Next week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be continuing his summit-level diplomacy, this time westwards, in Washington. However, this is significantly different from his meetings with Japanese and Chinese leaders. Mr. Modi had visited Japan and China as Chief Minister of Gujarat and had engaged with both Prime Minister Shinzo¯ Abe and President Xi Jinping. But after 2002, the United States had made it clear that Mr. Modi was not welcome and his visa had been revoked, so this visit has a different symbolic value.Pragmatism prevails
Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi have displayed pragmatism and political leadership in making this visit happen, and happen early. Mr. Obama’s phone call to Mr. Modi in May this year and the invitation to host him for a bilateral visit to Washington during the U.N. General Assembly session (something the U.S. is normally reluctant to do) reflected Mr. Obama’s desire to put the past behind, just as Mr. Modi’s magnanimity in accepting the invitation showed that he harboured no grudges towards the U.S. Both leaders also displayed leadership in overruling the naysayers in Washington and Delhi because they were guided by a larger vision and instinctively understood that “hurt pride” and “principled human rights positions” should yield to pragmatism and ground reality.
Both leaders can take comfort in the fact that during the past two decades, many of their predecessors had taken similar calls and chosen the pragmatic route. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s positive response to President George H.W. Bush’s suggestion to have bilateral discussions on “defence and strategic issues including threat perceptions” in 1992, was criticised in India (remember, those were the days when the U.S. was the sole superpower), but it reflected Narasimha Rao’s appreciation of a changed world, in which the Cold War was over and the USSR existed no more. Narasimha Rao knew that these issues had been the most divisive during the past, and that the process of discussions would be difficult and long-drawn. And he realised just how long-drawn it could be when he called off the nuclear tests he had planned in December of 1995! The bilateral discussions actually became a process of education for the interlocutors on both sides, familiarising them with different terminologies and an appreciation of each others’ diplomatic catchphrases and jargon.
The U.S. certainly took a more long-term view of these opening gambits; almost simultaneously came its first moves to enhance bilateral cooperation between the Defence Services (proposals by Gen. Kickleighter) that was gradually superseded in 1995 by the setting up of the Defence Policy Group, which, in turn, led to the Defence Framework Agreement in 2005 and the launch of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) last year.Leap forward
During the Narasimha Rao-Bush and the Narasimha Rao-early Clinton years, India and the U.S. worked together to bring the negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention to a successful conclusion while restricting Indian exports of dual-use chemicals, especially to the Gulf region, where chemical weapons had been used in the Iran-Iraq war. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty negotiations were launched, but differences on the scope of the treaty emerged by 1995 and a year later, India stepped out of the negotiations, citing national security concerns. The mid-1990s was a period of political change in Delhi (we had Prime Ministers H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral for short periods each), while the Clinton administration was guided by the non-proliferation ayatollahs in Washington; the bilateral dialogue continued, but without forward movement.
The next phase was tumultuous. India’s nuclear tests in 1998 were followed by swift criticism and the imposition of sanctions by the U.S., but soon thereafter, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Vajpayee, both political leaders with great communication skills, quickly realised that a pragmatic way forward had to be found. They tasked trusted colleagues, Mr. Strobe Talbott and Mr. Jaswant Singh, who, over a dozen rounds of talks, cleared the way for highly successful summit-level visits in 2000. From “estranged democracies,” Mr. Vajpayee took a bold leap forward in September 2000, when he described India and the U.S. as “natural allies.”Nuclear era
Though President George W. Bush was never able to fathom Mr. Vajpayee’s long silences, he carried forward Mr. Clinton’s legacy by launching the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) to build cooperation in the civilian space and non-military nuclear sectors, and step up high-technology trade. This meant getting many Indian defence, space and nuclear establishments off the U.S. “entities lists” and persuading the U.S. licensing authorities to have greater trust in Indian non-proliferation commitments. In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh struck a much warmer note with Mr. George W. Bush and built upon the Vajpayee initiatives when he described India and the U.S. as “strategic partners” and successfully concluded the bilateral “Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.” Piloting the Bill through Parliament was, according to Dr. Singh, one of his most important political achievements. The U.S. took the lead in getting India the waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group that has enabled us to sign nearly a dozen nuclear cooperation agreements in the last five years.
Undoubtedly, there were other factors at play: the growing influence of the Indian American community, the Y2K and the fillip it gave to the IT industry, 9/11 and the U.S.’s engagement in Afghanistan as well as its changing perception of a “rising China” all had a positive impact on bilateral relations. But at crucial moments, it was the political leadership that took charge. In recent years, India-U.S. relations have lost momentum. Mr. Obama and Dr. Singh started well in 2009 (Mr. Obama’s first banquet in the White House was for Dr. Singh) but the Congress party never fully backed Dr. Singh’s initiatives, and the U.S. was soon more preoccupied with the global economic slowdown.
During the last two decades, the relationship has gained both spread and content. Bilateral trade in goods has quadrupled in the last decade, while trade in services has grown by 600 per cent during the same period. Similarly, foreign direct investment (FDI) has also registered impressive rates of growth, though absolute numbers are modest. During the last decade, defence procurement contracts worth over $10 billion have been signed and at least another $2.5 billion are on the cards relating to ‘Apache’ and ‘Chinook’ helicopters. The U.S. remains the favoured destination for Indian students, with numbers exceeding 1,00,000 today. Clean energy, health care and urban infrastructure investment are other key sectors with enormous potential for future cooperation. In addition, several regional and multilateral issues can be expected to form the agenda for a summit-level meeting covering developments in Afghanistan, Iran, the Persian Gulf and West Asia, the U.S. rebalancing to Asia, counter-terrorism cooperation, counter-proliferation, Internet governance, surveillance and cybersecurity, and maritime security, among others.Restoring political leadership
However, each one of these has problems associated with it. Access issues and intellectual property rights (IPR) affect trade in goods and cooperation in pharma, while visa and immigration impact prospects for Indian IT companies in the U.S. U.S. export control laws and restrictions on foreign direct investment (FDI) in the defence sector (now raised to 49 per cent) inhibit the transfer of technology by private U.S. companies. Civil nuclear cooperation hit a roadblock with the Indian Nuclear Liability Law, which needs to be resolved. The contours of the U.S. rebalancing to Asia remain unclear, while elements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), currently under negotiation, exclude India. Talks on Afghanistan and counter-terrorism cooperation need to address Pakistan’s role more openly, especially now, when the U.S. ends its combat role and is seeking to bring about a reconciliation with the Taliban. U.S. interventionism in the Gulf region makes India wary and Internet governance and cyber security cooperation have to get around the mistrust generated by the disclosures about surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency (NSA).
The existence of all these issues waiting to be tackled should be seen not as hurdles but a welcome reflection of the broadening sweep of the bilateral relationship. The Modi-Obama summit declaration can pick some of the low-hanging fruit by announcing new defence deals, setting up a new investment clearance window, easing U.S. visa norms and adding new dialogue forums, but this is not enough to address the current malaise. Both leaders need to appreciate that the relationship needs political guidance and nurturing, especially in a changing global environment where the potential for mutually beneficial cooperation can be immense. Without political leadership, the relationship is reduced to being transactional and issues tend to be seen from the prism of quid pro quo; with political vision and high-level guidance, the transactions become milestones in developing what Mr. Obama called “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century” and realising Mr. Modi’s idea of making India and the U.S. “natural global partners.”
(Rakesh Sood, a former Ambassador, was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014 and was closely involved with Indo-U.S. strategic dialogues from 1992 to 2004. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )