Obama's Successful Visit

Commentary | January 29, 2015

Former Foreign Secretary of India and EWI Board Member Kanwal Sibal writes about U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to India last week, and discusses why his visit should evoke optimism for those who seek a closer security relationship between the world's two largest democracies. 

To read the article at Deccan Herald, click here.

One outcome of President Barack Obama’s visit to India that has received the greatest attention is the breakthrough on the nuclear deal front. For the US, India’s unwillingness to resolve the outstanding issues reflected a lack of commitment to the strategic relationship. This had affected the overall political relationship. 

The supplier liability issue seems to have resolved by India’s decision to set up an insurance pool to discharge liability, as well as a written clarification on the applicability of Section 46 only to operators and not suppliers. On the vexed national tracking issue the nature of the understanding with regard to reconciling the provisions of the 123 agreement, our “international obligations” and the Canadian template under which only International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) tracking is required, is not yet fully clear, but a “done deal” has been announced. Yet, the larger question of the commercial viability of US supplied reactors remains, a point alluded to in Prime Minister Narendra Modi-Obama joint press conference. Modi has done well to transfer the subject from government level to commercial level so that the negative politics surrounding the subject is eliminated.

Defence has been the other touchstone for the US to measure India’s willingness to deepen the strategic partnership. During the president’s visit, significant progress was expected to be announced under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative. This has not happened, but some progress has been made, with four “pathfinder” projects being announced involving relatively less complex technologies. As expected, the India-US Defence Framework Agreement of 2005 has been extended for another 10 years.

A document of considerable geopolitical significance signed during the visit is the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. During his September visit to Washington, Modi had spoken about India-US convergences in the Asia-Pacific region and had declared that the US was intrinsic to India’s Act East and Link West policies. In the joint statement issued after the bilateral discussions on Sunday, the two sides have noted that India’s Act East Policy and the US rebalance to Asia provide opportunities to work closely to strengthen regional ties. 

A separate document on the subject shows how far India has travelled in affirming, along with the US, the “importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. The document also calls on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means in accordance with international law, including the Law of the Sea Convention. 

It speaks, in addition, of India and the US investing in making trilateral countries with third countries in the region, with Japan and Australia clearly in mind. This is a direct message addressed to China, reflecting less inhibition on India’s part both to pronounce on the subject and do it with the US, irrespective of Chinese sensibilities. Some Chinese commentary has criticised this effort by the US to make India part of its containment strategy, without taking cognisance of how India views China’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean, its strategic investments in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and other countries.

The Obama visit has also demonstrated the good personal rapport established between him and Modi, with embraces and first name familiarity, walk in the park and talk over tea, all of which adds to the prime minister’s personal stature as a man comfortable and confident in his dealings   with the leader of the most powerful country in the world on the basis of equality. This personal rapport could be leveraged to make the White House exercise continuing oversight over the Administration’s policies towards India, which experience shows is very helpful for the bilateral relationship.

Counter-terrorism is always highlighted as an expanding area of India-US cooperation because of shared threats. The joint statement speaks dramatically of making the US-India partnership in this area a “defining” relationship for the 21st century. Because the biggest terrorist threat to India comes from Pakistan, does this mean that the US will share actionable intelligence with us on terrorist threats to us emanating from Pakistani soil? One can remain doubtful about this. The continued omission of the Afghan Taliban from the list of entities India and the US will work against is disquieting, as it indicates US determination to engage the Taliban, even when it knows that it is Pakistan’s only instrument to exert influence on developments in Afghanistan at India’s cost.

On trade, investment and intellectual property rights (IPRs) issues, the two sides will continue their engagement with the impulse given to the overall relationship by these Obama-Modi exchanges. On the Bilateral Investment Treaty, the two sides will “assess the prospects for moving forward”. On the totalisation agreement the two will “hold a discussion on the elements requires in both countries to pursue” it, a language that offers little hope. On IPRs, there will be enhanced engagement in 2015 under the High Level Working Group. The Higher Education agenda seems essentially stalled as the joint statement shows. 

On climate change, we have reiterated the decision to work together this year to achieve a successful agreement at the UN conference in Paris, even when our respective positions are opposed on the core issue of India making specific emission reduction commitment. While stating that neither the US nor the US-China agreement put any pressure on India, he acknowledged pressure on all countries to take steps for the sake of posterity. He has finessed the issue for the present with this artful language. All in all, president Obama’s visit has given a welcome boost to India-US ties.


To read the article at Deccan Herald, click here.