Trade, terrorism, and H-1B: Modi and Trump’s first meeting has a big menu

Power trip.
Power trip.
Image: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke/AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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Donald Trump will finally meet his “true friend” Narendra Modi on Monday (June 26).

The US president will host a working dinner for the Indian prime minister, a first by the Trump administration for a visiting dignitary. On the table will be a number of issues ranging from terrorism and regional security to trade and visas.

Modi’s White House visit comes a year after he travelled to Washington to meet Trump’s predecessor. Barack Obama and Modi had shared a visible camaraderie—even described as bromance—that helped further Indo-US ties. Modi, in all likelihood, will seek to forge a similar relationship with Trump.

Quartz spoke to foreign policy experts to understand what could be expected out of the meetings. Here are their responses:

How do you think Trump and Modi will get along?

Christine Fair, associate professor at Georgetown University: 

Trump is unpredictable and narcissistic. I have NO idea how this will go. I doubt anyone can tell you authoritatively how this rapport will develop.

Michael Kugelman, senior associate for south and southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre:

…I would argue that there’s actually much in common between Trump and Modi. Just consider their conservative politics, their pro-business bona fides, and their uneasy relationships with the media, coupled with a strong embrace of social media. I imagine that this first encounter will be a warm one and that they will develop some strong chemistry. I’m not saying we’ll see the bear hugs of the Obama-Modi bromance—Trump doesn’t strike me as a big hugger—but I do think there’s potential for a warm personal relationship.

Madhav Nalapat, UNESCO peace chair at Manipal University: 

Obama and Modi both came from underprivileged backgrounds and a social setup different from that of the parties they ended up running. But their temperaments were different. While the backgrounds of Modi and Trump are vastly different, in many ways their personalities match. Hence, the odds are good that they will establish a personal rapport.

What do you think the meeting on Monday will be all about? 

Milan Vaishnav, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Defence is the sector to watch. This is where cooperation has seen steady progress over the last few administrations. I would not look for big new deliverables in other areas. Energy is one possible exception, with India keen to have access to US LNG imports.

Constantino Xavier, fellow at Carnegie India:

Across various sectors, whether defence deals or trade and investments, the question is whether Modi and Trump will be able to strike the right balance between their respective “Make in India” and “America first” campaigns. It is likely that Trump will accord the DoD (department of defense) significant autonomy to continue engaging India on strategic and security issues.

Michael Kugelman:

I imagine the main deals we’ll be hearing about on Monday are the ones that have already been announced. I don’t see the Monday meeting as a deal-making session, I see it more as a get-to-know-you encounter. Modi will likely try to keep the tone positive, and so I doubt he’ll bring up economic and trade matters, where there are some considerable irritants, and instead he’ll focus on all the potential for more arms deals.

Do you think Modi will bring up the H-1B visa issue with Trump?

Persis Khambatta, managing director for south asia at consultancy BowerGroupAsia: 

It’s not clear how or if Modi will raise the immigration issue in this initial meeting with Trump, as the goal for the “no frills” visit is to set the tone for the relationship moving forward. What we do know is that the Trump administration views immigration as an enforcement issue, including the perceived abuse of high skill visas—they want to enforce the rules more strictly in order to root out any fraud in the system. In their view, India-centric companies abuse the system by using it in a way that was not intended when the program was created. Instead of an adversarial approach, the issue may be raised in a broader discussion of job creation, given the challenges both leaders face in their own countries.

Milan Vaishnav:

I think Modi will bring H-1B up, though he is not likely to press Trump too far to reverse his administrations executive order. Rather, I think Modi will emphasise two things. First, any future changes in the visa regimes should be predictable and communicated to India in advance, both for citizens and firms. Second, Modi will highlight the win-win nature of labour mobility; Indian IT companies have invested billions of dollars in the United States and they have announced new plans to increase local hiring in the coming years.

What could they discuss about South Asian security and terrorism?

Constantino Xavier:

Trump and Modi are expected to see eye-to-eye on combating terrorism, so we should expect a deepening of intelligence sharing mechanisms, which India has been very keen on. The US president will also be inclined to further delegate responsibilities to New Delhi in managing the Indian Ocean.

On Afghanistan, while it is unlikely that India will increase its commitments there, the ball will be in Washington’s court to convince India that there is still hope to stabilise the country and minimise Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban. Trump’s commitment to revive the New Silk Road is a positive indication for India.

Madhav Nalapat:

Apart from Afghanistan, South Asia is unlikely to be a focus area. The South China Sea and later the Middle East will be primary regions of coordination. In this context the Modi visit to Israel is significant.


Most of the heavy lifting on securing congruence will be behind closed doors. What will be made public will be the broad outline of an evolving partnership. Both Trump and Modi have hard work at hand to lift the relationship beyond the rut it constantly falls into as a consequence of bureaucratic inertia and lack of political will. Both are strong leaders and if they assert themselves, the next year will see a rapid expansion in cooperation.

What about China?

Michael Kugelman:

The US policy on China is a bit of a wildcard at this point. Trump’s own position toward China has veered from openly hostile to cautiously conciliatory. That said, I still think that both he and Modi are of the same mind in their concern about China’s increasing activities and provocations in the South China Sea. We can expect to see, in any joint statement to come out of Monday’s meeting, some reference to US-India cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. China may not be mentioned, but the message would be clear as to what is driving that cooperation.

Christine Fair:

The logic of US-India cooperation since George W Bush has been a shared commitment to managing the uncertain rise of China and the shared view that China is a threat to be countered. This was the logic of the US-India nuclear deal. India was very worried in the early years of the Obama first administration because he said China was our most important partner and HRC (Hillary Clinton) went to China before India. (One reason for that was that he was waiting for the results of India’s election.) Obama and India converged again on managing China’s rise.

Trump so far seems to have reneged on his campaign commitment to be harder on China and is hoping that China will come up with a North Korea solution. So, this is a major question mark.