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Obama embarks on longest ever presidential India visit

Obama embarks on longest ever presidential India visit
Published 23 Jan 2015 

The chemistry between President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last September was evident. Modi was reportedly 'really touched' by parts of the visit, and the co-authored op-ed, joint statement, and body language all indicated a degree of warmth that was far from assured.

When they met two months later at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar, Modi extended what was reported as a 'spur of the moment' invitation for Obama to attend India's Republic Day parade as chief guest (although the Times of India suggests a less spontaneous process). The parade is an annual commemoration of the date on which India's constitution came into force — the Dominion of India then becoming a republic — and on which occasion it shows off, among other things, the best of its military hardware in the heart of Delhi. This is a big deal, steeped in historical significance.

It will not be lost on Indians that many of the missiles to be rolled under President Obama's nose were developed in the face of US technology denial and sanctions from the 1970s onwards, nor that the parade will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war in which the US imposed an arms embargo. That was another time, another era — a time when the chief guests at the parade were a string of Yugoslav, Soviet and non-aligned leaders (though the Queen came in 1961, Jacques Chirac in 1973, and Malcolm Fraser in 1979).

We've come a long way. [fold]

In September, the US and India promised to 'treat each other at the same level as their closest partners, including defence technology transfers, trade, research, co-production, and co-development'. This is a remarkable – indeed, an unrealistic – promise from the American side, given the depth of its defence relationship with allies like Israel, Britain, and Japan. It is also consequential for India, which has co-developed a hypersonic cruise missile with Russia, historically its closest defence partner (Russia's defence minister visited the production site this week), and plans on co-developing a fifth-generation fighter jet with Moscow too, though progress has been slow. Grand statements are easy; follow-up is harder.

As I explained on the Interpreter last year, the likely appointment of Ashton Carter as US defence secretary (subject to the whims of Congress) is likely to give a fillip to US-India defence ties. India now also has its own dedicated defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, after six months in which the ailing and overworked finance minister held the office. As the Indian defence journalist Ajai Shukla has explained in two pieces – one an excellent survey, and the other an analysis of Indian pathologies – over $8 billion of Indian arms purchases from the US are in the pipeline, including attack and heavy lift helicopters, surveillance and transport aircraft, and jet engines. Shukla notes that 'top Indian intelligence officials say there is an unprecedented level of intelligence sharing, including on topics that both sides earlier regarded as off-limits', and that the US conducts more military exercises with India than any other country.

All that is impressive. But technology transfer, co-manufacture, and co-development have all moved slowly, for reasons I explained last month and which may be compounded by last week's premature sacking of the director of India's Defence Research and Development Organisation. Reports suggest this visit will see agreements to build the RQ-11 surveillance drone and roll-on/roll-off modules for the C-130 transport aircraft in India, but expectations seem to be much lower for other areas, such as an electromagnetic launch system for India's indigenous aircraft carrier.

That said, high-level political attention can enable dramatic shifts, as it did when the Bush Administration engaged with Modi's predecessor in 2005. If Obama and Modi are willing to make the effort, and see this as a priority, they can accelerate defence cooperation more quickly than is supposed. And the onus here is on India. As Ashley Tellis observed in the Hindustan Times on Thursday, India 'needs to explain how this affiliation with Washington stacks up against the more than 30 other strategic partnerships India enjoys with countries as diverse as Argentina, Canada, Iran, Japan, Mozambique, Russia, South Africa, and South Korea'.

Also on the agenda is counter-terrorism. Last September's joint statement promised 'joint and concerted efforts' against a string of Pakistani terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). In the past week, Pakistani reports suggest Islamabad has frozen the funds of LeT's front organisations and imposed a travel ban on its leader. Pakistan may be bowing to US pressure, implementing its so-called 'National Action Plan', or a mixture of both. Such bans have, in the past, been merely cosmetic, allowing militant groups to change their name and continue their work. Indeed, LeT's leader Hafiz Saeed plans to hold a public rally in Karachi on the day of Obama's arrival, and a Pakistani minister had questioned whether Saeed is a terrorist at all. India is sure to lobby the US to keep pressure on Pakistan in this regard, as well as ask for more real-time intelligence sharing.

Further west, in Afghanistan, two important shifts have occurred since Obama and Modi last met. First, Obama decided to allow US forces to undertake more of a combat role in 2015 than had previously been envisaged and, in December, slightly upped troop numbers to offset lower-than-expected NATO contributions. That's exactly what Modi had called for at the Council on Foreign Relations in September. On the other hand, and less encouragingly for Modi, the new Afghan Government has made a pivot to Pakistan by cancelling a longstanding request for Indian arms, making a prominent presidential visit to Pakistan (including a controversial visit to Pakistan's army headquarters), and acquiescing to China-brokered talks with the Taliban. In the Hindu a few days ago, India's former ambassador in Kabul outlined Indian anxieties. Modi is likely to seek assurances on the future US presence, as well as Washington's attitude to these regional shifts.

Away from defence and security, other issues on the table, as Brookings analyst Tanvi Madan notes in her detailed piece, include trade and investment, civil nuclear cooperation, climate change, clean energy, and visa policy. The trade and investment challenge alone is extremely daunting. As former US ambassador to India Frank Wisner noted in this week's Hindu, India lacks a bilateral investment treaty, isn't part of WTO negotiations on key areas like IT services and government procurement, isn't a member of APEC, and isn't being considered for Trans-Pacific trade negotiations. It therefore 'risks being excluded from the world's most potentially dynamic market areas'.

None of this can be resolved in a week. But this is the longest trip to India by any US president, and the first such repeat visit. Obama and Modi have a great opportunity to consolidate the symbolic and substantive gains of their previous meetings, and perhaps identify a few priorities that deserve a harder push from the top.

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