India needs strategic space to grow – and Washington will encourage that expansion. This understanding is the main accomplishment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated interactions with President Barack Obama. A stance further consolidated with Modi’s recent visit to Washington.
As high-level Indian sources put it, even a decade ago the US sought to put constraints on India’s ability to operate, especially in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area but also in West Asia and the Asia-Pacific. This was most evident in Afghanistan, where the US until recently echoed Pakistan’s line that the Indian role in that country should be limited to a development partner. “The US used to squeeze our space of activity” but no longer does.
This was not automatic. Obama’s first term was all about having a global partnership with Beijing. And his Afghanistan policy has been about doing the same, regionally, with Islamabad.
Modi’s addressing the US Congress during a lame duck presidency, said a US diplomat, is helping strengthen a sense in Washington that the Indo-US relationship is “normal and friendly.” This will give important guidance to bureaucrats and officials if the US’s political system remains paralysed by rigid partisanship and insurgent presidential candidates.
A former US national security council member noted that Obama had pulled out key ministers from the US-China strategic and economic dialogue, sending their deputies in their place, and redeployed them for the Indian prime minister’s state visit.
The Indian source also spoke of Modi “speaking to a larger Indian audience who don’t know much about modern India” and seeking to counter the “uncertainty and isolationism” that marks the US today.
Much of what Modi and Obama have worked out will provide an institutional framework for future relations. For example, they have worked out around the unique status of India in the US strategic environment: a trusted partner, yet non-ally. Hence the joint statement’s creation of a new position: major defence partner. This will provide a pigeonhole for bureaucrats to put India, easing the sale of high-end defence equipment, co-development of weapons and sharing of intelligence and sensitive information.
Climate change, one of the areas the two have bonded the strongest, is a similar story. The US has committed itself to funnel private and public capital, technology and political support to Modi’s aggressive renewable energy targets. Hence the joint statement’s, “The United States is committed to bring to bear its technical capacity, resources and private sector.. to spur greater investment in India’s renewable energy sector.” Again, the idea is to tie the two together in an area of cooperation in a way that it will be immunised to the vagaries of domestic politics.
There was a similar sense of a new normal when George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh put the first Indo-US nuclear deal together. But it never included Afghanistan and it was not shared by many parts of the US establishment, especially within the Democratic Party. The bureaucracy was also sceptical of how long the original bonhomie would last. Obama and Modi have largely closed that circle.
Here is another sense of how much Modi and Obama want their respective governments and people to take Indo-US relations for granted. The two are already likely to meet two or three times more this year – at the G-20, the East Asia Summit and possibly the sidelines United Nations General Assembly. Yet the joint statement ends with Modi inviting Obama to visit India again “at his convenience.”