Trump India visit: Anti-Muslim citizenship law and stalled trade deal to headline trip

John T Bennett
AFP via Getty

Citizenship law changes in India that block Muslim migrants from obtaining citizenship and a stalled trade pact will highlight Donald Trump's agenda when he makes his first diplomat trip to the country next week.

The US president will be feted at the Taj Mahal on Monday alongside India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, before high-stakes meetings on Tuesday in New Delhi and a state dinner that evening. The duo appeared onstage in September in Houston, at an event the White House and Indian officials called "Howdy Modi."

The two leaders are slated to hold private meetings on Tuesday, with a slew of items on the docket. That includes how best to further grow US energy exports to the Indo-Pacific giant and maintaining order in the region's seas, which also are traversed by the sometimes-rabble-rousing Chinese navy, said a senior administration official who only alluded to India's neighbor.

But among the top agenda items will be the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by Modi's administration late last year, which gives a route to citizenship to migrants of all major religious groups except one: Muslims.

"I expect it will come up" when Mr Trump and Mr Modi speak on Tuesday, the senior administration official said on a Friday afternoon conference call with reporters.

The same senior official said the US president and others in the administration have "concerns" about the law, noting religious freedom is "important" to the White House.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is independent of the White House, warned the law represents "a significant downward turn in religious freedom in India."

Meantime, Mr Trump long has predicted he and Mr Modi will soon strike a sweeping trade pact. Doing so would add such an agreement to several others his administration has inked with China and Japan, as well as one with Canada and Mexico.

The American president would, if the two sides can strike a deal, achieve another 2016 campaign promise. Re-writing the United States' major trade pacts was a top vow he made to voters. But when he tried to tout a deal with New Delhi on Thursday during an event with former inmates in Las Vegas, he turned instead to the size of his social media presence.

"We had horrible, horrible deals, or no deals at all, and now we have phenomenal deals. We made a massive deal with China. Then we did the USMCA; that's Mexico, Canada. We did a $40 billion-a-year deal with Japan and we did a deal with South Korea, and we have other deals, too," he said. "And I'm going to India next week and we're talking about – you know, they have 1.5 billion people, and Prime Minister Modi is No. 2 on Facebook. No. 2. Think of that."

"You know who No. 1 is? Trump," he said boastfully. "Do you believe that? Trump. No. 1."

Soon, however, he was back on topic – though it was not immediately clear why he spoke about an unfinished trade deal at an event about an organization that strives to help former convicts transition into civilian society. And, in typical fashion, he committed to nothing, while still leaving open the door a massive trade pact might come together in the next four days.

"But 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. I think that could happen too," he said before dropping his signature, made-for-television-cliffhanger line: "So we'll see what happens."

But there are "a lot, a bunch" of unresolved issues, the senior administration official said of months-old talks. The White House sees "an increase in barriers, not a decrease," the official said, meaning blockages to US services and goods being allowed into India.

"Whether or not an announcement on a trade pact," the senior official said, "is really wholly dependent on what the Indians are prepared to do."

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