President Obama Second Coming
On India’s part, increasing public awareness in India of the US support to our national security concerns in our region and beyond should help in balancing deep-rooted perceptions of the unreliability of the US as a defence supplier
Indo-US geopolitical and strategic relations have never been as upbeat and as promising as they stand today. During his five days rollercoaster visit to the United States in September 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came across as a charismatic Indian leader who not only broke the ice with the US leadership but also reopened the India-US relations door, which was tending to frustrate in the UPA II tenure. His initiative to invite President Barack Obama as the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade, and its acceptance by the latter has raised the level and expectations of the Indo-US relations to a high level.
Before listing new and analysing some stalled strategic and economic issues, it would be appropriate to mention the agenda and promises made by Modi during his visit to the US. Let there be no doubt that before the US leaders and businessmen roll out revised policies, technologies and investments, they would want to know if Modi is capable of delivering what he promised so emphatically in the US.
Modi’s emphasis in Washington DC was on business investments in India, particularly in the manufacturing sector. He had said, “I am business minded. No businessman is a donor. A businessman has to make profits. He must get a return for his investment and I am in favour of that…Make haste before the queue to invest in India gets too long.” He promised to simplify Indian laws, rules and regulations that impacted many businesses adversely. The US lawmakers and businessmen accompanying Obama would want to know the progress on these.
An important connected but tangled issue is the civil nuclear energy cooperation. The Indian Parliament’s August 2010 legislation on the nuclear liability of operators and suppliers had virtually shut out
American companies from participating in India’s nuclear power generation industry. Since then there have been many discussions including a proposal to set up a common insurance ‘pool’ to compensate suppliers in case of a nuclear accident. Modi said that he was serious about removing roadblocks in the civil nuclear energy cooperation. The ‘contact group’ established for this purpose has been busy discussing the contentious liability, and other administrative and technical issues related to implementation, but we have yet to reach a mutually acceptable formulation.
A somewhat related issue is the future climate change negotiations. The recent Sino-US communiqué and the forthcoming global conference in Paris on this issue have put further pressure on India to work out its intended goals quickly.
During Modi’s US visit, India and the United States had agreed to extend the US-India Framework for Defence Relationship (2005) by another 10 years. The old framework signed by the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was to replace past mutual suspicions with extensive defence ties based on shared political objectives and an active agenda for military cooperation. The key features included protection of sea lanes on important oceanic routes like the Malacca Strait, joint military exercises, cooperation to combat terrorism and defence trade with a “framework of technology security safeguards, increase opportunities for technology transfer, collaboration, coproduction, and research and development.” This was a bold initia- tive. Its vast scope could not be exploited due to (a) lack of political consensus in India, (b) continuing suspicions over US policies in Af-Pak, (c) cautious approach in the US to pass defence technologies, and (d) bureaucratic lethargy in both countries. Even the high level, inter-agency Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, set up in 2012, has failed to make any substantial contribution. Will there be a new framework enhancing defence relationship during Obama visit? Its emphasis would have to be on the execution of Modi’s ‘Make in India’ policy of India’s defence needs.
Another topic discussed in Washington DC was cooperation in counter terrorism. Both the US and India agreed to collaborate on dismantling the safe havens and disrupting the financial networks of Pakistani terror outfits. They had also agreed to prevent counterfeit currency, limit the use of cyberspace by terrorists and identify modalities to exchange terrorist watch lists. The US unusually strong warning to Pakistan on January 18, 2015, to ensure that Obama’s visit is not disturbed by any cross border terror incident is most welcome. But it also raises a few tongue in cheek ques- tions and suspicions. First, that Pakistan controls cross border terror incidents into India and that the US is aware of it. The tap can be switched off at America’s bidding. Second, is it OK if such incidents happen before or after the visit?
There are many other strategic issues that require deep and continuous mutual discussions. The US needs to assure and support India unequivocally in its territorial claims vis- à- vis China. This would discourage Beijing from trying to change the territorial status quo, which can lead to a border conflict.
The US and India must intensify their bilateral consultations and ensure a measure of coordination between their respective policies on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Greater international pressure on Pakistan to crack down on its state and non-state sources of terrorism would not only contribute to the India-Pakistan peace process but also to Afghanistan’s stability. On account of our high strategic and economic stakes, the US must also put aside any hesitation on its part to include India in any multinational discussions on Afghanistan. There is also the need to remain in consultation and collaboration over the fast moving strategic picture in the Middle East and Iran, particularly the possibility of the Islamist extremists taking advantage of the political chaos in that region.
Ultimately, the success of the much needed Indo-US strategic partnership depends upon (a) bureaucracies in both countries not remaining prisoners of the past, (b) greater Indo-US consultation in working on the right strategies, (c) India’s domestic transformation agenda which the Prime Minister has promised, and (d) forging a domestic consensus over important strategic issues, which is a big problem in the existing political polarisation.
On India’s part, increasing public awareness in India of the US support to our national security concerns in our region and beyond should help in balancing deep-rooted perceptions of the unreliability of the US as a defence supplier. The US too needs to learn quickly the advantages of dealing with a partner which shares its values and several strategic interests but remains assertive of its autonomy. Late K. Subrahmanyam, the doyen of India’s strategic community, once said, “As the world changes, we should change too. It is stupid of us if we don’t. I always say that you can have a cat as a pet, or a dog, but certainly not an elephant! No American can treat India like a pet.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi shaking hand with President Barack Obama after press statement
at the White House in Washington DC on September 30, 2014
(Left) AH-64 Apache attack helicopter in flight; (right) CH-47F Chinook helicopters in action