Visits to India by world leaders are routinely high profile events. A visit by the President of the United States has the added attraction of high expectations. President Barack Obama’s coming visit — the second during his Presidency — has raised expectations by several notches and greatly raised the stakes, coming as it does so soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s highly successful visit to the U.S.
Next week, Barack Obama will become the first US president to visit India twice while in office, as well as the first to attend India’s missiles-and-dancing-girls festivities for Republic Day. That it’s taken more than two decades since the end of the Cold War for India and the US to achieve this level of political intimacy shows how hard it is for even natural partners — the world’s two largest democracies — to build meaningful trust.
Despite new enthusiasm on both sides, it’s going to take even longer to add real depth to their economic partnership. Bilateral trade in goods and services between the two nations amounted only to $93 billion (Dh341.5 billion) in 2012, according to the US Trade Representative’s office. By contrast, trade between China and the US that year came in more than six times larger at $579 billion. Perhaps more significant, at least from the perspective of capital-scarce India, are foreign investment levels. In 2012, US foreign direct investment into India totaled $28 billion, compared to the $50 billion that flowed into China.
Of course, China’s economy is much larger than India’s and has grown at much faster rates for the last three decades. Anything India does to boost its own GDP growth will lead to increased US trade and investment. But there’s also a fundamental disconnect between US and Indian priorities that no presidential photo op is likely to solve.
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Mr. Obama would no doubt retain warm memories of the tumultuous reception he received when he addressed the Indian Parliament during his visit in 2010. The visit, in effect, demonstrated that the era of estranged democracies had come to an end and the era of engaged democracies had come into being. This time, if anything, a warmer welcome awaits him, as the first U.S. President to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations on January 26.
‘Natural allies, global partners’
In contrast, visits of Indian Prime Ministers to Washington have generally been low key and strictly limited to the business on hand. Mr. Modi broke this mould during his September 2014 visit to the U.S. His was a visit rich in symbolism and, at times, as in the case of his Madison Square Garden appearance, a high profile media event. This was among the many departures from established practice and protocol that Mr. Modi effected with excellent results.
It is difficult to see how the rhetoric employed by both sides during the Prime Minister’s visit to the U.S. can be bettered. On his part, Mr. Modi went much beyond former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s reference to India and the U.S. as being “natural allies,” and substantially raised the bar when he said that India and the U.S. are “natural global partners” embodying the enduring and universal relevance of their shared values. The Prime Minister further added that the complementary strengths of India and the U.S. could be used for inclusive and broad-based global development to transform lives across the world.
There is considerable scope, however, for fine-tuning many of the issues that were discussed in Washington — which require satisfactory closure — such as clean energy, the Bilateral Investment Treaty, climate change issues, WTO-related matters, foreign direct investment (FDI) and Intellectual Property Rights. None of these items is however likely “to set the Jamuna on fire.” Renewal of the Defense Framework Agreement (first signed in 2005 as a prelude to the visit of Dr. Singh to Washington) and the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative again will hardly amount to a breakthrough in relations that both sides seek. This is the age of teleology, and the second Modi-Obama summit will in all likelihood be judged by the quality of the dialogue rather than the number of agreements signed.
Visits and the results
There are certain inherent risks connected with high profile visits and summit diplomacy. Seldom do they lead to anticipated results. India-U.S. relations are replete with instances of this kind. Old-timers will recall the excitement concerning U.S. President Eisenhower’s visit to India in 1959, only to be followed soon thereafter by a U.S. “tilt” towards Pakistan, and a stream of military and other forms of aid to that country. Mr. Clinton’s visit to India during his second term did lead to a perceptible thaw in India-U.S. relations, but the visit itself did not produce a new dawn in terms of the relationship.
On the other hand, low key visits do sometimes produce dramatic results. Dr. Singh’s visit to Washington in 2005 hardly compares with that of Mr. Modi’s in 2014 in terms of coverage and publicity, but the results were near transformational. The first significant breach in the “nuclear Great Wall,” leading to the dismantling of the nuclear apartheid regime occurred during this visit.
Likewise, the visit of President Bush to India in 2006 hardly compares with the kind of adulation showered on his successor, but it produced a critical breakthrough relating to the Separation Plan (viz., separation of India’s strategic military weapons program from its civilian nuclear program), an essential component for finalization of the India-U.S. nuclear deal. The personal involvement of the U.S. President and the Indian Prime Minister was crucial for this, as at one stage negotiations had virtually collapsed.
Dr. Singh’s visit to the U.S. in 2009 — another low key visit — led to taking the final step, thus paving the way for India to trade in nuclear materials with countries across the globe. This was a one-of-a-kind international agreement, seldom seen in the diplomatic history of nations.
It is not often in a generation that an opportunity for a meeting of minds of this kind occurs. Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi must, hence, set their sights high, to try and produce a transformational impact. Without belittling the efforts needed to sort out prickly issues such as the “Nuclear Liability Law” (which has been holding up India-U.S. nuclear cooperation), as also other steps required to enhance the political and military dialogue further by renewing the U.S.-India Defense Framework Agreement for another ten years, the opportunity provided by the Summit should be utilized for some “big ticket” items.
The world is, today, at a tipping point. At one level, geography and nationalism are striking back with renewed vigor. Across continents, nations appear to be reverting to the syndrome of fractured smaller States (already evident in West Asia). There is a growing arc of violence and upheavals in regions like West Asia. As radicalist ideas and beliefs gain ascendancy in the region and beyond, the specter of asymmetric warfare and terrorism haunts many regions.
At another level, the world has to take note of China’s increasing assertiveness — not only in dealing with issues directly affecting its territorial claims — but going well beyond the “Nine-dash-lines” that it had historically limited itself to. There are again signs of a growing rapprochement between Russia and China, with “oil diplomacy” paving the way for reinforcement of military ties. The intention is possibly to counter the U.S. pivot towards Asia, but the Russia-China axis will have an impact elsewhere as well, including in West Asia, of eroding the influence of countries like the U.S. and India. Internal developments in China, even as President Xi Jinping seeks to emerge as China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, also merit careful assessment.
A summit of this nature thus provides an opportunity for an all-encompassing look at geopolitics and geoeconomics across the region and beyond. This option should not be foreclosed by concentrating on the smaller items. A comprehensive discussion of this nature would be a significant outcome worthy of a summit of this nature. The Prime Minister’s statement that India and the U.S. are “natural global partners” would then ring true.
Possibly what is most important for the two leaders is to establish an exceptional level of trust, and reinforce their personal chemistry going beyond mere bonhomie. This is vital if they are to cut through bureaucratic tangles at critical junctures. The India-U.S. nuclear deal is a prime example of what can be achieved when two leaders have full trust in each other, for it was this level of trust that led to the resolution of extremely difficult issues when the respective bureaucracies appeared adamant in holding fast to their viewpoints.
Mr. Obama has two more years in office, while Mr. Modi will have more years thereafter. The coming two years are critical if India and the U.S. are to achieve the full potential in terms of their relationship. It is, hence, important that the leaders are not deflected from the key task of strengthening their personal bonds for this could well be the most valuable asset in their armory to sort out not only mutual problems, but also a range of global issues.
(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.)
This article first appeared in The Hindu. Click here to go to the original.