Silencing both critics and skeptics, Modi had categorically stated that “relations between the two countries cannot be determined or be even remotely influenced by incidents related to individuals.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the few foreign leaders whom the outgoing US President Barack Obama called up ahead of Donald Trump's inauguration as the President of the United States. While the two reviewed “all round progress” in bilateral relations, Modi reportedly thanked Obama for strengthening the strategic partnership between the two countries. As he leaves office, the outgoing US ambassador Richard Verma has described the period since the Modi government came to power as “the two best years we've ever had.” There is indeed a new momentum in bilateral ties and strong US-India relations is one the few successes of Obama whose performance otherwise has been quite lacklustre on the foreign policy front. But when he had started eight years back, this was not the Obama that India had encountered.
Indo-US relationship saw unprecedented progress during the Presidency of George W. Bush. When George W. Bush repealed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, India supported America’s missile defence plans. It even offered military bases to Washington for waging the ‘war against terror’ in Afghanistan. The Indian Navy escorted American ships in the Indian Ocean relieving the U.S. Navy from its constabulary services in the region. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, India considered sending Indian troops to Iraq: not under the United Nations but alongside the US. Both nations agreed on a new framework for defence cooperation in 2004, signed a maritime cooperation agreement in 2005 and by 2007, India had started purchasing major defence equipment such as amphibious ships, maritime reconnaissance aircraft and heavy transport aircrafts from the US. This process culminated in the landmark Indo-US civilian nuclear energy pact, helping India to achieve a major strategic goal: a de facto acceptance of India’s status as a nuclear weapon state.
Compared to the Bush era, the India-US strategic partnership lost some of its momentum in the early years of the Obama administration. There were indications of trouble even as Obama was on his way to the White House. As a senator, Obama had opposed the civilian nuclear agreement. He also, in formulating his Afghanistan policy, tried to rehyphenize India and Pakistan into one single bracket bringing Kashmir back in the agenda, which drew a lot of criticism from New Delhi. And most importantly, the idea of a Sino-US condominium to manage regional affairs (referred to as the G-2) which Obama took very seriously in his early years was contested heavily in New Delhi. In fact, in 2009 the US officials were indicating to their Indian counterparts their reluctance to pursue any balance of power politics in the region. In India, this was seen in strong contrast to the more muscular China policy of George W. Bush and the growing bonhomie between the two countries brought back the nostalgia of the first term of the Clinton Presidency when India had become a joint target of both US and China. Even when a course correction occurred with the announcement of a ‘pivot’ to Asia, the perception of New Delhi’s vulnerability in the face of a US-China condominium had gained traction in the minds of Indian decision-makers.
Strategic uncertainty and the perception of American decline also allowed the Congress party’s residual anti-Americanism and nostalgia for non-alignment to surface once again. Many in the Congress were not in tune with Manmohan Singh’s efforts to realign India with the US. During negotiations for the nuclear deal, Manmohan Singh put his foot down and the Congress Party had no other option but to rally behind the Prime Minister. In his second term, however, Singh’s position had weakened a lot, both due to the seemingly never ending corruption cases against his government but also due to increased interference from Congress the high command. The signals sent out by Obama administration in its first two years of power and the weak leadership of Manmohan Singh in his second term resulted in a drawdown in Indo-US relationship and their divergence in concretely responding to the strategy of pivot.
The election of Modi to India’s Prime Ministership was the decisive jolt that the Indo-US relationship needed. Within three months of assuming office, he had his first summit level meeting with Obama. Contrary to popular belief that Modi would not be able to leave behind the past of his rather uncomfortable relationship with the US on denial of visa, he has been diplomatically adept at engaging the US. Silencing both critics and skeptics, Modi had categorically stated that “relations between the two countries cannot be determined or be even remotely influenced by incidents related to individuals.” He considers Indo-US relationship as one between natural allies.
Like his predecessor Manmohan Singh, Modi’s reading of Asian strategic environment is also underlined by a feeling of strategic uncertainty. However, according to him, this should translate into more responsibility for countries like India. This emphasis on responsibility has been quite different from that of the previous government. Also, while he wants to improve relations with Beijing, Modi has been forthright in expressing India’s concerns. On his visit to Japan, taking a shot at China’s policies in the East and South China Seas, he said that some states still follow the 19th century mindset of expansionism. He also emphasized the freedom of navigation in those seas during his speech at the UN general assembly. However, his deliberations with Barack Obama have sent the strongest signals in this regard.
The joint statement issued by the two leaders underscored that peace and security in the Asia-Pacific and China’s increasing assertiveness in the region figured prominently in the dialogue. The joint statement expressed concerns over the “rising territorial disputes” and threats to freedom of navigation and maritime security. Taking aim at China, the two leaders also ‘called upon all parties to avoid the use, or threat of use, of force in advancing their claims’. To achieve these objectives, the need for complementing each other’s Asia-Pacific strategies was also underlined: ‘Noting India’s “Act East” policy and the United States’ rebalance to Asia, the leaders committed to work more closely with other Asia Pacific countries through consultations, dialogues, and joint exercises’.
This was a break from the UPA era, when India remained obsessively shy of any engagement with the US on its ‘pivot’ to Asia. The India-US defense relationship also received a major push. The two leaders agreed to renew the 2005 Defence Framework Agreement for another ten years and the joint statement called upon both parties “to treat each other at the same level as their closest partners.” Unlike under the UPA when military diplomacy with US had fallen off the grid, Modi’s visit helped resuscitate struggling mechanisms such as the Pol-Mil dialogue and more importantly the DTTI initiative. India expanded its maritime cooperation with the US evident in the commitment to upgrade the Malabar series of exercises. In his very first visit to the US, Modi clearly filled many of the gaps left by the UPA in Indo-US relations in general and New Delhi’s commitment to strategic rebalancing in particular.
In a significant gesture signaling US recognition of India’s rising power, President Obama visited New Delhi as the chief guest of the Republic Day parade on January 26 earlier this year. The visit helped in resolving the logjam over civilian nuclear cooperation by settling the controversial nuclear liability issue between the two countries. The two states also decided to start co-development and joint production of military equipment under the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). Four pilot projects have been identified: Raven mini UAVs, mobile hybrid power source, chemical/bio protection gear, roll on-roll off intelligence and surveillance modules for C-130J aircraft. By the end of Obama’s term, the US had designated India as a ‘Major Defence Partner’ – a status that puts India on a par with America’s closest allies.
Beyond bilateral issues, the two states are now much more in sync on larger regional issues. The “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean” articulated by Obama and Modi in 2015 is the first comprehensive enunciation of a collaborative approach to regional security issues. The statement underlined the fact that cooperation between the two largest democracies in the region is “indispensable to promoting peace, prosperity and stability”. That the concurrent tensions in the South China Sea found an emphatic resonance in the document indicates that a convergence of interests and strategies to manage China’s increasing assertiveness in the region is now in the offing. In a veiled warning to China, the document clearly stated that “regional prosperity depends on security. We (India and US) affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” The two countries also indicated their preferences for negotiated solutions of territorial and maritime disputes in the region calling upon all stakeholders to “void the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Being the first instance of India and the US issuing joint vision on the Indo-Pacific, it underscored that the concerns of the region have attained special relevance in Indo-US bilateral relationship.
As Obama leaves office, he can certainly look back with a sense of satisfaction at his accomplishment on the India front. But it is also a warning to many Indians that the start of a new US Presidency is hardly likely to reveal much about how it might end.