June 26, 2017 / 2:52 PM / in 2 months

Trump, Modi seek rapport despite friction on trade, immigration

FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 2, 2017.Mikhail Metzel/TASS/Host Photo Agency/Pool/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will hold their first face-to-face meeting in Washington on Monday, seeking to boost U.S.-Indian relations despite differences over trade, the Paris climate accord and immigration.

Their White House session promises less pomp than Modi's previous visits to Washington, which included former President Barack Obama taking him to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in 2014. It is Modi's fifth trip to the United States as prime minister.

"This meeting is, above all, an introduction, an opportunity for the two men to meet each other, to size each other up, and to get a sense of how each one views the other and the bilateral relationship on the whole," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at The Wilson Center.

Trump administration officials have pointed to both leaders' impact on social media - each has more than 30 million Twitter followers - as proof that they are cut from the same cloth, and predicted the two would get along well.

Trump built a Trump Tower property in Mumbai and spoke warmly of India during his presidential campaign last year.

"The White House is very interested in making this a special visit," said one senior official. "We’re really seeking to roll out the red carpet,"

Modi will try to strengthen ties that have appeared to loosen. Indian officials, noting both men's tendency to speak their mind, were anxious to see how they get along.

They will have one-on-one talks followed by statements to the news media without taking questions. They will then have a working dinner, the first time Trump has played host to a foreign dignitary at a White House dinner.

"If the chemistry is good, everything else gets sorted," said an Indian official. "The only way is up. How much up we go depends on the leaders. If they click, we go up higher."

Five U.S. senators, four Republicans and one Democrat, signed a letter to Trump expressing concern about violations of religious liberty in India, including discrimination against religious-based aid groups, and asking him to make the issue a top priority during Modi's visit.

The letter was signed by Republicans John Kennedy, Roy Blunt, Mike Crapo and James Lankford, and Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

Sikh organizations planned a protest in front of the White House on Monday.

While progress is expected in defense trade and cooperation, there are frictions elsewhere.

Trump, who campaigned on an "America First" platform, has been troubled by the growing U.S. trade deficit with India. He has called for reform of the H-1B visa system, which has benefited Indian tech firms.

He set the United States on a path to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and accused India of negotiating unscrupulously for the accord in order to walk away with billions of dollars in aid.

Meanwhile, Indian officials reject suggestions that Modi's "Make in India" platform is protectionist and complain about the U.S. regulatory process for generic pharmaceuticals and rules on fruit exports to the United States.

They stress the importance of the huge Indian market to U.S. companies and major growth in areas such as aviation, which offer significant opportunities for U.S. manufacturers.

Rick Rossow, an India expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the frictions in U.S.-Indian relations since Trump took office on Jan. 20 add gravity to the meeting.

"The meeting will provide more clarity on whether the past six months have been Act 1 in a surprising friendship or Round 1 of a protracted slugging match," he said.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Rigby and Steve Orlofsky

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