President Barack Obama will be the first US president to visit India on Republic Day on January 26, as well as the first sitting US president to visit India twice.
During his three day symbolic visit President Obama will hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the second summit level meeting within a short period of four months.
The US-India relationship has transformed significantly in the post-Cold War era, and especially in the post 9/11 environment. Now characterized as a “strategic partnership” the relationship between the two countries has been strengthened by the threat of Islamic terrorism and the shifting balance of power in Asia due to China’s ascendancy.
For the last of couple of years the US-India ties had been strained. To complicate things further, a row over the arrest and the strip search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade and the fact that Modi was once denied entry to the US had led to speculation about his government’s stance towards the US.
Initial statements from the new Modi government , however, struck a pragmatic note. These overtures followed by a successful visit by Modi – invited by Obama – to the US have infused a new confidence and vigor in the US-India ties.
The timing of Obama’s India visit is significant. On the economic front both countries are showing positive signs – a reviving US economy and a confident Indian economy under “Modinomics.” On the security front, both countries are concerned about the rise of ISIS/ISIL and Islamic terrorism. Both leaders intend to address key issues of nuclear energy, defense, and bilateral trade.
Enhancing economic ties
To set in motion Obama’s trip, Secretary of State John Kerry attended a long-scheduled appearance at an international investment conference in Ahmedabad a week ago and pitched for a strong economic ties.
There has been a multi-fold increase in the India-US bilateral trade over the last decade, which stands now at about $100 billion. The US and India are keen to elevate the bilateral trade five-fold to $500 billion by 2020.
The likely focus of the discussion will be on the Modi government’s key projects: smart cities; joint defense production; infrastructure; and,the “Make in India” project, a national program to transform India into a global manufacturing hub.
Both men are looking to sort out issues on the development of nuclear energy for non-defense use, based on an agreement that was concluded under the previous Manmohan Singh government. However, since then, civilian nuclear trade has been stalled over the stringent provisions in the Civil Nuclear Liability Act which attempted to lay out the process for damages and compensation should India or the US have a disagreement.
Energy sources and importance
India is an energy starved country where ¼ of the 1.2 billion population, roughly 300 million people, do not have access to sufficient electricity. The existing gap between supply and demand and the looming energy crisis will be further aggravated once the energy-hungry “Make in India” projects get kick-started.
Nuclear energy generates just 3% of India’s energy; some estimate it can be increased to 25 % by 2050. Solar energy, one of the cheapest and most environmentally friendly sources of energy, will also figure into the discussions.
During Modi’s US visit in September 2014, a high-level contact group to facilitate civilian nuclear cooperation was set up. They have already held two rounds of detailed discussions on a range of issues, including administrative, liability, technical, and licensing to clear the way for the establishment of US-designed atomic power plants and reactors in India, which will potentially be the world’s biggest and most lucrative energy market.
Cooperation in the fight against Islamic terrorism will continue to be an important agenda item. Despite some differences of opinion about the roots of terrorism, the US-India effort in counter-terrorism has made significant progress in areas of intelligence sharing and joint counter-terrorism exercises. The horrendous incidents of terrorism perpetrated by Islamic State and Al-Qaeda and its affiliates such as Lashkar-a-Taeba continues to be a shared security concern for both nations.
In advance of Obama’s visit, the US is asking Pakistan to handover Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, accused of masterminding the Mumbai terror attack, for trial in India. India has often complained that the US has ignored their claims about Pakistan’s non-cooperation and lack of seriousness in tackling terrorism.
Obama is expected to push for joint defense industry co-production and a stronger defense collaboration. Since the signing of the US-India defense agreement in 2005, there has been dramatic progress between the two countries in the volume of defense trade and the frequency of joint military exercises.
Today India conducts more joint military exercises with the US than with any other country. This agreement will be extended for another ten years.
At present, India is the world’s top arms importer. Previously 75% of its arms came from Russia, with the US supplying just 7%. In the last three years, however, the US has become the top arms supplier for India.
The US push for strong defense ties with India is driven by both economic and strategic considerations.
The US defense industry is actively seeking market opportunities; US defense giants are attracted by India’s low-cost, well-educated, English-speaking and technically savvy workforce. India’s recent successful Mars mission which cost just $75 million – less than the Hollywood space movie Gravity - is a case in point.
During the Modi-Obama meeting in September 2014, a task force was formed to monitor the Defense Trade and Technology proposal, a joint effort to streamline the bureaucratic hurdles to defense trade and technology transfer.
This represented an about-face from previous political/military dialogues between the countries. A significant example of the change is the US proposal to set up an M777 (Ultra Light Howitzer) artillery gun assembly line in India. This will give firepower to India’s new mountain strike corps, which is being established as a deterrent to China.
The expanding Chinese military presence in East Asia and the Indian Ocean is a major strategic concern that the US and India share. A militarily strong India can serve as a counterweight against Chinese aggression.
The visit of the first US president to participate in India’s Republic Day, to mark January 26, 1950 when the Constitution came into force, is an historic and symbolic event that is more than six decades in the making.
Obama’s presence marks the rediscovery of shared interests and values between the world’s oldest and the largest democracies. Old suspicions have been put aside. The US and India strategic partnership is driven by the geo-strategic and geo-economic realities that will have considerable impact on global politics and the Asian balance of power in the 21st century.