited for brevity:

The 26 June meeting:
"This visit is an opportunity to strengthen the US-India strategic partnership, which the president very much views as critical in promoting security and stability in the Asia Pacific region and globally. We anticipate that the discussions will be broad ranging, hitting on a variety of regional and global issues that would seek to advance our common priorities."

Defence deals in the spotlight:
Indo-US defence trade has supported thousands of American jobs. Since 2008 in fact, India has signed over $15 billion in defence contracts with the US. Another major area of discussion will be counter-terrorism. The US and India are both committed to combating all forms of terrorism and in strengthening cooperation in areas like terrorist screening, intelligence sharing and terrorists' use of internet. We can expect to see some new initiatives on counter-terrorism.

On the US-Pakistan relationship in the context of arms deal with India:
I want to make a point here that US' relationships with India and Pakistan stand on their own merits. We don't see a zero-sum relationship when it comes to US' relationships with Pakistan and with India. We are certainly eager to deepen the strategic partnership with India but we are also interested in continuing our cooperation with Pakistan. We are concerned about tensions between India and Pakistan, we would like to see the normalisation of relations between the two countries, but we very much encourage India and Pakistan to engage in direct dialogue. We seek to have an effective partnership with each country. We see India's role and influence growing. We like to encourage that. With Pakistan, too, we seek to work together but frankly the priorities are very different. The nature of the relationships are different. We would like to move forward in both cases, but we understand that the pace and scope in both cases is going to be very different.

On how US views India's role in Afghanistan:
India has committed more than $3 billion in development aid for Afghanistan, so the American view is that India's role in Afghanistan is very positive towards stabilising that country. India has a very good standing in Afghanistan, especially among the people, not just the leaders.

On India adopting sanctions against North Korea:
India has adopted UN sanctions against North Korea in April, so it joins the US in sending a very strong message. This visit will provide both countries an opportunity to restate common principles in the Indo-Pacific with respect to navigation and over-flight.

On Indo-US trade:
Now in the trade and investment area. Right now, two-way trade in goods and services totals over $114 billion. Both sides are looking to increase their market access. The US is looking to focus much more on intellectual property protection, reduction of tariffs.

On energy business:
Energy partnership will be highlighted during this visit. Indian energy companies signed over $32 billion in long term contracts for the export of US produced liquified natural gas from Louisiana and Maryland. It's a good time to highlight what we're doing with India.

On Indians in America:
It's also a time to demonstrate our strong people-to-people ties. Today, four million Indians live in the US. More than 166,000 Indian students are contributing more than $5 billion in economic activity and supporting an estimated 64,000 US jobs.

On Modi and Trump's social media prowess:
These two leaders have a lot in common, they are the most followed leaders on social media. I think president Trump is slightly ahead of Modi (smiles), but this shows the kind of leaders they are — they are innovators, businessman (Trump), they are committed to bringing prosperity to their people and finding innovative ways to do that.

Schedule for June 26 evening:
They'll start with a one-on-one meeting and then move on to the bilaterals. Then they'll each give a press statement — it won't be a press conference — they'll each do a statement. They'll move from that to a cocktail reception and that will be followed by a working dinner. It's a long interaction, lots of time for the two leaders to get to know each other.

On H1B visas:
On the visa issue, there is no plan for it to come up specifically. But you know, if it's raised, I would know that the administration has signed some executive orders related to work visas and immigration which directs the secretary of State, the attorney general, the secretary of labour and secretary of homeland security to propose potential reforms to the H1B programme. Right now, nothing has changed with respect to application or issuance procedures. We're not in a position to pre-judge what the outcome of that review might be. There's really been no changes at this point. There’s no changes that target any specific sector yet.

On sale of 22 drones to India:
We can't really talk about potential or pending arms sales before they are ratified by Congress. But I will say that the defence relationship is extremely important. The US is interested in leaning forward and providing the technology that India needs (where the US leads the world ) and these kind of sales we are talking about are encouraging our strategic partnership, creating jobs here in the US so they are right in line with this administration's priorities.

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