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Modi in the US: A truly strategic partnership?

Modi in the US: A truly strategic partnership?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's much anticipated and greatly feted visit to Washington has divided opinion.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New York, 26 September 2014 (Flickr/Narendra Modi)

The writer C. Raja Mohan concluded in the Indian Express that Modi and Obama had 'restored energy and direction to bilateral relations', and that Modi himself had 'brought much-needed clarity to Delhi's strategic calculus on America'. The German Marshal Fund's Dhruva Jaishankar, though warning that 'genuine collaboration' was some way away, hailed it as 'one of the most unusual and remarkable visits abroad by any Indian prime minister'. Yet Michael Kugelman, writing in the Wall Street Journal, called it 'long on pageantry and short on substance', and former Indian diplomat Kanwal Sibal saw 'no concrete announcements' and a lack of eye-catching results'. 

The truth is probably somewhere in-between. [fold]

Richard Rossow at CSIS suggested that the 'greatest strategic fissure', India's strict nuclear liability law and its effect on American nuclear companies, went entirely unaddressed. But it is clear that the two countries are making incremental but notable progress on a host of other important issues.

Their joint statement , as well as a co-authored op-ed in the Washington Post by Obama and Modi, was a powerful statement of 'strategic and global partnership'. As the Stimson Center's Joshua White noted , India's previous Congress-led Government 'believed much of this, but wouldn't have said it' out of sensitivity to real and perceived domestic political anti-Americanism.

Moreover, four security-related items stand out.

1. Commitment to counter-terrorism against a very specific set of Pakistan-linked groups , including – as India has long demanded – those, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and D-Company, both of which are of particular concern to Delhi.

2. US acknowledgement that India is ready for membership in key missile and nuclear export control groups (the Missile Technology Control Regime and Nuclear Suppliers Group), something that would represent the latest stage in its gradual entry into parts of the non-proliferation regime – of obvious interest to Australia as it debates its recent civil nuclear agreement with India. 

3. New areas of defence cooperation, including a US commitment to work with India's future National Defence University, an expansion of military-military partnerships, and 'enhancing exchanges of civilian and military intelligence'. Much anticipated joint weapons development didn't quite make the cut, although this seems to remain on the table awaiting Indian approval. 

4. Although China went unmentioned, the South China Sea did not,  a first for US-India statements. More importantly, an implicit parallel was drawn between the US pivot ('rebalancing') to Asia and India's own engagement with East and Southeast Asian nations, something that, however mild, constitutes one of the strongest indications of Indian support for the US policy (see the suitably petulant reply from the People's Daily). The leaders also agreed to upgrade the US-India MALABAR naval exercises and explore 'technology partnerships' for the Indian Navy, perhaps a very oblique allusion to earlier hints of joint shipbuilding. 

Each of these four steps does no more than build on foundations laid down by Modi's two predecessors, albeit with considerably greater enthusiasm than the previous Government was inclined to muster towards the end of its tenure. In the context of Modi's intensive engagement of US allies, including Japan and Australia, as well as other Chinese rivals, like Vietnam, this is significant.

The question is whether it adds up to something truly strategic – a greatly abused term. Writing before the visit, Ashley Tellis, the former US official and strong advocate of deepened US-India ties, had warned of the 'strong temptations both in Washington and in New Delhi to focus on the myriad initiatives' at the expense of the deeper question of 'why they should be forging a strategic partnership to begin with'. Tellis is clear that the 'core strategic imperatives' are simple: preserve a 'favourable Asian balance of power' and, for India, 'increase its bargaining capacity with formidable rivals such as China'.

But it is far from clear whether a critical mass in Delhi sees it this way. Although the bitterness from last October's diplomatic spat over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York is long gone, it's less clear whether India is convinced that its security and bargaining capacity are this inextricably bound up with a strong US-India partnership.

For instance, although Modi exhorted the US to go slow in its withdrawal from Afghanistan, many Indians still feel that US policy as they see it – premature departure, and shortsighted reconciliation with the Taliban – impinges adversely on India, far from helping it. Kanwal Sibal, quoted earlier, concluded his own assessment of the trip by pointing out that 'resolving problems with the US remain difficult, despite positive intentions'; that he didn't feel the need to enumerate these problems is, itself, telling. 

Moreover, as the Indian journalist Praveen Swami argued in the Indian Express on Tuesday, many in Delhi see in Washington a power in physical or intellectual retreat from areas of Indian concern – the Middle East, Central Asia, and even the Asia-Pacific. I think this is putting it too strongly, and over-extrapolates from some cases (Iraq/Afghanistan) to others (Asia), but it reinforces the point that India does not yet have its own complete answer to Tellis' question.

In the short-term, however, Modi's visit will probably dampen talk of a stalling relationship, and that restoration of momentum might prove to be extremely important.  

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