On Monday, Barack Obama became the first US president to be the guest of honour at India's Republic Day parade. His visit to New Delhi was the latest in a series of headline-grabbing diplomatic initiatives by Narendra Modi, beginning with his invitation to all South Asian leaders, including Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif, to attend his inauguration as prime minister back in late May 2014.
Although the US President had to cut short his time in India to fly on to Saudi Arabia to meet the new king, most commentators have interpreted the visit as a great success, with both the American and Indian media waxing lyrical about the new warmth in US-India relations supposedly generated by what they called Obama's 'bromance' with Modi.
But for all the bear hugs and bonhomie, the visit didn't yield much.
True, Modi promised to remove liability clauses applicable to firms operating nuclear power plants in India, which were major obstacles to American corporate investment in that sector. True also, the two sides agreed to once more upgrade their defence cooperation, renewing a Defence Framework Agreement, sharing more information and engaging in further joint exercises, and recommitting to the transfer of military technology. These agreements are welcome, of course, but they hardly signal a step-change in relations.
In search of something more substantive, some commentators heralded the language of the US-India joint statement, arguing that it signals a new toughness on China and a new willingness to work together on issues of shared concern.
In reality, the document was a disappointing mish-mash in which the joins between Ministry of External Affairs and State Department drafts were all too visible. The call for 'sustainable, inclusive development' was practically cut-and-pasted from Modi's speech to the UN General Assembly; the section on the need for states to adhere to the law of the sea a boilerplate statement found in almost every joint declaration made by the US and its regional friends and allies.
In fact, what was really significant about the joint statement was what it left out. There was no mention of climate change or the upcoming Paris summit, despite Obama urging India to acknowledge what the US sees as India's obligation to accept binding limits on its carbon emissions. This particular failure to cut a deal, or even agree to a sentence on the issue in the joint statement, is telling, as the more perceptive media outlets recognised. It speaks to a continued inability on Washington's part to get India to be the kind of stakeholder in the liberal democratic international order the US has long hoped it would become.
The causes of this failure are complex, and there is fault on both sides. The Obama Administration has never afforded India the status its predecessor did, and India's sluggish rate of growth over the past decade, combined with the poor performance of the second United Progressive Alliance government, gave plenty of ammunition to India sceptics in Washington happy to see the relationship deliquesce. For its part, India's foreign and security policy elite remains divided about the US and its role in the world, and importantly about its handling of China's rise and the challenges it generates. Like other states in the region, India is hedging when it comes to China, and is wary about aligning itself too closely with a far-away superpower that might be on the wane.
Yet this is only part of the story of why US-India relations remain attenuated, despite the leaders' 'bromance'. The other factor is that Modi has suitors lurking in the wings with arguably bigger dowries.
Since Modi became PM, Japan has promised $35 billion in investment over five years, as well as a possible deal for amphibious aircraft, China has promised $20 billion over the same period and opened the door for India to join its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Russia has concluded tens of billions of dollars' worth of nuclear, hydrocarbon and defence deals along with a renewed pledge to help secure Indian membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These kinds of incentives make India's multidirectional foreign and security policy look smarter than alignment with a distant superpower, regardless of the mood music at the Republic Day parade.
Photo courtesy of the White House.