India Is Coming up Against the Limits of Its Strategic Partnership With the United States

The grand bargain that has been struck – India and the US speaking the same language in cyber, climate and intellectual property right regimes, in return for tangible benefits to New Delhi – is not sustainable.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Barack Obama. Credit: PTI/Files

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

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fourth visit to the United States – his last before President Barack Obama demits office – is unlikely to see a landmark deal or agreement. Perhaps this is normal, even desirable, because both countries have only now begun to exchange notes on their political and economic bottomlines in earnest. To expect a “nuclear moment” during Modi’s visit is unrealistic. A US-India Joint Framework Agreement on cooperation in cyberspace would have come close, but the document remains in square brackets and may not be signed when the prime minister is in Washington. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) too is unlikely to be inked, but there may be some progress on the US-India Defence and Trade Technology Initiative, building on the recent visit of secretary of defence Ashton Carter. As for India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it will take some persuasion on the part of the Obama administration to convince China to remove its opposition. Suffice to say, the prime minister’s personal and political desire to achieve a quantum leap in relations with the US is now being tempered by strategic realities.

Take the proposed joint framework agreement on cyberspace. South Block must be credited for pursuing such an ambitious project, which until last Sunday, seemed certain to cross the finish line. The document sets a forward-looking agenda, going beyond the usual promises of cooperation between law enforcement agencies and computer emergency response teams. Both sides have explored a number of cyber norms that could be agreed upon mutually, some of which may yet appear in the form of a “fact sheet” annexed to the overall joint statement. It is here that New Delhi may have baulked: among the norms the United States pushed was the “global free flow of data,” which sounds innocuous but is strategically unpalatable for India. For starters, it would constrain the Indian government’s ability to regulate the flow of sensitive and classified online information outside the country.

Second, pending an effective, bilateral mutual legal assistance process to tackle cyber crime, India continues to see data localisation as a solution. Forcing companies to localise country-specific data may not be a desirable idea, but it would be unwise for India to weaken the only bargaining chip it has on the matter.

Third, there is the legitimate concern that the US may be bringing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through the backdoor. In April 2016, the US Trade Representative’s office released a document called the “Digital 2 Dozen,” outlining the TPP’s goals for the digital economy. Among these objectives is the “free flow of cross-border data” with a view to removing “discriminatory and protectionist barriers”. Thus, what India sees as a security concern, the US views as a primarily economic instrument. Naturally, this is a point of departure for both sides.

Reams of paper have been spent analysing the non-signing of the LEMOA and its precursor, the Logistics Supply Agreement, but it is apparent the government is concerned most about the political optics of the agreements. “Foundational” as LEMOA may be, the NDA can only sell it at home if it charts New Delhi’s own role in the Indian Ocean region for the next five to ten years. It is one thing for India to leverage the agreements to aid its role as a “net security provider” and another to be drawn into US-China rivalry in the region.

Even with the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), which has identified pathfinder projects, Indian negotiators have begun to wonder how the relationship will play out. If the DTTI is to be a collaborative platform for the co-development and production of technologies, India will have to find domestic institutions and scientists that can incubate such projects. This need is especially crucial for physical systems that form the basis of sentient technologies and lethal autonomous weapons. So far none exist and save isolated pockets of research in the IITs and IISc no institutional effort has been made to backstop India’s contribution to the initiative. Therefore, the risk that it will become a vehicle for the one-way sale of US technology and defence products is real. What’s more, this is an initiative that Ashton Carter has personally pushed within the Obama administration, first as Leon Panetta’s deputy and subsequently as the defence secretary. There is no certainty that the incoming administration next year will promote the DTTI with the same vigour.

The hurdles that deter Modi from breaking new ground on India-US relations are not the product of his personalised diplomacy: they are simply an outcome of the peculiar way in which the bilateral relationship has developed.

After the nuclear deal – truly an exceptional moment – New Delhi appears to be under the impression that a close, strategic partnership with the global hegemon will be the norm, especially on issues close to India’s heart. The United States, on the other hand, seeks greater convergence from India on the management of global regimes, with a view to constrain the rise of China. It is likely the Obama administration sees the Modi visit as its last effort to secure this “normative connect”. The grand bargain that has been struck – India and the US speaking the same language in cyber, climate and intellectual property right regimes, in return for tangible benefits to New Delhi – is not sustainable. India believes its economic growth and strategic rise can still be guided by the rules of the existing international order, but the US – through the TPP and Paris accord – has already proclaimed that these rules are past their shelf date.

As he has done in the past, the prime minister can personally see these bilateral agreements through even at the last minute. But to do so would be unwise. Should India want to be part of new regimes, its domestic capabilities require substantial strengthening: reducing reliance on non-renewable energies, building a community of scientists and private companies to develop civil and military technologies, strengthening the Indian foreign service’s own negotiating capacity, etc. Only then can the India-US partnership provide substantial results. In the interim, agreements signed during high-level interactions such as the prime minister’s visit next week can, at best, keep the fire burning.

Arun Mohan Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.