Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US last week imparted new energy into the Indo-US relationship with consolidation of relations in areas such as nuclear, defence, clean energy and counter terrorism. However, with no great breakthroughs announced, much was also left unsaid.
First, let's look at what was accomplished. Defence ties were significantly augmented. The elevation by the US of India to a 'major defence partner' means that like US allies, India is now eligible to receive more advanced and sensitive technology, including dual use technology, from the US even though the defence relationship will remain primarily a commercial buyer-seller relationship.
America’s refusal to export dual use technology to India has long been a sore point with Indian policy makers. Of all the areas in which the US and India have cooperated in the last decade, defence has been the most robust with India importing a little over $US10 billion worth of defence equipment, making it the second largest arms importer of US arms after Saudi Arabia. The finalisation of the text of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LIMOA) is also significant step forward as it shows that the Modi administration is overcoming Manmohan Singh’s government reluctance to sign the so-called 'foundational' agreements with the US. However, two more such agreements — the BECA and the CISMOA — are still not finalised.
The commercial part of the Indo-US nuclear deal was finally operationalised with the Westinghouse announcement, and the US reiterated support for India’s entry into the export control regimes, again part of the Indo-US deal.
On counter terrorism, the joint statement called on 'Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai and 2016 Pathankot terrorist attacks to justice'. This is significant in light of the growing uneasiness in the US about Pakistan’s trustworthiness and utility as an ally. The US statement asking Pakistan not to allow its territory to be used for planning attacks against India must have been music to the ears of India’s security establishment and is affirmation of America’s support for India’s stance vis-à-vis Pakistan’s links to terrorism in India.
No meeting between the leaders of India and America can be complete these days without the mandatory reference to the Asia-Pacific, that new hub of global and regional politics. New Delhi and Washington have agreed on a roadmap on the region and have decided to be 'priority partners in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region'. The US has also expressed support for India’s membership of the APEC, though one could argue Obama's support for the TPP is undermining the APEC.
However, while progress has been made on these fronts, there appear to have been some areas where there was no headway, primarily on the economic front. Differences over Intellectual Property Rights seem no closer to a resolution. Neither has there been any forward movement on the Bilateral Investment Treaty and the Totalisation Agreement, both of which have been under negotiation for years now.
Modi’s visit might come as a disappointment to those who thought it would be the final step in India moving towards an alliance with the US. While Modi's speech to the US Congress cited the commonality of goals and values between the two nations, he also cautioned that there would be times when the two countries would have 'differing perspectives'.
He also spoke about 'autonomy in decision making', a clear allusion to India’s strategic autonomy. What was also interesting about the joint statement was the absence of any specific reference to the South China Sea, unlike in the joint statements of September 2014 and January 2015. This is perhaps because India does not want to needle China unnecessarily at a time when China is opposing India’s inclusion into the NSG and when the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on Philippines’ case against China is due. Moreover, India had signed the joint communiqué at the RIC meeting in April this year, which could be interpreted as being supportive of China’s position on the South China Sea issue.
Finally, while both countries agreed to move ahead with the Paris agreement on climate change, India refused to set out when it would sign the agreement. Presumably the US would have desired such a timeline, given President Obama would like the climate deal to be part of his foreign policy legacy.
Clearly, India will continue to walk the diplomatic tightrope between its relationship with the US and its other partners like China and Russia and its domestic developmental needs and the demands made on it by the US. Modi’s visit built on the legacies of Prime Ministers A B Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh and helped the relationship overcome the 'hesitations of history'. It underscored the alignment between the two countries on most issues. But it also underlined that while India and the US are aligned on many fronts, there is a long distance to go before they become allies.
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