US-India ties: Much left to achieve

  • William S Cohen
  • Updated: Mar 27, 2016 23:12 IST
US President Barack Obama was right to immediately invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington during their first call, and Modi reciprocated with a first-ever invitation to an American President to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day last year. (Hindustan Times)

It will be a crowded Nuclear Security Summit this week in Washington, but I hope that US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will spend time with one another and continue to advance our bilateral partnership — which they have done ably over the past two years. Given the occasion, it will be an apt moment to recall that nearly eleven years ago, the United States and India launched negotiations on a civil nuclear cooperation initiative that enhanced global nuclear security and paved the way for greater Indian integration into the non-proliferation community. Over the course of three years, from 2005 to 2008, the United States and India negotiated a

‘123 Agreement’ outlining terms for cooperation on civil nuclear issues; India agreed to place its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards; American diplomats brokered a first-ever exemption for India to stringent Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines on civil nuclear trade; and the US Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation enabling implementation of the civil nuclear agreement (a show of bipartisan support often absent amidst the present rancour in Washington). Unfortunately, the civil nuclear deal remains incomplete. American firms have invested significantly in the development of new reactors, but remain unable to follow through on the commercial promise of the deal, given India’s current liability arrangements. This piece of unfinished business remains a source of frustration in the US private sector community and among the many champions of our countries’ growing partnership.

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The civil nuclear deal also built confidence among our leaders — across political parties — for a more robust US-India partnership. Whereas during much of the Cold War period our relations were characterised by reticence and mistrust, today we are focused on the practical work of growing our respective economies, promoting peace and prosperity in Asia, and generating solutions to global challenges like climate change. Building on the progress of their predecessors, Obama and Modi have taken strong steps in all of these areas. They’ve brought a fresh receptivity in both governments to the recommendations of the US-India CEO Forum, agreed to a joint strategic vision in the Asia-Pacific, and found common ground at the Paris Climate Conference.

Our economic and business ties have expanded significantly since the launch of the civil nuclear negotiations. In 2005, trade between our countries totalled less than $30 billion. In 2014, it crossed the $100 billion threshold. In the trade arena — typically a source of friction — PM Modi took the historic step of ratifying the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement last year. American exports to India reached over $38 billion in 2014, and those exports supported an estimated 181,000 US jobs. American and Indian firms are also partnering like never before, and in visionary fields. US technology is supporting India’s growth across a host of areas, including in water conservation, smart cities development, pollution management, and the exploration of Mars. Indian industry has revolutionised innovation, developing low-cost solutions that support inclusive growth, such as a $5 smartphone and an $18,000 electric vehicle, soon to be launched in the United Kingdom.

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In the defence arena, our countries have taken leaps forward since 2005. India conducts more military exercises with the United States than with any other country — that would have been unthinkable in the early 2000s. Secretary Ash Carter and Union defence minister Manohar Parrikar renewed a 10-year defence framework agreement last June, which rationalised our security dialogues and focused our bureaucracies on industrial collaboration. Our government is actively working to break down certain technology transfer barriers through the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), which is charting new areas of co-development and co-production, including in aircraft carrier and jet engine technology. US defence companies are forming important partnerships that will help India achieve its indigenous manufacturing goals. Tata and Lockheed Martin formed a joint venture in 2014 to manufacture airframe components for the C-130J global supply chain, and next month, senior US defence officials will travel to India to discuss the potential to manufacture F-16s in India.

There is much recent progress to celebrate in our partnership, and I hope that Obama and Modi will consider another bilateral visit. They have been right to prioritise one another — President Obama was right to immediately invite Prime Minister Modi to Washington during their first call, and Modi reciprocated with a first-ever invitation to an American President to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day last year. With nearly ten months left in Obama’s term, there is time to get more done in a range of areas: To further break down barriers to trade and investment; to encourage state-of-the-art industrial collaboration that builds India’s defence production base, and to implement the two countries’ Paris climate commitments, among many others.

Secretary William S Cohen is a former US Secretary of Defense and the current chairman of The Cohen Group in Washington, DC

The views expressed are personal

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