By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday hailed a first meeting between President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “historic and productive,” and said Trump recognizes U.S. ties with India as “one of the most important strategic relationships in the 21st century.”
Addressing the U.S.-India Business Council a day after Trump’s first meeting with Modi in Washington, Pence stressed that India must continue to enact economic reforms to ensure the bilateral trade relationship was reciprocal.
Pence echoed Trump’s remarks in the White House Rose Garden on Monday, when the president called on India to relax trade barriers while taking pains to stress the importance of a strong U.S.-India relationship.
Pence praised Modi’s move to simplify his country’s goods and services tax, strengthen protection of intellectual property rights and break down barriers to investment and market access, but said India needed to do more to create the “fair and reciprocal” trade relationship Trump sought.
“We truly believe, with great respect, that the time to act is now,” Pence added.
The vice president emphasized the growing security relationship with India, both in the fight against terrorism and to ensure unimpeded movement of commerce – an allusion to shared concerns about China’s territorial claims in Asia.
“President Trump recognizes that the United States’ relationship with India is one of the most important strategic relationships in the 21st century,” he said.
Pence pointed to fast-expanding U.S. defense sales to India and added: “The United States will continue to enable the Indian armed forces to obtain the resources and technology it needs to protect the Indian people and support security in the region.”
He said the United States would sell India Sea Guardian drones, Apache attack helicopters and C-17 transport aircraft and said that the process to approve the sales was “underway as we speak.”
The White House said after Trump’s meeting with Modi that it had offered India the naval variant of the Predator drone made by U.S. defense contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, a deal that would be worth more than $2 billion.
Such a sale of sensitive hardware must be authorized by the State Department before being sent to Congress for review.
As Modi and Trump met on Monday, a Pentagon agency said the State Department had approved the possible sale of a Boeing C-17 transport aircraft with an estimated cost of $366 million.
The Apache deal dates back to 2010 when Congress was notified of a $1.4 billion potential sale of 22 Apaches to the Indian Air Force. In 2015, Boeing Co announced the order had been finalized, but did not disclose a price. The first deliveries are scheduled for 2019. A source familiar with the deal said the Indian Air Force has some options for additional Apaches and the Indian Army has also expressed interest in the aircraft.
The White House said that if completed, the new sales would increase bilateral defense trade to nearly $19 billion.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; additional reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)