External Affairs

No Breakthrough or Sellout, Modi’s US Trip is Part of the Great Indian Balancing Trick

While the prime minister has stepped up cooperation with Washington, it is important for India to engage skilfully in play-offs with both the US and China

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President Barack Obama. Credit: Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President Barack Obama. Credit: Reuters

Many of the reports on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US are breathless and ignorant, and in some instances verge on the ridiculous. In part, this has to do with how Modi is perceived by his numerous bhakts – and there is no dearth of such ‘devotees’ in the media. On the other hand, his energy and at times over-the-top style results in a sensory overload – and in one missing the wood for the trees.

Then, of course, is the twist that comes with state visits – they have to be huge successes and so incremental advance is projected as breakthrough. Phrases like ‘indispensable partner’, ‘priority partner’ and so on are used liberally in joint statements to dramatise the effect.

So it is with the prime minister’s latest US visit. In substance, what it achieved was an all-round advance in issues ranging from climate change, clean energy, civil nuclear and defence cooperation to science and technology, cyber security and intelligence sharing. But to be honest, there was no one area that stood out and in which a real breakthrough was achieved.

Modi is being credited with things he didn’t do. Take the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), for instance, to which India is gaining entry thanks to the Supreme Court, which allowed the Italian marine charged with murder to go home, pending his trial. In response to the court’s order, the Italian government lifted its hold on India’s ascension to the MTCR. Claims that Modi’s visit will now lead to cutting-edge weaponry coming to India are equally misleading.

In fact, the Modi government’s successes are going against itself, with many people believing that India is now in a tighter American embrace – an impression senior officials in the government are now trying hard to dispel.  A closer look at the outcome will reveal that far from ‘giving away the farm’, Modi’s team has stuck to a fairly conservative script and, in some areas, advanced Indian interests.

A conservative script

Take climate change, for instance. The US was very keen that India commit to ratifying the Paris Agreement this year. President Barack Obama has made the treaty a legacy issue of his administration and wants to push for ratification this year, before his term ends. But, even while agreeing to the goals of the treaty, India has refused to commit itself to any timeline.

Secondly, in the Indian-American joint statements from 2014 and 2015, the two sides upheld the importance of ensuring the freedom of navigation and overflight, “especially in the South China Sea”. In the joint statement issued on June 7, there is no mention of the South China Sea. This is a significant signal to China that India is not ganging up with the US against it on the South China Sea issue, whatever the US establishment believes. The Chinese, presumably, have no problems with a general assertion of the importance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the freedom of navigation and overflight.

Thirdly, take the logistics support agreement that the US has been pushing for years. India first insisted and obtained an agreement specific to it, called the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement. This, as the wording suggests, is less than a full-fledged agreement and specifies cooperation in areas like joint exercises, training and humanitarian relief, rather than provideing for automatic access to facilities for operational contingencies.

Next, as the economic section of the joint statement brought out, India did not budge in its positions on intellectual property rights (IPR) and the bilateral investment treaty (BIT). Neither did it concede anything on the totalisation agreement.

Finally, in concluding his paean in the new Indo-American symphony, Modi emphasised that while there is a convergence of “interests and concerns”, it is vital to have “autonomy in decision making” in view of the “differing perspectives” India and the US have on certain issues.

An uneven trajectory

It is true, of course, that the US has also hardly budged on many of the issues of concern to India, especially terrorism emanating from Pakistan, flagged so emphatically by Modi in his address to the US Congress, without, of course, mentioning Pakistan by name. Equally important, the US did not budge on its views on the BIT, IPR and the totalisation agreement.

The movement in technology-sharing was incremental. A confusing formulation in the joint statement is the designation of India as a “Major Defence Partner” of the US. This category seems to have been created only for India and, as Sushant Singh explained in the Indian Express, is not backed by either a presidential directive or legislation. On the other hand, there is an existing category called ‘major non-NATO ally’ (MNNA), which is defined by a section of the Foreign Assistance Act. Very close allies of the US, such as Australia, Israel, Japan and South Korea are covered by this category, as are Pakistan, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Kuwait. In December 2014, the US passed the US-Israel Major Strategic Partner Act, a new category, one notch higher than MNNA.

It remains to be seen whether India can occupy a place similar to Israel in the American establishment’s legislative – and not just figurative – heart.

This year, there have been moves to pass special legislation to advance India-US ties, such as the Advancing US-India Defence Cooperation Act moved by Senators Mark Warner, John Cornyn and Marco Rubio in May 2016.

On the eve of Modi’s speech to the US Congress, two Congressmen, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to designate India as a ‘special global partner of America’.

The US will pass the real test of sincerity when both houses pass, and the president signs, these legislations. But the very fact that the Acts have been put forward reflects the enormous interest within the US system in developing strong ties with India.

The US and India have been on a trajectory of improving relations since Indira Gandhi’s meeting with Ronald Reagan at Cancun in 1981. An entire generation has passed since then. There have been many ups and downs. Now, the two seem to be moving from a stage of corresponding interests to one of converging interests. But this is so only in some areas. When it comes to India’s bête noire Pakistan, the US and China are closer to each other than the US and India. The US also does not take sides when it comes to India’s border dispute with China. Of course, the US has far heavier economic and trade ties with China than with India.

The Asian pivot

The US’s most obvious interest is in anchoring its Asian pivot on the enormous geo-economic mass of India. Its other allies – Japan, Australia, the Philippines – simply lack the heft of India. The Indian market, too, is not entirely uninteresting for the US, especially when the Chinese are drawing very clear red lines to exclude US companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon, and thus putting the others on alert. Given the relative decline of the US, India offers it the means through which it can maintain its primacy without taking unnecessary risks.

As far as China is concerned, India’s views are informed by its border dispute and China’s all-weather friendship with Pakistan. Earlier governments were deferential to Chinese concerns and hesitant in enhancing cooperation with the US. Under Modi, the  government has spelled out a Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region and worked out a roadmap “to better respond to diplomatic, economic and security challenges in the region”.

The Modi team has worked with the belief that being sensitive to China’s concerns provided no payoffs in South Asia. Beijing has continued to support Pakistan’s military ambitions and is now set to enhance its economic commitment there. Its indiscriminate support includes blocking Indian efforts to designate certain Pakistani nationals as terrorists under the ISIS-Al Qaeda sanctions committee of the UN. So, Modi has stepped up cooperation with Japan, Vietnam, the US and Australia. But as his visit to the US indicates, he has sought to nuance the Indian commitment.

However, India’s grand strategy must be informed by its regional predicament. China presses on us through our border dispute, and through its relationship with Pakistan and our other South Asian neighbours. But China is also a huge area of opportunity for India in terms of its capital, market and infrastructure expertise. It is important, therefore, for India to engage skilfully in play-offs with both China and the US. That would be the acme of diplomatic achievement.

The primary Indian goal in foreign policy is in effecting an economic transformation of this large and very poor country, even while ensuring the security of its territory and peripheries. The world’s richest and most powerful nation, the US, is a good partner in this enterprise. So is our giant neighbour China, with its vast investible resources. The trick is to finesse our respective goals in a manner that ensures regional stability, peace and prosperity.

Manoj Joshi is Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

  • forsanity

    Finally, a sane piece of journalism. Thank you Mr. Joshi!

  • K SHESHU BABU

    When improving relationships with USA and West, India must be careful not to make deals which would have undue advantage to the western powers. China is India’s closer neighbour and there is a need to balance diplomacy.