Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Modi's visit to Washington reflects growing strategic alignment

Modi's visit to Washington reflects growing strategic alignment
Published 14 Jun 2016 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US last week was dubbed in Indian diplomatic parlance as a visit for 'celebrations and consolidation' of a relationship that has been brought to fruition by President Barack Obama, building on the base carved out by President George Bush in 2004 and 2005.

No doubt, Modi wished to say 'thank you' to Obama while he was still in the White House, but also wished to show that the US-India relationship should persist at the same pace in the future. This was witnessed during Modi's address to at a Joint Session of US Congress in which he not only underlined the convergence of Indian and US strategic interests, but also traced the trajectory of bilateral relations from 'hesitations' to 'comfort and candour' to 'symphony'. This received a thundering applause from Congressional members, demonstrating bipartisan support for long term engagement with India, irrespective of whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton ascends to the White House in 2017.

A turning point in relations between India and the US started with the signing of the Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2005. This Agreement remained relatively low key mainly because of India's punitive liability provisions for nuclear suppliers. However, Obama's visit to India in January 2015 resulted in mutually agreed terms. During Modi's recent visit to Washington, he reached an agreement with Westinghouse for the construction of six AP1000 nuclear reactors in India. Further envisaging potential for defense cooperation, India was elevated to the status of a 'Major Defense Partner'. This was highlighted in the joint statement released by Obama and Modi, that with a convergence in strategic interests the US would facilitate technology sharing 'to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners'.

Modi, with imported technology to produce clean energy, assured India's intention to ratify the Paris Agreement to support Obama's agenda of global climate change. This has opened new vistas for India to receive license free access to dual clean energy technologies. 

To combat the menace of terrorism, both countries gave new impetus to understanding each other's perspectives. In the past, India has emphasised cross-border terrorism whereas the US concentrated on the threat of international terrorism. In the latest meeting, Modi underlined cross-border as well as international terrorism. In a similar vein, Obama said that Pakistan should bring to justice the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai and 2016 Pathankot attacks. [fold]

Yet another objective of the Modi visit was to garner support for its accession to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). In this regard, with active support of the Obama Administration, India met all the requirements to become a member of the MTCR on 7 June 2016 during Modi's stay in Washington. This became possible with the consensus of all 34 MTCR members who raised no objection to India's entry, mostly due to US influence. Gaining entry in the NSG is more complicated.

Though Obama has repeatedly endorsed the fact that India meets the necessary requirements, MTCR members, also constituting the core of the NSG, have assured their support, but reservation emanates from China. Beijing insists on 'hyphenating' Pakistan with India. As it is evident that Islamabad secretly shared nuclear technology with North Korea and Iran, the perceived proliferation risks have not been well received by many members.

Based on this China, even with pressure from the Obama Administration and manoeuvres by New Delhi, has expressed its concerns about India's entry in the Group. Though efforts will continue to attempt to sway China until the NSG plenary meeting on 24-25 June, if Beijing votes against India it will be isolated in the international forum. If India does not get NSG membership due to China's actions, this will prove to be a stumbling block in future India-China relations. It will also prove to be an enabler for India to further strengthen its relations with the US.

Yet another facet of the Modi visit was to reinforce the convergence in India-US strategic relations against the backdrop of a rising China and its hegemonic-like policy postures in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Previously, New Delhi had the impression that there was enough space for India and China to grow simultaneously. This presumption reached a dead end with Beijing declaring Masood Azhar a terrorist in the UN Security Council, by sailing nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean and constructing infrastructure as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through 'India-claimed territory'.

However, India is still optimistic that China will budge on the NSG issue, as occurred in 2008 when the Group granted a special waiver to India. Perhaps keeping this in mind, there were no references to the South China Sea in the joint statement released by Modi and Obama. This was to give China a chance for second thought. Considering other major countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, Philippines and Vietnam have renewed their relationship with the US as part of the Obama Administration's rebalance to the Indo-Pacific region, the ball is in the Chinese court as to how it will respond. 

While not mentioning the South China Sea, the joint statement outlined that no one country would be allowed to dominate the Asia-Pacific region and should respect the Law of the Sea and freedom of navigation. In a 'road map', US and India have clearly outlined a position against a unipolar Asia headed by China. 

While India is not in a position to achieve its goals on its own, it can rather achieve what it aspires for through the help of the US. This took place against the backdrop of China being averse to accommodate India. However, this equation may change, in the case that China supports India's claim for NSG membership. Perhaps India will have to revert its position to address China's apprehensions with the US and its allies. Therefore, it is time for India to chalk out its long term strategy because while playing with two big powers, it cannot retain its 'non-aligned' posture, 'strategic autonomy' and 'credible deterrence' as it must eventually side with China or the US.

Photo courtesy of the White House.



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