U.S. and India Remain 'Pretty Far Apart' on Key Issues Despite Trump's 'Very Productive' Visit, Experts Say

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that this week's trip to India—his first since taking office—was "tremendous," lauding his personal relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and predicting closer ties between Washington and New Delhi.

New defense deals were signed and both leaders basked in the appreciation of more than 100,000 Modi loyalists at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad, where Trump received his raucous welcome on Monday.

Modi said the two nations would embark on a "comprehensive global strategic partnership," which will be encouraging to the Americans hoping to counter growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

But the smiles, hugs and weapons deals hid the lack of tangible progress, according to two experts who spoke to Newsweek as Trump left India. He and Modi may agree that China is a problem, but that is some way from agreeing a strategic plan to contain it.

"This is a visit without a lot of substance," said Irfan Nooruddin, the director of the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center. "The only thing that they have in common is that at this particular moment in time, they both agree that China is a concern. But they don't actually have a plan."

Trump said he enjoyed a "very productive visit," but the two leaders were unable to announce progress on a long-awaited trade deal between two of the world's largest economies. Both leaders have been protectionist, and Trump several times allowed frustration at India's trade policies to show.

"Everything was headed in the wrong direction for a significant trade deal," said Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank.

This is the second time that the two sides have failed to finalize the trade deal, having been unsuccessful when Modi visited the U.S. last year and at the United Nations General Assembly. Trump has now suggested the deal might not be signed before the presidential election in November, and Nooruddin suggested that the two sides are "pretty far apart on a lot of very basic issues."

They might agree that China is a concern, but Nooruddin said that the two nations ultimately see the challenge differently. While the U.S. considers China the number one global strategic issue of the coming decades, India is more focused on its northeastern border and with trying to make its economy competitive against China's.

Modi's government has adopted a modern version of non-alignment, the strategy adopted by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the Cold War. This "multi-alignment" strategy runs counter to Trump's transactional view of international relations.

"India sees China as a threat but isn't actually playing the kind of role that countries like the U.S. traditionally would have played to kind of counter China," Price said, though Washington may have once hoped it would.

India was happy to sit out the U.S. trade war with China, Price added, and avoid having to side with the Americans and lose access to cheaper Chinese technology. Behind the photo ops, "There's not a lot there in terms of broad Indo-Pacific strategy," Nooruddin suggested.

Trump boasted Monday of recent joint military exercises between the Indian and American militaries, and warships from both navies have participated in joint operations in the volatile South China Sea. Regardless, "India has no interest in being dragged into a war with China" in the Pacific, Nooruddin said. New Delhi's focus is its contested northeastern border.

Big defense deals and joint exercises are "a long way from a strategic plan to what actually happens if there were suddenly bullets flying involving the Chinese."

Both the U.S. and India stand to gain from closer ties, at least to a point. Trump gets another warm relationship with a strongman leader, points among some of the Indian diaspora in the U.S., and lucrative new weapons deals. Modi, meanwhile, gets to bolster his image as a global statesman and will feel more confident in its spats with Beijing.

"It makes for good optics, and that's not a bad thing," Nooruddin said, though the impact is already being lessened by communal rioting in Delhi which erupted even while Trump was still in the country.

Price noted that drawing closer to the U.S. might force Beijing to treat India less dismissively. "India wants respect from China," he explained. "When it looks as though it's moving closer to the U.S. it gets more respect from China."

Modi will try to leverage American concerns over China to India's benefit, Nooruddin said, knowing that Washington wants to use his nation as a hedge against growing Chinese power. This means more high-tech weaponry and diplomatic cooperation, he said. "I think you're going to see a lot more of that."

Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, US, India, visit
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a joint press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on February 25, 2020. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images/Getty
U.S. and India Remain 'Pretty Far Apart' on Key Issues Despite Trump's 'Very Productive' Visit, Experts Say | Politics