Setting Stage for Successful Modi Visit

The foundations for a successful visit to Washington by India’s recently-elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Prime Minister Narendra Modi are being put in place. The White House will hold two days of talks with Modi on September 29 and 30 that are likely to cover a range of issues and result in new commitments of economic and security cooperation. Both Washington and New Delhi are signaling their interest in putting aside past areas of friction and focusing instead on building up ties in areas of mutual interest.

While India’s obstructionist position at the WTO trade talks in Geneva put a damper on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to New Delhi in late July, the White House will likely set aside the WTO issue when Modi is in town in order to ensure a smooth and productive visit. In an official announcement about the Modi meetings, a U.S. National Security Council official said the length of his White House engagements – over a two-day period – was a sign of the importance the U.S. administration attaches to its relations with India.

Busy Foreign Policy Agenda

Modi’s visit to the U.S. is part of a hectic foreign policy schedule. In early September, Modi made a successful five-day visit to Japan, where he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to elevate their dialogue to a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership.” Japan committed to investing $35 billion in Indian projects over the next five years and to play a role in the development of industrial corridors in the country. The most striking part of the visit was the two leaders’ enthusiastic embrace upon greeting each other in Kyodo, demonstrating strong bonds of mutual respect and friendship. Many viewed Modi’s remark that Japan and India were focused on economic development, not expansionism, as an oblique criticism of China and its approach to territorial disputes. 

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s visit to India earlier this month was further evidence of international confidence in the new Modi government. The Australian and Indian leaders signed a safeguards agreement to allow the sale of Australian uranium to India for its civil nuclear sector, a step that will help cement strategic ties and further integrate India into the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

China’s President Xi Jinping joined the list of Indian suitors when he visited the country in mid-September. To compete with the Japanese offers, the Chinese President proposed large-scale investments in India’s manufacturing, railways, and infrastructure projects. Chinese leaders have put on a charm offensive toward India ever since the BJP took power. Recognizing India’s clout on the world stage is likely to grow under Modi, the Chinese want to focus on cooperation, not competition. Even so Indian leaders should remain skeptical of Chinese overtures and stay on track with plans to build up infrastructure and transport links along the disputed Sino-Indian border to deter Chinese territorial ambitions.    

Meeting Half Way

In this backdrop of solidifying ties with three top Asian nations, it is important that Modi’s trip to the U.S. be equally successful. A successful visit does not necessarily require the announcement of a major initiative along the lines of the much touted civil nuclear deal, however. The first meeting between Modi and Obama is largely an opportunity to demonstrate they are ready for a fresh start in relations and are willing to listen to the other’s concerns and priorities. 

Modi is likely to focus on encouraging U.S. investment in India, especially in the infrastructure sector. India’s Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion recently proposed setting up a joint mechanism in which Indian officials would help identify infrastructure projects that need funding while U.S. officials would identify American companies potentially interested in making the investments. 

President Obama, for his part, will convey the importance of India maintaining a stable and private-sector-friendly business environment. Modi’s disbandment of the Planning Commission, a symbol of a centrally controlled economy, and the government’s lifting of FDI caps in the defense sector are encouraging steps. But Modi will need to provide further assurances to Obama that his government will maintain momentum on economic reform and private sector growth.

Apart from economic and commercial ties, the area in which the relationship shows the most promise is defense. Modi has highlighted the need to modernize India’s armed forces and is likely to fast-track defense purchases. During his August visit to India, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel discussed dozens of proposals for India to consider with regard to co-production of defense items and transfer of technology. Secretary Hagel said the U.S. is willing to be patient while India considers its security needs, and that the U.S. would be respectful of India’s desire for strategic autonomy. These were surely welcome words for Indians, whom often bristle over what they consider U.S. heavy-handedness. 

With al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent pledge to launch a South Asia wing and the Islamic State gaining ground in Iraq, the imperative for close U.S.-India counterterrorism cooperation has never been stronger. Obama and Modi must coordinate their responses to these brewing threats as well as seek ways to cooperate in preventing the Taliban from staging a comeback in Afghanistan. 

Putting the Past Behind

There will be plenty of issues to discuss during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington. The earlier revocation of Modi’s U.S. visa over the 2002 Gujarat riots will not be one of them. Modi has made an effort to try to repair his reputation as a hardline, communal politician and he stayed away from divisive rhetoric and communal politics during the Indian election campaign. When asked about the visa revocation in late July, Secretary Kerry highlighted that it was not the Obama administration that made the visa decision.

Many argue that the Obama administration will be too distracted with other foreign policy challenges to focus on its relationship with India. But the reality is the two countries need each other to cope with these global challenges, especially when it comes to international terrorism and maintaining a stable balance of power in the Asia Pacific.

Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow on South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally published on India Abroad