5 Takeaways on US-India Relations After Modi’s Meeting With Obama

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5 Takeaways on US-India Relations After Modi’s Meeting With Obama

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Obama for the seventh–and possibly final–time.

5 Takeaways on US-India Relations After Modi’s Meeting With Obama
Credit: Twitter: @MEAIndia

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in the United States on Monday evening, his fourth stop on a whirlwind five-day, five-country tour that began with stops in Afghanistan, Qatar, and Switzerland. On Tuesday, he met U.S. President Barack Obama for what will probably be the last time in the context of a state visit. Modi’s meeting with Obama is the seventh overall between the two leaders, who’ve been known to hug it out and generally show a good personal rapport between them. While Modi’s a globe-trotting diplomat, eager to pitch India to the world, that this is his fourth trip to the United States is a significant marker of the priority he affords New Delhi’s relationship with Washington.

On Tuesday, Modi and Obama released a joint statement, outlining the main bilateral deliverables of this state visit. On Wednesday, Modi will address a joint session of U.S. Congress, becoming the first Indian prime minister to do so since his direct predecessor Manmohan Singh in 2005. The bilateral joint statement is a lengthy and detailed document, spanning 50 paragraphs. (The length, roughly corresponding with similar statements in 2014 and 2015, speaks to the breadth of the bilateral under Modi and Obama.) Below, I’ve highlighted some of the major takeaways of this visit based on the joint statement, though my look here is far from an exhaustive look at the many granular outcomes of this visit.

Nuclear dividends, paying out more than a decade later. In 2005, India and the United States signed a watershed agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. That agreement was ratified in the United States in 2008, but had yet to yield any serious dividends amid U.S. concerns about harsh Indian liability laws for nuclear suppliers. Last year, when Obama visited India in January, both countries reached an understanding on the liability impasse. This year, nearly 11 years after the original signing of the civil nuclear agreement, Obama and Modi outlined in their joint statement the first major U.S. nuclear project in India:

Culminating a decade of partnership on civil nuclear issues, the leaders welcomed the start of preparatory work on site in India for six AP 1000 reactors to be built by Westinghouse and noted the intention of India and the U.S. Export-Import Bank to work together toward a competitive financing package for the project. Once completed, the project would be among the largest of its kind, fulfilling the promise of the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement and demonstrating a shared commitment to meet India’s growing energy needs while reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

It may have taken more than a decade to get here, but the civil nuclear agreement is set to begin paying dividends for U.S. nuclear suppliers. For India, the benefits have been long known: the agreement cleared a path for India’s effective normalization as a nuclear weapons state outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, with Washington’s backing. (Modi’s been counting on Washington’s continued backing for India’s accession to the Nuclear Suppliers Group–though that’ll hinge largely on the support of China and other countries at a plenary later this month.)

India becomes a ‘Major Defense Partner.’ As I noted after their meetings in 2014 and 2015, India and the United States are seeing a steep period of convergence on defense issues, fostered in part by U.S. desires to set up a network of security partners in the broader Asia-Pacific amid China’s increasingly assertive behavior and facilitated by the change of government in New Delhi in 2014. Today, Washington designated New Delhi a “Major Defense Partner.” The joint statement outlines what that means:

  • The United States will continue to work toward facilitating technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners. The leaders reached an understanding under which India would receive license-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies in conjunction with steps that India has committed to take to advance its export control objectives.

  • In support of India’s Make In India initiative, and to support the development of robust defense industries and their integration into the global supply chain, the United States will continue to facilitate the export of goods and technologies, consistent with U.S. law, for projects, programs and joint ventures in support of official U.S.-India defense cooperation.

Interestingly, though the designation denotes a new level of depth to the partnership, expanding on the scope of the 10-year defense framework that U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar finalized last year, there’s a level of ambiguity built into the title. To my knowledge, the United States hasn’t used this precise ‘Major Defense Partner’ designation to define its relationship with any other country, suggesting that this is a bespoke arrangement for India, which has its own limitations and anxieties about bilateral convergence with Washington. Moreover, given the poorly defined contours of this status, Obama’s successors will have leeway to shape the relationship according to future realities.

The joint statement moreover acknowledges the ongoing U.S.-India joint working group on aircraft carrier technology. As India looks to construct its second indigenous aircraft carrier, the INS Vishal, a 65,000-ton Vikrant-class carrier, it’s interested in considering advanced U.S. technologies, including General Atomics’ Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and even nuclear propulsion. While the latter may remain a pipe dream for New Delhi, the odds of India gaining access to sensitive U.S. carrier tech becomes a lot more likely with the new designation.

A Logistics Exchange agreement appears on the horizon. Another deliverable that became apparent on Tuesday is the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which had been agreed to in principle between Carter and Parrikar in April. Obama and Modi confirmed that the text of the agreement has been finalized and will be signed soon. This agreement is one of three so-called “foundational” agreements that stands to grease the wheels of U.S.-India military cooperation and interoperability in practice. Two other agreements, on communications and information security (CISMOA) and on targeting and navigational data sharing (BECA), remain underway.

Global pull-back. While reading the statement, I was struck by the decision by both sides to omit global issues. Specifically, where previous statements in 2014 and 2015 have included references to North Korea’s nuclear program, the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan, and tensions in the South China Sea, this year’s bilateral statement seems to trade global scope for bilateral depth.

For Diplomat readers curious about the South China Sea, where both the U.S. and India have important interests, the statement does include an affirmation in favor of freedom of navigation and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but does not mention the disputes specifically. India has made a habit of calling out the South China Sea regularly in bilateral statements, but, with China’s upcoming vote at the Nuclear Suppliers Group plenary session later this month critical to potential Indian accession, New Delhi may have been willing to forgo a mention this time around, assuming that its position is widely known. Still, given India’s somewhat perplexing decision to sign onto a trilateral statement with China and Russia that voiced support for resolving the disputes through “negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned,” contradicting previous Indian statements favoring international arbitration of the disputes, Modi could have taken this opportunity to crystallize an Indian position. This would have been all the more welcome with the looming decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Philippines v. China on the horizon later this summer.

The bilateral statement does include two paragraphs dedicated to the respective U.S. and Indian relationships with African states. Modi and Obama “reflected that the United States and India share a common interest in working with partners in Africa to promote prosperity and security across the continent.”

A joint stand against terrorism. U.S.-India joint statements in recent years have included strong statements on terrorism, calling out Pakistan-based terror groups by name. Indeed, Washington recognizes the sensitivity of this issue for New Delhi. This year, the two sides continued this tradition and included a call “for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai” attacks to justice. Notably, alongside Mumbai 2008, this year’s statement including the January 2016 Pathankot attack (more on that here). The Pathankot attack crushed what little bonhomie Modi and his Pakistani counterpart had established in late-2015, derailing any possibility of bilateral peace between Islamabad and New Delhi ths year. For the United States, the past few months have also seen a precipitous falling out with Pakistan, the U.S. ally that’s “really no ally at all.” With the disintegration of a proposed sale of U.S. F-16 fighters to Pakistan and the recent drone strike against the Taliban’s former leader in Balochistan, U.S.-Pakistan ties aren’t in the best spot. The strong stance on terrorism in this joint statement with India, with an added mention of Pathankot, could serve to further strain that relationship.

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There’s a lot more to the joint statement that I haven’t highlighted here, including important advances on economic ties, energy cooperation, climate change, and even cybersecurity. (On economic ties, the White House has a helpful and detailed fact sheet on deliverables.) Overall, this latest summit emphasizes continued convergence between New Delhi and Washington. If I had to identify a theme, the finalization of LEMOA and the announcement of the first U.S. nuclear supplier project in India point to the realization of deliverables that have been percolating for a while in this bilateral. Seasoned observers of the U.S.-India relationship  have learned to temper their expectations regarding sharp and swift inflection points; the big deliverables take a while.

Despite the big announcements this time around, there remains a lot to look forward to in the U.S.-India relationship. When he addresses Congress on Wednesday, Modi is expected to offer an updated Indian vision for the future of this relationship. Modi’s proven himself to be an adept and enthusiastic emissary for India, the world’s largest democracy and, lately, the fastest growing emerging economy. He’d do well to highlight the remarkable convergence between the United States and India in the last two years while charting a realistic path forward.