Tangibles and imponderables of a visit

While the Obama visit covered most facets of India-U.S. engagement and imparted greater depth to the relationship, its final verdict will depend on whether the issues discussed reach satisfactory conclusion

February 06, 2015 12:59 am | Updated April 09, 2016 11:05 am IST

As the dust settles on a remarkable odyssey by a foreign leader to our shores, the time is ripe for stocktaking. Talks between >Prime Minister Narendra Modi and >U.S. President Barack Obama comprehensively covered most facets of India-U.S. engagement, and imparted greater depth to the relationship. The final verdict will, however, depend on whether issues touched upon, but yet to be completed, reach satisfactory conclusion.

The Joint Statement, together with the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region, and the India-U.S. Delhi Declaration of Friendship, convey the impression that the world’s two largest democracies have reached a common understanding, positing closer cooperation in the future.

It also highlights that India’s “Act East Policy” and the U.S.’s rebalance towards Asia, provide opportunities for India, the U.S. and other Asia-Pacific countries to work closely to strengthen regional ties. Accompanying this is the Joint Strategic Vision to guide their engagement in the region.

Areas of cooperation Several areas of mutual cooperation are mentioned in the Joint Statement. These include defence technology and related aspects as well as defence and homeland security cooperation, with an emphasis on developing new areas of technology cooperation. The importance of closer cooperation in dealing with matters such as transnational crime, terrorism, narcotics, cyber and other threats, and maritime security have been specifically underlined. The statement commits India and the U.S. to achieving a defining counter-terrorism relationship for the 21st Century. However, it is weak on specifics, and does not specify the need for strong action against the LeT and the Haqqani network in Pakistan.

The segment on civil nuclear cooperation merely welcomes the understanding reached on civil nuclear liability issues and administrative arrangements for civil nuclear cooperation, adding that it looks forward to U.S.-built reactors contributing to India’s energy security at the earliest. No assurances have been given that the U.S. would effectively press India’s case for entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australian Group. It limits itself to an affirmation that India meets MTCR requirements and is ready for NSG Membership.

For a high-level meeting of this nature, the outcome in terms of tangible results has been decidedly modest.

The climate change segment contains routine references to enhancing bilateral cooperation on adaptation measures, as well as on joint research development and technology innovation. Specific commitments are lacking.

The Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region is emphatic about the need to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. It calls on all parties to avoid the threat of use of force, and to pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through peaceful means in keeping with principles of International Law and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Delhi Declaration of Friendship improves on the September 2014 India-U.S. Vision Statement, and calls for a tangible and enduring commitment by the two countries to harness the inherent potential of the two democracies, and upgrade the unique nature of their relationship.

For a high-level meeting of this nature, the outcome in terms of tangible results has been decidedly modest. To step up economic engagement, the U.S. has promised finance facilities worth $4 billion. India has committed itself to a transparent taxation regime. Both sides have set their sights on greater trade and investment, and on developing their economic partnership further. The “smart cities” programme has been given a fillip.

The “nuclear breakthrough” though is enveloped in a shroud of contradictions. The administrative arrangement clause relating to the intrusive tracking of material for India’s nuclear reactors, has been waived following a tacit agreement on sharing data with the U.S. The status of India’s nuclear liability law and the liability of suppliers of nuclear equipment, however, remains unclear. India’s reliance on Rule 24 of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Rules – 2011 to mitigate suppliers’ liability aspects contained in India’s Civil Nuclear Liability Law of 2010 is likely to inhibit U.S. suppliers from entering the Indian market. The risk management insurance pool of Rs.1,500 crore again is unlikely to enthuse foreign suppliers of nuclear equipment.

Factoring in China The renewal of the 10-year Defence Framework Agreement is a case of routine extension of an ongoing agreement. The codevelopment and co-production projects announced under the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative have relatively modest objectives such as mini-UAVs and the like. The U.S. side has, however, agreed to explore the development of two more ‘high-end’ technologies.

The acid test for India would be how to manage the fragile balance that exists between India and China, following implicit references in the Joint Strategic Vision Document to China’s growing economic and military strength and its assertiveness. Analysts see the document as demonstrating that India and the U.S. now see each other as a crucial partner in offsetting China’s increasingly assertive role in Asia — marking a significant departure from India’s past unwillingness to forge a common front against China. Redefining the relationship is also seen as a step towards reviving the Quad (a security collaboration arrangement between Australia, Japan, India and the U.S., first mooted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe).

China’s initial reaction has expectedly been unfavourable with a passing reference to the effect that India cannot expect to butter its bread on both sides. It was only in May last year that Chinese President Xi Jinping had mooted a “code of conduct” for Asian countries to resolve security issues among themselves — which, incidentally, included a veiled warning against forging alliances to counter China. He had pledged to build a new sustainable and durable security cooperative structure so that security problems in Asia were eventually solved by Asia. The Vision Statement is likely to be viewed by China as a negation of this concept, and the warm reception accorded to India’s Foreign Minister in Beijing, and the invitation to India to join both Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as full members should not lull India into complacency. Chinese thinking tends to be elliptical and the Chinese mind tends to be eclectic, contextual and relational.

China could well employ several levers to queer the pitch for India. For many years, China has avoided taking sides in the dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, on the professed principle that regional issues should be resolved by the parties concerned. This could change. China could also exercise a “negative vote” to prevent India’s entry into the NSG. Chinese forays into the Indian Ocean could become more intrusive. The issue of the Dalai Lama could be made into a “cause célèbre,” at a time when China has managed to prevail upon most countries not to grant him an audience.

Where the visit perhaps falls well short of expectations — given the newly coined term of “global partners” — is that apart from a reference in the Vision Document to the South China Sea, the Joint Statement only talks of an agreement between the leaders to expand their efforts to address global development challenges in such areas as health, energy, food security, disaster management and women’s empowerment. The nearest they came to discussing strategic issues was to agree to convene high level consultations on Afghanistan in the near future. Aspects such as the turmoil in West Asia, the situation prevailing in Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of South and South-East Asia hardly find mention.

One of the imponderables of the visit was Mr. Obama’s pointed reference to religious freedom and gender inequalities in his public address at the conclusion of the visit. India’s political class displayed considerable forbearance in not publicly declaiming against the U.S. President’s violation of official protocol, but cannot ignore the implications of what this kind of chastising of India’s policies amounts to. It could be mischievously interpreted, and come to haunt India later.

The fact that almost immediately following his return, the U.S. President proposed an over $1 billion worth of civil and military aid to “strategically important” Pakistan (a sixfold in foreign military financing to Pakistan between 2014 and 2016) for fighting terror, economic development, safety of nuclear installations — and improving ties with India — also should not be underestimated.

(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Advisor and former Governor of West Bengal.)

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