From June 7 to 8, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in the United States on a two-day visit, his fourth trip to the country in his roughly two years in office This visit will be different from the tours he has undertaken to the United States so far. All the earlier visits were in connection with multilateral or inter-governmental meetings — in September of 2014 and 2015 he traveled to the country in connection with the UN General Assembly Session and the UN Sustainability Development Summit, respectively. His trip from March 31 to April 2 this year was in connection with the Nuclear Security Summit convened by U.S. President Barack Obama. The forthcoming trip will be the first purely bilateral state visit that Modi has made to the United States.
Another distinction is that during Modi’s earlier visits, Obama was firmly in the saddle. Now he is increasingly becoming a lame-duck president, with less than eight months of his tenure left ahead of him. This visit will be the last opportunity for substantive interaction between the two leaders. Past experience has demonstrated that U.S. presidents tend to become more assertive and bold in the last year of their tenure as they become increasingly focused on their legacy and how history will judge them. Obama has already accumulated a huge pile of achievements in addition to the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to him in the first year of his presidency, including transformations in bilateral relations with Iran, Cuba, and Myanmar, as well as historic visits to Vietnam and Hiroshima in Japan. These efforts have clearly reserved his place in contemporary history. A strong upward trajectory in India-U.S. bilateral relations, particularly over the last two years, can also be a matter of intense shared satisfaction for both leaders.
While Modi’s visit will provide an opportunity for both sides to reflect on what has already been accomplished, it will also contribute to reinforcing relations between the two strategic partners. As stated in a press release by India’s Ministry of External Affairs: “The main objective of the forthcoming visit of the prime minister would be to consolidate the progress made in diverse areas such as economy, energy, environment, defense, and security and to intensify cooperation for the future.”
The deepening and diversification of ties with the United States is one of the more significant success stories of Modi’s foreign policy. This is reflected not only in the number of visits by Modi to the U.S., the most by him to any country, but also in the historic visit by Barack Obama to India in January 2015. With that trip, Obama not only became the first U.S. president to visit India twice during his tenure and but also the first U.S. president to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations as chief guest. The existing cooperation has expanded in several substantive areas including energy, renewable energy, high technology, defense, education, agriculture, trade, and investment. A growing convergence of strategic interests is clearly visible.
A significant highlight of the visit will be Modi’s address to a joint session of U.S. Congress. This will provide him an opportunity to chart out his vision for the future of India-U.S. ties and how the two large democracies can collaborate to ensure peace, security, stability, and prosperity in the world. The U.S. Congress has always been supportive of closer India-U.S. ties and Modi can be assured of a warm, enthusiastic reception by members. Modi will be only the fifth Indian Prime Minister to speak to the joint session, the earlier ones having been Dr. Manmohan Singh (2005), Atal Behari Vajpayee (2000), Narasimha Rao (1994), and Rajiv Gandhi (1985). The address will be followed by a rare lunch with Speaker Paul Ryan, which will be attended by Vice President Joe Biden and several Cabinet secretaries. This demonstrates the wide and bipartisan support that India and Modi enjoy in the two houses of Congress.
Defense has emerged as an area of high importance in bilateral ties. The United States has become the largest defense supplier to India, overtaking Russia in the short span of 10 years since the bilateral Defense Agreement was signed during then-Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Washington D.C. in April, 2005. From a modest figure of $300 million eight years ago, the United States has risen to be the top supplier with total orders of $14 billion today. It is likely that the three so-called “foundational” defense agreements — the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), Communication Interoperability, and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA) — could be inked during Modi’s visit. This will open the way for even closer cooperation in this area. Several initiatives for co-production and co-development of many next generation technologies have already been launched.
Another significant development is the recent move by a bipartisan group in the U.S. Senate exhorting the U.S. secretary of defense to establish closer military and intelligence cooperation between India and the United States. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has been asked to ensure that India-U.S. cooperation is at the same level as with NATO allies and appropriate to developing joint threat analysis, military doctrine, force planning, logistic support, intelligence collection and analysis, tactics, techniques and procedures, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Aside from defense issues, Modi’s visit could witness agreement on setting up six nuclear power plants in India. The way for this was cleared during Obama’s visit to India last year when the issue of liability for any possible nuclear accident was resolved. This is an ambitious number, although it is still far short of the 12 that has been agreed upon with Russia. Discussions are also likely to take place on the long pending Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIT). Some progress may occur, although it is unlikely that a final text will emerge during the visit.
What will perhaps be the most critical element of the visit will be the one-to-one discussions between the two leaders on the strategic dimensions of the partnership. Of particular relevance will be bilateral parleys on the increasing assertiveness of China in the South China Sea, its forays in the Indian Ocean, its expanding engagement with Russia, and the growing apprehension and nervousness of its neighbors. In this context it is noteworthy that Washington has recently come out clearly in support of India’s claim to membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), rejecting doubts and questions raised by China on the issue. Peace and stability in Afghanistan and continuing turmoil in Middle East, including rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, are also likely to be fully discussed.
Bilateral ties between India and the United States have transformed from purely transactional to a strategic partnership. While New Delhi’s ties with Washington provide it with strategic space and maneuverability to deal with China’s increasingly overbearing attitude, India should ensure that it does not succumb to the U.S. embrace. It should maintain vibrant and prolific ties with its other significant partners like Russia, Japan, and China.
The first bilateral visit by Modi to United States will be an opportunity for the two leaders to applaud the long distance traveled in bilateral relations over the last two years. In addition, the discussions can be expected to give a significant impetus to the partnership in the strategic, political, defense, economic, and cultural spheres.
Ashok Sajjanhar is a career diplomat who has served as Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, as also as Secretary/Principal Executive Officer of the National Foundation for Communal Harmony, an autonomous organization with the Ministry of Home Affairs. He has held several significant positions in Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Geneva, Bangkok, Tehran and Dhaka.