Will Obama’s visit on January 26 lend any substance to India-US relations? Dr. Monish Tourangbam and Mr. Manish Vaid examine the possibilities.
The upcoming visit of US President Barack Obama as the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day Celebrations is highly symbolic to the trajectory of India-US relations. With this visit, Obama will also be the only US president to have ever visited India twice during a presidential tenure. Naysayers and carpers of the emerging India-US strategic partnership would be tempted to dismiss the visit as high in optics and showmanship but low in deliverables and substance. However, a mere cursory examination of the contours of the relationship would prove the importance of chemistry in the political leadership.
Be it the thaw seen in the final years of the Clinton administration or the personal drive that President George W. Bush invested in the India-US partnership, convergence at the highest levels have always augured well for stitching together the various sectors of the relationship. For instance, challenges persist in all major issues such as trade and commerce, nuclear energy, climate change and defence cooperation. However, positive energy pervades because of the importance that both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama lends to the relationship.
Start of a New Legacy of Cooperation?
This has been clearly signaled in the kind of reception that Modi got during his US visit, and the kind of spadework being done for Obama’s visit to make it go beyond ceremonial. Hopes are high that this meeting will take the Indo-US relations to the next level. Several major issues of deliberations have been identified before Air Force One lands in New Delhi. It might be argued that compared to the mandate that a popular Prime Minister Modi has in India, a lame duck President Obama with falling popularity would not bring much result. However, it has also been seen in recent times that Obama has taken some major foreign policy moves during the so called lame duck period, including the climate change deal with China and the diplomatic moves to open up to Cuba after 50 years.
Back at the home front, the Republicans are equally, if not more, enthusiastic about America’s partnership with India. This lays a positive ground for Obama to start a new legacy in strengthening India-US partnership. The economics of the relationship certainly figures at the top of the priority list with both the countries showing intent and the ambition to boost bilateral trade figures to the tune of $500 billion. Major groundwork is being carried out to revitalize the relationship; Trade Policy Forum meeting late last year after a gap of four yearsmanifests the effort. So does the Indian sweat of setting up a committee to work on improving the investment environment.
Both sides have also shown the resolve to address issues related to Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). In this context, the seriousness being shown to sign the long-pending Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) should see some traction in the coming days. Several CEOS are expected to be a part of the Obama entourage who will hold discussions with their Indian peers under the aegis of the India-US CEO forum.A pivotal component of the emerging strategic partnership between India and the United States has been the defence cooperation. With India liberalizing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in this sector to the tune of 49%, potential of increased trade is being seen. Both the countries have shown intent under the aegis of the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) too. However, challenges still persist in that while Indians emphasise on the need for access to the US technology, the Americans emphasise on the need for access to the Indian defence market.
India: New Leadership, Fresh Eagerness
Nevertheless, constant communication between the two Governments and the high priority attached to the relationship as seen in the decision to renew the 10-year India-US defence framework agreement signed in 2005, lends an air of confidence that the defence cooperation will continue to grow in tandem with the partnership envisioned in the Indo-Pacific region. Another consistent discussion between India and the US has been on the implementation of energy cooperation measures such as execution of nuclear deal, exports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to Indian shores, investment in clean energy and exploring the possibility to import crude oil from the US (amidst growing challenges of Iranian oil imports). While the US could steadfast LNG exports to India, supporting its reeling natural gas sector, besides offering a way forward for even exporting its crude oil to India, it would, on the other hand, want India to be more clear on its nuclear liability stand and its ‘Make in India’ vision to accomplish its Solar Mission of 100 GW, which so far has done more harm than good.
Attempts have been made on the Indian side by quick fixing issues pertaining to the nuclear liability clause and reversing the damage to be incurred by the US investors in India’s National Solar Mission. Indo-US Nuclear deal could get a fresh lease of life with proposals of setting up a $242 million General Insurance fund in face of any fallout or nuclear accident and revisiting Section 46 of the Liability Law to bring more clarity in differentiating civil and criminal liabilities of the suppliers. In its endeavour to be on the same page, a sense of pragmatism was visible from both the countries when the U.S. Solar company SunEdison signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Adani Group to develop India’s largest solar panel factory in Gujarat with an objective to lower local production costs, while curbing dependency on imported solar components. All these measures if put in right spirit has the potential to enhance Indo-US energy cooperation. If substance takes over showmanship, then talks expected high on the list are: countering terrorism, cyber security and streamlining of visa issues for skilled Indian IT professionals, besides pending agreement on social security.
All trained eyes will certainly be set on the expected deliverables from the second Modi-Obama summit within four months. However, even if no major breakthrough comes from the upcoming visit, the political bonhomie that the visit will create will be a highlight in itself for Indo-US relationship.
Dr. Monish Tourangbam is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University and Mr. Manish Vaid is Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi