The high point of the Obama visit was Mr Modi’s effort to lure the visiting President into a strategic dialogue signifying his thinking on the evolution of India’s view of its neighbourhood and the world
Beyond the two key agreements on nuclear cooperation and a new 10-year defence arrangement reached in Delhi during US President Barack Obama’s Republic Day visit is a set of premises. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come to the conclusion, as the Chinese did in relation to their country before their steep economic climb, that America is the only nation that can help transform India become a big league economic power in a reasonable time frame.
On the American side there is recognition that, given China’s new assertiveness, India is the only Asian country that can balance Beijing to checkmate it. Washington is, of course, also keen to exploit the immense Indian market, but geopolitical interests predominate. On New Delhi’s part, Mr Modi is quite prepared to pay the political price for economic and technological help because Indo-US strategic interests in the region converge more than they diverge.
It was, of course, easier for China’s patriarch Deng Xiaoping to make a 360-degree turn to become an American buddy for economic profit his picture in those courting days in a cowboy hat on his American safari remains an iconic image. In India’s case, its rumbustious democracy makes a shift to befriend the US over its traditional non-aligned creed harder. But Mr Modi has proved an adept politician and can probably swing it.
Indeed, the logic of the joint strategic vision for Asia-Pacific implies that New Delhi sees its own interests buttressed, rather than impinged, by US policy on the Indian and Pacific oceans. New Delhi has aligned with Washington in seeking to safeguard maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flights in the region, especially in the South China Sea. No wonder Beijing reacted sharply, with the semi-official Global Times declaring that the US was trying to recruit India as a partner, “even as an ally”, for its “pivot to Asia” to counter China’s rise.
It is important to remember that the agreements arrived at in Delhi are only the beginning of a process, with political battles to be fought on both Indian and American sides. The presidential visit must be classed a success for the common ground reached on a whole range of issues. The compromise on the nuclear liability law is a formulation that sidesteps the Indian nuclear liability law for suppliers that stymied American companies’ efforts to build power plants in India for six years. It has taken an insurance route, in addition to a projected Indian sovereign guarantee. On the American side, an attempt to tag nuclear material, along with built-in international inspections, was waived by President Obama.
The new defence agreement that replaces the previous pact is wider in scope and projects the development of future joint technological ventures to fit into Mr Modi’s “Make in India” credo. But these are essentially framework agreements. US companies must decide for themselves, even outside possible legal challenges, whether the new framework yields reasonable profits.
On the joint development of high technology defence products, much work remains to be done in finally fixing the projects and their cost. One must remember that getting high technology has thus far proved to be a tortuous exercise for India.
The high point of the Obama visit was Mr Modi’s great effort to lure the visiting President into a wide, strategic dialogue signifying his, and the new government’s, thinking on the evolution of India’s view of its neighbourhood and the world. Non-alignment served an essential purpose when it was born and propagated. It is a starkly different world today. One superpower has disappeared, and although Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union, remains a power in its own right, China is on its way to emerging as a superpower and is already bandying about the virtues of a two-power dispensation in the world.
Russia remains an important country for India, particularly as supplier of the bulk of its military equipment. What Mr Modi is now proposing is a reorientation of New Delhi’s policies taking into account new realities. The United States must become a major source of economic investment in infrastructure, high technology and anti-terrorist operations its share of defence supplies is rising dramatically, as is Israel’s. And China is a major country to engage with and guard against for both countries.
As Mr Modi showed in Gujarat, he does not believe in half measures. He received President Obama at the airport breaking protocol, and the number of times he engaged with the visiting head at bilateral and delegation levels must have set a record. For his domestic audience, he gave a demonstration of his single-mindedness in achieving his objectives, even calling the visitor by his first name a compliment that was not returned.
President Obama, on his part, made clear his interest in a closer relationship with India, describing the two countries as “natural partners”. India, of course, has to remember that he is in the last two years of his term of office. While his critics often dismiss him as a lame duck President, he has considerable authority in the field of foreign policy witness his bold initiative to end the anachronistic boycott of Cuba. His ability at domestic policy-making is limited after his party recently lost out to Republicans in both Houses on Capitol Hill. Mercifully, India enjoys support from both Republicans and Democrats and can bank on bipartisan help in most cases.
What was on view in Delhi was Mr Modi’s showmanship in his partiality for extravagant headgear as well as in greeting President Obama with hugs. Basically, the Prime Minister was building on his meeting with the US President in the White House last September and found him receptive to another series of meetings. He knows that a summit-level meeting is the best stimulus for bureaucracies to solve problems. As an aperitif, the US has promised $4 billion in loans and investments, also to encourage India go the clean energy path.