December 22, 2014

December 22, 2014 | Commentary on India, United States Of America

A Big, Bold Invite from Modi

It’s hard to believe that merely seven months ago, speculation was rife that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would hold a grudge against the U.S. for revoking his tourist visa for nine years and keep American officials at arm’s length. The opposite, however, has occurred.

With his invitation to President Barack Obama to be the chief guest at the 2015 Republic Day parade, Mr. Modi is overcoming decades of Indian sensitivity over its foreign policy tradition of non-alignment. He’s demonstrating that he is unafraid of the inevitable charge that he’s leaning towards the U.S.

Aside from marking the first time an American leader will serve as an honoured guest at the Republic Day celebration, Mr. Obama’s visit will also make him the first U.S. President to visit the country twice while in office. During his first visit to India in November 2010, Mr. Obama declared the U.S.-India relationship one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century and reached agreement with his counterpart of the time on a wide range of issues.

Commitment to reviving ties

Unfortunately, it was not long after his visit that relations between the two countries began to stagnate as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became distracted by a series of corruption scandals and internal disputes within his own party. The fact that Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama agreed to hold two summits within a six-month period is testament to their mutual commitment to reviving ties. Mr. Modi wants U.S. investment to pull Indian growth rates back up and create jobs for the rapidly expanding working-age population. Mr. Modi met with several top CEOs in the U.S. and delivered a clear message about his commitment to economic reform and the creation of a private-sector-friendly business environment.

The visit rekindled U.S. investor interest and raised expectations that Mr. Modi is serious about reforming the economy. The recent cabinet approval of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill and a government pledge to increase FDI caps in the insurance sector will further encourage foreign investors.

But there also is likely strategic purpose behind Mr. Modi’s outreach to the U.S. Building diplomatic, military and economic ties with the U.S., along with reinforcing ties to countries such as Japan and Australia, allows New Delhi to strengthen its hand in its dealings with China, and helps deter any potential Chinese border aggression.

For his part, Mr. Obama recognises that building relations with India is smart foreign policy. India is an emerging economy that provides opportunities for U.S. trade and investment; a strategically important country in maintaining a stable balance of power in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean; and a democratic nation with a large Muslim minority that provides a model of an ethnically and religiously diverse society maintaining freedom for its citizens.

Improving Indo-U.S. ties is one of the few issues on which there is broad bipartisan consensus, which means President Obama will find support from the new Republican-controlled Congress for his India initiatives. In fact, incoming Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain castigated the Obama administration for lack of a strategic plan for engaging India at a congressional hearing last summer.

Deepening defence cooperation

With al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent pledge to launch a South Asia wing and violence on the rise in Jammu and Kashmir, the imperative for close U.S.-India counterterrorism cooperation has never been stronger. The U.S. and India must coordinate their responses to these brewing threats as well as cooperate in preventing the Taliban from staging a comeback in Afghanistan.

A recent spike in violence in Jammu and Kashmir, including a major assault on an Indian military camp in Uri on December 5, is feeding Indian concern that the U.S. and NATO drawdown in Afghanistan will unleash new waves of terrorism in the region. The holding of a Jamaat-ul-Dawa (JuD) conclave in Lahore the same day as the Uri attack undermines Pakistan’s claims that it is committed to an anti-terrorism agenda. Casting further doubt on its counterterrorism credentials, Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) this week granted bail to the operational commander of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi.

The U.S. must join India in condemning Pakistan’s handling of the LeT. U.S. failure to pressure Pakistan over the LeT and its front organisation, JuD, is a major reason New Delhi is reluctant to expand counterterrorism cooperation with Washington. India is frustrated by what it views as inconsistent U.S. policies and backsliding in U.S. public statements concerning the Pakistan-based terrorist threat to India. In order to gain the full benefits of their counterterrorism cooperation, Washington and New Delhi must overcome their suspicions and deepen their intelligence exchanges.

The Obama-Modi Joint Statement’s pledge for the two sides to work together to disrupt tactical operations and financing of groups such as al-Qaeda, LeT and the Haqqani Network is a step in the right direction. But they must follow through on this effort, not merely pay it lip service.

There is a great deal the U.S. can do to help India strengthen its homeland security and make itself less vulnerable to terrorism by sharing best practices and lessons learned since 9/11. The U.S. also stands to benefit from greater access to India’s information and databases that track terrorists who are active in India, but also have connections to groups that target the U.S. Another area ripe for enhanced cooperation is defence cooperation. Mr. Modi has highlighted the need to modernise India’s armed forces and the U.S. is poised to play a significant role in helping to fill Indian defence requirements. But both sides will need to show flexibility on their approach to plans for co-production and co-development of military equipment.

Reports that India is now looking to Israel, rather than the U.S., to fill it anti-tank missile requirements, indicates the two sides are still grappling with bureaucratic obstacles to technology transfer. There is expectation that Ash Carter — who has been tapped to take the helm at the Pentagon, and who launched the U.S.-India Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) two years ago — may be able to find a compromise solution on technology transfer that meets U.S. requirements for safeguarding technology and India’s desire to maintain its “strategic autonomy.”

India’s continuing cozy relations with Russia (as evidenced by Mr. Putin’s recent visit to New Delhi) bolster those within the U.S. bureaucracy who argue against providing India with sensitive U.S. military technology.

Mr. Modi’s bold invitation to Mr. Obama to attend India’s Republic Day celebration shows that the days of Indian obsession with non-alignment are ending. This can only be good news for the future of U.S.-India relations.

India will remain scrupulously autonomous in its foreign policy. And while there will surely be disagreements in the future and a need for patience as initiatives work their way through the bureaucracies of both countries, the two leaders are sending clear messages about their commitment to the relationship and their intention to move forward with an ambitious agenda of cooperation.

Originally published on The Hindu.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center