New frontiers: India-US agreements were beyond expectations

  • Ashok Mailk
  • Updated: Jan 27, 2015 23:48 IST

In inviting Barack Obama to become the first American president to be the chief guest on India’s Republic Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sending a clear signal. What was not so clear was whether the visit would yield anything substantive. In the end, agreements reached by the two governments have gone well beyond expectations.

The joint statement, running into eight pages and 59 paragraphs, is among the lengthiest in recent memory. It takes forward several initiatives mentioned in the September 2014 joint statement in Washington, DC. Not surprisingly, it devotes its opening pages simply to going over what has been done since September, in areas as far apart as higher education and IT, smart cities and counter-terrorism.

In New Delhi itself, the joint statement announced the successful conclusion of the negotiations of the “contact group” on outstanding issues related to the India-US nuclear deal. Some have wondered whether the creation of an insurance pool will remove all misgivings about Section 17(b) of the Indian nuclear liability law. Actually a lot of homework was done on this. A multi-ministry team — ministries of external affairs, law and justice, finance — studied the issue and looked at precedents of 26 insurance pools in various countries, including France and the US.

On Section 46 and the apparent confusion between the definitions and liabilities of an operator and a supplier, much store was placed on case law and the history of legislative deliberations that preceded the framing of the Indian law. It proved persuasive. Lawyers — including those of the Indian government, of Indian nuclear-component manufacturers and of American corporations such as Westinghouse and GE, part of the contact group consultations — were left confident the interpretation could be defended in an Indian court. A legal challenge by anti-nuclear activists is inevitable.

Another legacy issue was climate change. As in September, the prime minister linked cooperation and American advance on renewables, including solar energy, and on the nuclear question to easing the coal component in India’s energy mix and, in the long run, moving towards a responsible role for India in the climate change debate.

There are no hard numbers here — there cannot be: India cannot commit to emissions targets or even a cap year at this stage of its development — but Modi has indicated he will not stand in the way of any global accord. The run-up to the Paris climate change conference at the end of 2015, at which India has promised to play a constructive role, will need to be watched. Knee-jerk responses that have guided the environment ministry since the 1990s will likely be tweaked towards a 21st century approach.

In the days before Obama arrived, the Modi government repeatedly used the word “embedded” to describe the role of US institutions, technologies and projects in India’s development, and perhaps in its foreign policy postures too. This is not to suggest Modi is offering a ‘no questions asked’ alliance; he isn’t, and no Indian leader can. Yet, an enlightened cooperation has replaced the denial of the past.

It has also iterated that Modi is willing to stand on a platform with only the US — unhindered by the diffidence of previous decades and governments — and propel India to a larger role on the global stage. When India and the US commit to “bilateral efforts to advance sustainable development in cooperation with partner countries around the world” (in the ‘joint statement’) and “leverage the talents and strengths of our people to enhance sustainable, inclusive development around the globe” (in the ‘Delhi Declaration of Friendship’) it does speak of a new daring.

The most ambitious instinct underpins the ‘Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’. It recognises the security of India’s Himalayan frontier with China ultimately lies in the Indian Ocean and the waters of the India-Pacific. It unites the “two largest democracies that bridge the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region” in a resolve to:

“Build … [a] partnership to support … broad-based prosperity” from “Africa to East Asia”. In a sense this reclaims the strategic frontiers of pre-1947 India, which ran from the Gulf of Aden to the Straits of Malacca

“Affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”

“Commit to strengthening the East Asia Summit … to promote regional dialogue on key political and security issues”. Making the East Asia Summit the centrepiece of a new Asian security architecture was a proposal of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2014

Each of the points enunciated above is aimed at building a coalition of interests that counter-balance Chinese assertiveness and potential adventurism. The Great Game in the India-Pacific has begun. Having said that, all of this is dependent on Modi not just reviving economic growth in India but taking it to hitherto unknown heights.

As a final word, it is poignant that the seismic shift in India-US engagement in the past 15 years, since the Pokhran II nuclear tests of 1998, has seen domestic adversaries build on each other’s work. From Bill Clinton to George W Bush to now Obama, both Democrats and Republicans have demonstrated bipartisan support for a strategic partnership with India.

In New Delhi, Manmohan Singh carried forward gains of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years. Modi has pushed ahead with much of what Singh started, including the nuclear deal, or wanted to start (serious defence cooperation, the India-Pacific thrust) but was blocked from doing by naysayers in his own party and government.

This is the way of great nations. Governments come and go, but the ship of national enterprise moves on. On this Republic Day weekend, it promised to take India and America to new frontiers and new destinies.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal

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