Why Caution Is Still The Key Word In India-US Rapprochement
Friends? Not quite.
Much is has been written on Prime Minister Narendra Modi upcoming visit to the United States. Headlines in the Indian media such as “Red carpet welcome awaits Narendra Modi in the US” accompanied with statements like “the Obama Administration is leaving no stone unturned to woo Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his maiden visit to the US” paint a picture of a changing India-US relationship, where an over eager US is prepared to do what it takes to improve its strategic partnership with India.
There is some truth to the above, where the US has taken steps to reverse the thaw in relations with India following the Devyani Khobragade controversy. More so, the Obama administration has attempted to distance itself from the Modi visa issue, where, nine years ago, then-Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi, was denied a visa to the US with the State Department invoking a little known law that makes foreign officials who responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for visas. To add insult to injury, Modi was the only person denied a visa to the US under this provision.
In February this year, as it became evident that Modi was poised to become India’s next Prime Minister, the Obama administration signalled its willingness to restore ties, with then-US ambassador to India, Nancy Powell (who, incidentally, resigned following the Khobragade incident), reaching out to Modi and beginning closed-door talks.
As the election results were announced and Modi hailed as the new Prime Minister, the Indian media focused on India-US ties, stepping up the visa issue and often putting US officials on the spot in recorded interviews. The Obama administration was careful to distance itself from the ban, with US Secretary of State John Kerry saying that the denial of a visa was by “a different government” and that “we will welcome PM Modi and definitely give him a visa.” To make further concessions, the US government, for the first time since 2007, dropped all references to Modi in official documents pertaining to the 2002 communal riots.
The US also signalled its willingness to restore ties with India by sending two cabinet ministers, Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, to New Delhi in a space of two weeks. All visits focused on the economy, indicating that the US’ interest in India was tied to the Indian voters interest in Modi, specifically, the belief that the current Prime Minister will help boost India’s economic growth.
John Kerry’s visit, as outlined by the US State Department, focused on “the full range of bilateral issues, including expanding bilateral trade, tackling climate change, improving India’s energy security through cooperation in clean energy and energy access, and expanding our already robust people-to-people ties.” India’s relationship with the US linked to the theme of India’s economic revitalisation has been a recurrent theme in many of Kerry’s public addresses. In a statement to mark India’s independence, Kerry, following a speech on India-US economic ties, said, “our partnership has never mattered more.”
The US’ economic interest in India is, in turn, linked to its strategic interest in the Asia Pacific region. Kerry made this clear when he linked India’s growth to stability of the Indo-Pacific region, which will directly impact Asia’s growth and the US’ interests. Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, in a US Department of State testimony, noted that US rebalance to Asia Pacific is “premised on the consequential role the region’s 4.3 billion people will play in global politics, security, and economics in the 21st century… A strong India will play a critical role in the coming decades in shaping this Asian landscape, and our partnership with India will play an increasingly important role in that context.” Biswal added the role of India in providing a market for the US, saying, “India’s goal of building a strong and integrated economy that is led by private-sector growth and boasts a global reach, will offer sustainable, long-term market opportunities for U.S. firms.” In the same vein, Hagel’s visit focused on defense deals and military-to-military ties.
There is also hope that there could be progress on the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement, which had led to soaring relations between the two countries when signed with the Manmohan Singh government, but was never implemented.
In India’s neighbourhood, there is also the need for strategic partners in Afghanistan, with the US preparing to withdraw a majority of its troops by the end of the year. In this respect, and in many others, the US maintains a bias in favour of Pakistan -- a fact that India, in turn, is well aware of. However, given deteriorating US-Pakistan relations following the operation that led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden, there is a strategic space for India in filling this partial vacuum. It is because of this that the Obama administration is reaching out to India and acknowledging India as a strategic partner in Afghanistan’s period of transition.
From the above, it’s clear that when President Obama referred to India-US relations as the “defining partnership of the 21st century,” he meant that the US was willing to restore ties with India, provided that these ties would enable the US to could gain economically and politically in South Asia and the Asia Pacific region.
As such, there is a demonstrated measure of caution being taken by the US, and the “red carpet” that the Indian media insists is being rolled out, is very much neatly tucked away. This is evinced by the fact that Modi has not been invited to address a joint session of the US Congress -- an address used to honour visitors -- during his upcoming visit.
However, neither is the Modi government overly eager to mend ties with the US, choosing to focus instead on South Asian countries, China, Russia (Modi referred to Russia as India’s greatest “friend”) and most recently, Japan.
In short, whilst the media chooses to portray a changing India-US partnership, caution continues to dominate both sides’ dealings with the other, indicating that it will be prudent to not expect any immediate major breakthrough in the relationship between the two countries.