Modi takes Manhattan in bid to bolster strategic partnership with Obama

Reaching out: Narendra Modi. EPA/Divykant Solanki

Narendra Modi is making his first visit to the US as prime minister of India. He will give his maiden speech at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27 and then proceed to Washington for a summit with Barack Obama on September 30.

One of the most significant features of India’s foreign policy over the last two decades has been its concrete steps to streamline its relationship with the US. Today, the India-US relationship is supposedly framed as a “strategic partnership” between the two countries, a comprehensive bilateral relationship. But in recent years, India has laboured under an ineffective foreign policy, and the partnership has hit a lull.

To complicate things further, a row over the arrest and strip search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade and the fact that Modi was once denied entry to the US have led to much speculation about his government’s precise stance towards the US.

Warming up

Initial statements from India have struck a pragmatic note, one that chimes with the Modi government’s approach towards its neighbours. India has sought to defuse its adversarial relationships with Pakistan and China, and in early September, Modi took a trip to Japan to thicken strategic links with Tokyo.

The India-US relationship has already benefited from reconciliatory gestures on both sides. Obama offered an olive branch by inviting Modi to the US, and high-profile visits by the US secretary of defense Chuck Hagel, the secretary of state, John Kerry, and commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker have helped made it clear that the US is ready to do business with the Modi government.

For his part, Modi has stated that “relations between the two countries cannot be determined or be even remotely influenced by incidents related to individuals” – a clear attempt to dispel the fallout from the strip-search incident.

The summit will address a broad range of issues: trade ties, foreign direct investment, intellectual property rights and visa issues. They will also discuss co-operation in education, health and civilian nuclear energy related issues. But the key areas for discussion will be the defence industry, Islamic terrorism and the emerging strategic significance of the rise of China and its military posture in the Asia-Pacific region.

Tackling Islamic terrorism

The timing of Modi-Obama meeting is interesting, coming just as Obama has stepped up the US air campaign against Islamic State and shortly after al-Qaeda announced its decision to open a franchise in South Asia with an explicit focus on India.

Both countries have been the victim of Islamic terrorism, and remain vulnerable to future terrorist activity. They have been co-operating on counter-terrorism issues since 2001, but their relationship in this area has been hampered by their differing perceptions of the main source of the threat. For the US, this has clearly been al-Qaeda and its affiliates, while India has focused on threats from Pakistan-backed organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba.

But now that the threat from Islamist terror groups appears to be converging, a meeting between Modi and Obama will at last allow the two countries to find some common ground – and hopefully take some significant steps towards better counter-terrorism co-operation.

Defence co-operation

Military and defence ties will be a significant focus of the summit. Apart from continuing to plan joint military exercises, the meeting is likely to take further steps towards joint defence industry co-production – an area in which there has been significant progress since the signing of the US-India defence agreement in 2005.

At present, India is the world’s biggest arms importer, and has long been getting around 75% of its arms from Russia. Over the past decade, it has sought to diversify its supplier base, and its acquisition programme now takes in Israel, the US, France, UK, and Germany, with the US now its second-largest arms supplier – but still accounts for just 7% of its arms purchases.

America’s interest in tightening its defence ties with India is strategic as well as economic. On the one hand, a militarily strong India can play a balancing role in Asia to offset the rise of China. But equally, the US defence industry is actively seeking market opportunities; defence giants such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing have long been exploring potential business partners in India, attracted by its low-cost, well-educated, English-speaking, technically sound workforce.

India’s aerospace industry is a case in point, as demonstrated by India’s recent successful Mars mission which cost just US $75 million – less than the Hollywood space movie Gravity.

Rise of China

China’s aggressive posture in the South China sea and along the Sino-Indian border is alarming. Despite the Modi government’s show of courtesy when it welcomed the Chinese president Xi Jinping, from a strategic point of view, his visit was disappointing.

What won’t have helped was the incursion of Chinese troops across the Indian border during the visit. As these two Asian giants continue to rise, they remain mired in security issues, not least China’s military posture in South China Sea, its India encircling posture in South Asia, its strategic expansion in the Indo-Pacific region and its activities at Line of Actual Control. The increasing military and nuclear co-operation between China and Pakistan remain a serious concern for Delhi.

Meanwhile Xinping’s call to the People’s Liberation Army to be ready for war was a serious cause for alarm for Washington and its democratic allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite their economic ties with China, both the US and India remain concerned about China’s increasingly aggressive military posture.

Common ground

During the last BJP-led government of 1998-2004, then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee laid the foundations for partnership with the US. The two countries had plenty in common: the security threat from Islamic terrorism and the shifting balance of power in Asia as China’s military became more powerful set pulses racing in New Delhi and Washington alike.

The outgoing Congress prime minister, Manmohan Singh, continued this trend towards co-operation, locking down the US-India nuclear deal and a ten-year defence pact.

Once again, a BJP-led government is in power in India; and under Modi, India’s relationship with the US is once again underpinned with a set of common strategic aims. That sets the two countries up well to recognise the geo-strategic and geo-economic realities of the 21st century.