Modi-Trump Chemistry

(L to R)Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Donald Trump and Indonesia's President Joko Widodo talk ahead the third working session 'Partnership with Africa' on the second day of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 8, 2017. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)


NEW DELHI — Though the personal chemistry between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and new U.S. President Donald Trump was the highlight of India-U.S. ties in 2017, what has come as a huge boost to bilateral relations towards the end of the year is the key strategic geopolitical role for India in the new U.S. security strategy.

At the same time, New Delhi made it clear that its foreign policy remains independent when it went with the rest of the world in voting in the UN General Assembly against Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Despite a change of guard in Washington, the India-U.S. global strategic partnership remained strong as ever and a warm hug marked the first-ever meeting between Modi and Trump at the White House in June this year.

While Trump said that bilateral ties have "never been stronger,” Modi said that both the countries were "committed to such a bilateral architecture that will take our strategic partnership to new heights.”

According to a joint statement, the two leaders "resolved to expand and deepen the strategic partnership between the countries and advance common objectives.”

"President Trump and Prime Minister Modi expressed confidence that, together, the United States and India will provide strong leadership to address global challenges and build prosperity for their citizens in the decades to come," the statement said.

And that is exactly what got reflected in the New Security Strategy that Trump announced in December that sees India being mentioned no less than seven times.

"We welcome India's emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defenze partner," the NSS states. "We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India."

This comes in the wake of the meeting between officials of India, the U.S., Japan and Australia in the Philippines in November in which the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region were discussed.

"We will expand our defense and security cooperation with India, a Major Defense Partner of the United States, and support India's growing relationships throughout the region," the NSS states.

It says that the U.S. would "deepen our strategic partnership with India and support its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.”

And what will come as music to New Delhi's ears is the reference to Pakistan from the perspective of terrorism.

"We will press Pakistan to intensify its counter-terrorism efforts, since no partnership can survive a country's support for militants and terrorists who target a partner's own service members and officials," the NSS states.

It also states that the U.S. would encourage India to increase its economic assistance in the region.

Trump continued with his praise of Modi at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vietnam in November where he said that the Indian leader was working to bring his country and its people together.

Soon after this, Trump and Modi again met on the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia Summits in the Philippines, a meeting that was described as "warm and productive.”

Modi-Trump bonhomie apart, high-level visits continued between the two sides throughout the year.

After the Indian leader's visit to Washington in June, both U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited India.

From the Indian side, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, then Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu and Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan were among those who visited the U.S.

Another highlight of India-U.S. ties this year was President Trump's announcement of a new U.S. policy on South Asia that called for India playing a key role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

The appointment of Kenneth Juster as the new U.S. ambassador in New Delhi came in for praise from all quarters. Juster is an old India hand who played a key role in the India-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.

On its part, New Delhi, reflecting the government's tendency of keeping faith in trusted people in key diplomatic posts, extended by a year the term of Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Navtej Sarna, who was to retire at November-end.

Another highlight was the visit of President Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump to Hyderabad for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, hosted by India for the first time.

This year also saw a shipment of American crude oil arriving in India, marking the first U.S. oil export to India in more than four decades.

On the downside of the bilateral issue this year, however, was the H-1B visa issue that continues to remain prickly.

Soon after taking over as president, Trump called for stricter norms for issuance of H-1B visas, largely availed of by Indian IT firms. A private member's bill was also introduced earlier this year in the U.S. Congress by Democrat Zoe Lofgren which seeks to increase the minimum salary of an H-1B visa holder to a whopping $130,000 from the current minimum of $60,000.

While Trump has spoken of restricting the H-1B visa system as part of his policy of putting Americans first, there have been no changes to it so far and for this year the same levels of 65,000 for general H-1B visas and 20,000 for those with advanced U.S. degrees have been kept.

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