Ask what Obama and US must do for India, not what we can do for them

  • Kanwal Sibal
  • Updated: Jan 24, 2015 09:40 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Barack Obama want to reinvigorate the languishing India-US ties. Modi obviously believes that his development agenda needs US propping and that improved relations with the US will give India more leverage with both friends and adversaries. Obama appears persuaded that Modi means business and that his agenda will yield economic opportunities for the US and solidify the strategic ties at a time of rising challenges to its global hegemony.

In seeking to swiftly galvanise the relationship the two leaders have generated pressure upon themselves to produce tangible results quickly. Obama’s visit, therefore, has to be a ‘success’ to justify the considerable political capital that both sides have invested in it.

The road map for revitalising ties was drawn up during Modi’s September visit. Observers will be looking for advances during Obama’s visit, despite the short period between the two visits. Implementation will require either time-consuming processing or difficult negotiations, or policy, legislative and administrative responses, accompanied by internal political debates in some cases. Some goals may not be achieved. Moreover, a balance in our external relations will have to be maintained.

India-US bilateral trade cannot be increased from $100 billion currently to $500 billion in the foreseeable future. Modi’s quest for more ease of access to the US market for Indian IT companies may not succeed in view of Obama’s position on outsourcing and US unresponsiveness on issues of hike of H1B and L1 visa fees, movement of professionals and the totalisation agreement.

India needs huge investments for modernising its poor infrastructure. The signing in Washington earlier this month of the Indo-US Investment Initiative and the decision to establish an Infrastructure Collaboration Platform demonstrate a desire to leverage US technology and services, but quicker results could come from engaging more internationally competitive partners.

The Trade Policy Forum met last November with the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR’s) participation, but without any visible breakthrough. The USTR’s position on local manufacturing content requirements remains querulous, even though without this stipulation we cannot easily ‘Make in India’. The working group for addressing IPR issues has met, but how India’s position that it is not violating the WTO agreement on TRIPS and contentious US demands can be reconciled is unclear.

The contact group for implementing the India-US civil nuclear deal has also met. Although there are signs that the US government may accept some form of supplier liability if a practical way to limit it in terms of cost and duration can be found, the chances of resolving this vexed issue in time for Obama’s visit are unclear.

Obama’s offer to reinvigorate the higher education dialogue can be taken up seriously only if the government can move forward on the Foreign Education Providers Bill. The proposal to establish the Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN) under which India would host up to 1,000 American academics each year to teach in centrally-recognised Indian universities is an imaginative proposal, but one requiring complex administrative processing for success.

In Washington, India and the US announced a ‘new and enhanced strategic partnership’ on climate change, which opens us to increased US pressure prior to and at the UN climate change conference in Paris in December. After reaching a political agreement with China, the US will seek concrete emission reduction commitments from India, connected less with the merits of India’s case, and more with the commercial interests of the US.

During Obama’s visit the 2005 framework for the India-US defence relationship will certainly be renewed for another 10 years with more ambitious programmes and activities. The US is keen that at least one project is approved under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). While the US claims that its proposals under the DTTI have the green light from all those who control technology exports in the country, it can be doubted whether it will be as liberal in transfer of technologies as it claims. From defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s recent public statements, however, it appears some positive announcement under the DTTI may be made. This will bolster the strategic partnership.

During Modi’s visit Obama affirmed that India met the Missile Technology Control Regime requirements and was ready for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, but the US has not been active in promoting India’s case. It is likely that the US is linking this to a resolution of differences on nuclear liability and administrative arrangements on reprocessing under the India-US nuclear deal.

On terrorism, the Taliban’s omission from the list of terrorist networks that figure in the joint statement issued during Modi’s Washington visit is striking. It shows that on the Afghanistan issue the US is ignoring Indian concerns about this Pakistan-linked extremist group being politically accommodated in Afghanistan’s power structure to facilitate US withdrawal from that country.

At Washington, Modi and Obama stated their intention to expand defence cooperation to bolster regional and global security. How regional security can be promoted if the US continues to arm Pakistan is open to question. With regard to global security, the commitment expressed in the joint statement to work closely with other Asia Pacific countries through consultations, dialogues, and joint exercises is important for India’s other Asian relationships. Modi’s statement that the US was intrinsic to India’s Look East and Link West policies is significant as it accords a central role for the US in India’s foreign policy. How much of this geopolitical rapprochement will be consolidated during Obama’s visit would be watched with interest.

The improvement of India-US ties has undoubtedly been the most important development in India’s external relations in the last decade. But managing this relationship is challenging, given US power, expectations, impatience and pressure to get things done its way. Already the focus is on what we can do for the US and Obama and not what the US must do to meet our needs and concerns. The India-US agenda should be more balanced.

Kanwal Sibal is former foreign secretary

The views expressed by the author are personal

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