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Warm Trump, Modi Talks Focus on Terrorism, Trade | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi exchanged hugs in the White House Rose Garden in front of reporters. ( AFP)

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a warm welcome in Washington where he met US President Donald Trump on Monday. Hugging outside the White House, Trump heralded an increasingly close strategic partnership as part of the war on terrorism.

Trump declared he was “true friend” of India and said relations between the two largest democracies have never been better. But there were some tensions in the inaugural meeting between the two populist leaders. On trade, Trump demanded fewer barriers for American companies exporting to India.

Speaking in the Rose Garden after their talks, Trump said: “Both our nations have been struck by the evils of terrorism, and we are both determined to destroy terrorist organizations and the radical ideology that drives them. We will destroy terrorism.”

Modi stressed the importance of “doing away” with terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens, apparently reflecting Indian concerns about militants based in Pakistan, India’s historical archrival. He said the US and India will enhance intelligence-sharing.

Hours before Modi’s arrival, the State Department imposed sanctions on Syed Salahuddin, the Pakistan-based leader of Hizbul Mujahideen, the main rebel group that fights against Indian control in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir. India’s foreign ministry hailed the move.

Trump said he was pleased about an Indian airline’s recent order of 100 new American planes and that the United States looked forward to exporting more energy, including major long-term contracts to purchase American natural gas.

These energy contracts “are being negotiated and we will sign – trying to get the price up a little bit,” Trump said.

Modi came to Washington looking to revitalize a relationship that thrived under former President Barack Obama but has appeared to flag as Trump courted India’s rival China in an effort to persuade Beijing to do more to rein in North Korea. But Washington and New Delhi share concerns about China’s rise as a military power that have underpinned increasingly close relations in the past decade.

The Trump administration says it want to provide India with improved defense technology. The State Department on Monday approved the $365 million sale of a C-17 military transport aircraft to India. The administration is also set to offer a $2 billion sale of US-made unarmed drones to help in surveillance of the Indian Ocean.

Although Modi’s two-day Washington visit, which began Sunday, is lower-key than his previous three trips to the US since he took office in 2014, it has included plenty of face-time with Trump. Modi later joined the president and first lady for dinner — the first dinner Trump has hosted for a foreign dignitary at the White House, although he has hosted the leaders of Japan and China at his resort in Florida.

Trump and Modi share a populist streak and a knack for social media, but their economic nationalist agendas could clash. While Trump champions the idea of “America First” and wants to stop the migration of jobs overseas, Modi has his own drive to boost manufacturing at home, dubbed “Make in India.”

India is among the nations singled out by the Trump administration for their trade surpluses with the US, and it is also reviewing a visa program used heavily by skilled Indian workers. The U.S. deficit in goods and services with India last year was about $30 billion.

“It is important that barriers be removed to the export of US goods into your markets, and that we reduce our trade deficit with your country,” Trump said.

But Trump also lauded Modi’s economic stewardship, and the praise was mutual. Modi, who invited the president and his family to visit India, extolled Trump’s leadership qualities. He said the president’s “vast and successful experience in the business world will lend an aggressive and forward-looking agenda to our relations.”

When it comes to terrorism, Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center, said the two leaders have a similar worldview — that “it needs to be destroyed wherever it rears its murderous head.”

He said the designation of Salahuddin shows that Washington is willing to work closely with New Delhi on terrorism-related matters, although it remains to be seen if that signals a tougher policy toward Pakistan. India accuses Pakistan-based militants of launching attacks on its soil.

The two leaders voiced a joint interest in bringing stability to Afghanistan, where India has committed $3 billion in aid since 2001. However, in their public remarks, they skirted the contentious issue of climate change. New Delhi has been irked by Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris accord.