India eyes breakthrough on U.S. surveillance drones ahead of Modi trip
NEW DELHI/WASHINGTON: India is pushing for U.S. approval of its request to buy a naval variant of the Predator drone, officials said, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi tries to revitalise relations with Washington when he meets President Donald Trump for the first time.
Securing agreement on the purchase of 22 unarmed drones is seen in New Delhi as a key test of defence ties that flourished under former President Barack Obama but have drifted under Trump, who has courted Asian rival China as he seeks Beijing’s help to contain North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Modi’s two-day visit to Washington begins on Sunday. Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping in April and has also had face-time with the leaders of nations including Japan, Britain and Vietnam since taking office in January, prompting anxiety in New Delhi that India is no longer a priority in Washington.
If the Indian navy gets the unarmed surveillance drones it wants to keep watch over the Indian Ocean it would be the first such purchase by a country that is not a member of the NATO alliance.
“We are trying to move it to the top of the agenda as a deliverable, this is something that can happen before all the other items,” said one official tracking the progress of the drone discussions in the run-up to the visit.
India, a big buyer of U.S. arms recently named by Washington as a major defence ally, wants to protect its 7,500 km (4,700 mile) coastline as Beijing expands its maritime trade routes and Chinese submarines increasingly lurk in regional waters.
But sources tracking the discussions say the U.S. State Department has been concerned about the potential destabilising impact of introducing high-tech drones into South Asia, where tensions are simmering between India and Pakistan, particularly over Kashmir, which is divided between them.
Other strains have emerged, with the United States vexed by a growing bilateral trade deficit and Trump accusing New Delhi of negotiating unscrupulously at the Paris climate talks to walk away with billions in aid.
U.S. officials expect a relatively low-key visit by Modi, without the fanfare of some of his previous trips to the United States, and one geared to giving the Indian leader the chance to get to know Trump personally and to show that he is doing so.
Modi is also not expected to press hard on a U.S. visa programme the Trump administration is reviewing to reduce the flow of skilled foreign workers and save jobs for Americans, seeing limited gains from raising a sensitive issue, they said.
Indian Trade Secretary Ria Teaotia told reporters this week the H-1B visa programme, under which Indian IT firms send large numbers of professionals to the United States, would be one of the one issues on the table during Modi’s visit.
“There is a palpable fear in New Delhi that the new U.S. president’s lack of focus on India, and limited appointment of South Asia focused advisors, has resulted in India falling off the radar in Washington,” Eurasia Group’s Shailesh Kumar and Sasha Riser-Kositsky said in a note.
Defence deals, however, are one area where the two countries could make progress because of bipartisan support, an Indian official involved in the preparations for the visit said.
The two sides have stepped up efforts in recent weeks to get inter-agency clearance for the sale of the Guardian drone, made by California-based General Atomics.