President Trump is making his first trip to India as commander in chief, a two-day swing to the subcontinent that will be heavy on spectacle amid a standoff between Washington and New Delhi on trade.
The trip beginning Monday is expected to feature some dramatic moments and large crowd sizes that are sure to please the pageant-prone president.
Trump is expected to be warmly welcomed in India with a road show in the city of Ahmedabad, and he will headline the opening of the world’s largest cricket stadium, an appearance that is expected to draw a crowd of more than 100,000 people.
Trump celebrated the expected crowd size this week, telling reporters at Andrews Airforce Base Modi expected there to be “7 million people between the airport and the event.”
“It’s going to be very exciting,” Trump said. “I hope you all enjoy it.”
Trump will become the fourth consecutive president to visit India during his tenure, and the trip reflects and indeed cements the evolution of the U.S.-India bilateral relationship into a key strategic partnership since the early 2000s.
Nevertheless, tensions between the United States and India over trade are likely to hang over the meeting between Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though the two have a positive bond and are likely to display that relationship in public even if they discuss any disagreements in private.
Trump has in recent days cast doubt on the prospect of a trade agreement being finalized during his trip, suggesting it may not come until after the November presidential election.
“We’re going to India and we may make a tremendous deal there, or maybe we’ll slow it down, we’ll do it after the election,” Trump said Thursday during a speech at a graduation ceremony for ex-felons in Las Vegas. “I think that could happen, too. We’ll see what happens, but we’re only making deals if they’re good deals because we’re putting America first.”
Those remarks have diminished hopes on both sides for reaching an agreement during the visit despite months of negotiations.
“The big missing deliverable, at least for now, seems likely to be the one both countries have sought, which is the trade deal,” said Tanvi Madan, an expert on U.S.-India relations at the Brookings Institution. “Could they still pull a rabbit out of a hat? Possibly.”
A senior administration official said Friday any progress on trade would be “wholly dependent” on India’s actions, citing concerns on the U.S. side about New Delhi’s increased protectionism.
“We have had a number of announcements coming from India in the past several weeks which are making the discussions a bit more difficult for us,” the official said. “We will be discussing those concerns and what we see as an increase in barriers and not an increase.”
“Whether or not there will be an announcement on a trade package is really wholly dependent upon what the Indians are prepared to do,” the official continued.
Experts predict both sides will highlight points of shared ground, particularly in the area of security and defense cooperation amid concerns about China, in order to showcase the importance of the bilateral relationship. India is said to be finalizing a deal to purchase U.S. military helicopters ahead of the trip, something Trump will be able to promote as an accomplishment of his administration.
India’s purchases of U.S. defense equipment have reached about $18 billion total as the country has moved away from Russian supplies over the last decade, and the expected $2.6 billion naval helicopter deal would further increase that number.
“The United States is an increasingly important partner for India,” Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said of the defense cooperation.
“The defense procurement will highlight that aspect of the relationship despite the ups and downs, the domestic challenges and the ups and downs on the trade issues,” added Ayres, a former deputy assistant secretary of State for South Asia during the Obama administration.
Trump’s trip to India will be relatively brief but packed with meetings and events, spanning roughly 36 hours and three cities.
The president, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump and a 12-person delegation, will arrive on Monday in Ahmedabad to deliver the stadium remarks alongside Modi. They will then visit the Taj Mahal in Agra before flying to New Delhi.
On Tuesday, the president and U.S. officials will participate in ceremonial events, bilateral meetings, a business event and a meet-and-greet with U.S. Embassy staff capped off with a state dinner that evening.
Trump has met with Modi a handful of times, including in the Oval Office during the first year of his presidency, and the two have a warm relationship by all accounts.
Modi has drawn comparisons to Trump, particularly because both won election on populist platforms. The Hindu nationalist rhetoric of Modi and his ruling BJP party have also been likened to Trump’s “America First” agenda.
The president accompanied Modi to a cultural rally in Houston last fall that attracted a crowd of roughly 50,000 Indian-Americans. The stateside rally came months after Modi won reelection in a landslide.
Still, the two-day trip will not be without thorny issues beyond the ongoing trade impasse.
Trump may again raise the long-running conflict between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region after saying last year that Modi had asked him to mediate the dispute — a claim India denied.
The senior administration official said Friday that Trump would encourage bilateral dialogue and “urge both countries to seek to maintain peace and stability along the line of control and refrain from actions or statements that could increase tensions in the region.”
“We know very well that the Indian government has a lot of concerns about this and about what that might mean for the ability of terrorists to more fully set their sights on India,” said Ayres.
And asked if Trump would raise concerns about India’s new citizenship law which has been criticized for excluding Muslims, the senior administration official hinted the president may not address the issue explicitly but allude to it by discussing religious freedom.
“I think President Trump will talk about our shared traditions of democracy and religious freedom both in his public remarks and then certainly in private he will raise these issues, particularly the religious freedom issue, which is extremely important to this administration,” the official told reporters.