>Prime Minister Narendra Modi ’ s forthcoming visit to the United States, from June 7-8, his fourth since entering office in May 2014, is both a pointer of the extent of distance the two countries, India and the U.S., have traversed in the last two years and of the enormous potential still waiting to be tapped.
In the run-up to the >2014 general election in India , the bilateral discourse stood vitiated. The strip search of an Indian diplomat stationed in New York provided an indication of the extent to which the relationship had got derailed. Only mature handling could revive the relationship and impart to it momentum for revitalisation. This was on display in abundant measure on both sides.
American exceptionalism draws inspiration from its Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers contained therein. Its sense of entitlement is enhanced by the fact that today it has a $17-trillion GDP and by its position as the world’s sole remaining superpower. The Indian political elite has decided to enter into a “global strategic partnership” with the U.S. based on shared democratic values and the perception of increasing convergence of interests on bilateral, regional and global issues and do business on a scale that would have been considered inconceivable some years ago. This course has very different implications for the two countries.
Broad-based, multi-sectoral ties In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Modi’s election victory, the ice was broken and the hesitation overcome on the Indian side. U.S. President Barack Obama invited Mr. Modi for a bilateral visit; the invitation was accepted and the first visit to the U.S. took place from September 26-30, 2014. This was followed by Mr. >Obama’s visit to India from January 25-27, 2015 as chief guest at India’s Republic Day .
The two sides issued a Delhi Declaration of Friendship and adopted a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region, representing small but incrementally significant steps in the pursuit of strategic convergence. Two more visits by Mr. Modi to the U.S. from September 23-28, 2015, and another one for the Nuclear Summit in Washington from March 31-April 1, and now the forthcoming visit, will mark the culmination of the most active summit-level diplomacy between the two countries ever.
Mr. >Modi will be the fifth Indian Prime Minister to address a joint meeting of Congress . The four Indian Prime Ministers to do so earlier were Rajiv Gandhi (June 13, 1985), P.V. Narasimha Rao (May 18, 1994), Atal Bihari Vajpayee (September 14, 2000) and Manmohan Singh (July 19, 2005).
How strong is the bilateral relationship? Over a period of more than a decade or so, the relationship has grown and bilateral cooperation has certainly become more broad-based and multi-sectoral.
The bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement negotiated by the Manmohan Singh government was considered important enough to domestically risk the survival of his government in July 2008. It has not resulted in any significant commercial contracting even though the potential is enormous. Its real significance lies in the fact that the rules of an international arrangement and a technology-denial regime were altered to admit India. This would not have been possible without heavy lifting by the U.S. Absent similar help from the U.S., India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group now could also be postponed indefinitely.
The “New Framework for the U.S.-India Defence Relationship” of 2005 and the updating and renewal of the Defence Framework Agreement for another 10 years in 2015 have resulted in the defence relationship emerging as a major pillar of the new India-U.S. strategic partnership.
Points of divergence Where is this strategic partnership headed? Transactional mindsets invariably produce a negotiating environment that is accident prone at the best of times. Both sides have complaints.
Bilateral trade in goods has increased from $5.6 billion in 1990 to $66.9 billion in 2014. Trade in services stands at around $60 billion. The two sides set a target during Mr. Modi’s visit in 2014 to increase annual bilateral trade in goods and services to $500 billion.
However, significant differences continue to characterise the two countries’ approaches to trade policy issues. The U.S. embarked on a series of free trade agreements outside the multilateral trading system in the mid-1980s. It is exasperated, or so it would appear, with the slow pace of negotiations in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and is seeking plurilateral WTO plus arrangements outside, regionally and cross-regionally. It is not averse to using unilateral coercive measures in relation to perceived violation of its interests in the area of intellectual property, for instance.
There are also significantly different approaches the two countries adopt on issues relating to peace and security, the “use of force” and regime change in West Asia. Iraq 2003, Libya 2011 and the multi-layered crises in Syria, with an on-going civil war, a sectarian war and a proxy war, provide the best examples in the divergence of approach. There are also significant differences in the perception and approaches of the two countries in relation to developments in the countries of our region, particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pentagon and the “deep state” with a long history of partnering Pakistan are unlikely to change sufficiently in a realistic time frame. At the very least, we should guard against hype.
2017 and beyond Equally, not all elements of the U.S. State system are on board with the nuclear deal negotiated with Iran. The strongly entrenched Israeli lobby has lost for the present but will utilise the process leading up to the inauguration in office of the 45th President of the U.S. in January 2017 to reopen the deal. We have a window of opportunity to see if the new administration, post-January 2017, can be sensitised to our concerns in our western neighbourhood, particularly in relation to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Addressing Congress is both important and desirable. It occupies a unique position and plays a crucial role in the shaping of U.S. foreign policy. It has been known to be helpful to India when administrations were less inclined to be so. Mr. Modi will be welcomed by both the Republican and Democratic leaderships at a time when they have little convergence on pressing domestic issues.
Whatever the outcome in the presidential elections in November, the incoming administration will not be in a position to turn its back on trading arrangements entered into such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and through the WTO and erect trade barriers.
Summit-level interaction does provide positive signals but entrenched bureaucracies and interests do not always fall in line. Mr. Obama’s previous pronouncements on India’s permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council and now on Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation remain to be acted upon. As do some commitments on our side.
The investment made in the bilateral relationship by India in the last two years will need to be followed up, reinforced and adapted to the new situation post-January 2017. Strategic autonomy, as the leitmotif of our foreign policy, has served us admirably in the last seven decades. It has not prevented us from upgrading individual bilateral relationships and making merit-based choices. Some hard choices will be required to balance greater convergence with strategic autonomy.
Hardeep S. Puri is a retired diplomat. The views expressed are personal.