Will It Be a Trusting Relationship?
Will It Be a Trusting Relationship?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to the US could not have been more glittering. He lands in Manhattan to a rock star reception by tens of thousands of Indian-Americans only a few days after an Indian satellite has gone into orbit around Mars. The enthusiasm of the Indian-American community, one of the wealthiest of minority groups, bodes well for translating their economic power into political clout advocating Indo-US engagement.
The demonstration of India’s technological prowess will impress entrepreneurs waiting to invest in India. Modi’s recent warm encounters with Japan’s premier Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping also highlighted India’s growing importance in an Asian rebalance that Washington would support.
Indeed, defining common strategic interest between the two countries would be the most important task during Modi’s visit, reinforcing the foundation for a trusting relationship. The warmth generated by the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement has cooled with Indian nuclear liability legislation virtually killing the prospects of western nuclear investment. The decision not to order US combat jets and then bickering over trade and immigration issues have further stalled the momentum created by the 2008 agreement. It is worth remembering that it was common strategic objective that inspired the George Bush administration to persuade Congress to take the unprecedented step of changing national legislation to end India’s nuclear pariah status.
When Modi and President Obama review the international landscape, they will surely observe how the strategic situation has deteriorated for both their countries. China has not only claimed vast swathes of waters, islands and features in East Asia but also challenged the US presence in the area, potentially threatening freedom of passage for all sea-faring nations. Beijing has effectively presented its Southeast Asian neighbours with the unpalatable choice of accepting Chinese domination or paying a huge economic price for resistance. China is in no rush to resolve its territorial dispute with India and wants to keep New Delhi preoccupied with its northern border.
China has been extending its economic and military presence in the Indian Ocean while continuing to help Pakistan build up its nuclear weapons stockpile. Although the US is understandably quiet on the subject, senior officials privately admit that as America prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, what keeps policymakers awake at night is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. All of these developments are as worrisome for India as they are for the US. The rise of militant Islam which has threatened the Pakistani state — recently coming close to hijacking a Pakistani naval vessel to attack US warships — and the prospect of jihadis turning their attention from Afghanistan to India poses serious threats to Modi’s stability and prosperity agenda.
Despite the deep convergence of interests between Washington and New Delhi, strengthened by citizens’ contact, as will be demonstrated in Madison Square Garden on Sunday, one should not expect any grand pronouncements about an Indo-US alliance. India is too proud a nation to play second fiddle as normal in an alliance. But agreement on common threats the two countries face and their willingness to cooperate as permitted by their respective legislatures, society and culture could inform future strategic cooperation.
There may not be another civil nuclear agreement to jump-start the strategic relationship. But the Modi government might interpret the liability agreement in a way that reopens the nuclear energy sector to foreign investors (and in fact, to domestic investors) paralysed by the uncertainty over liability. The US for its part could underline its strategic convergence and trust in India by undertaking defence technology cooperation that it has so far eschewed. Strategic understanding at the highest political levels could provide a congenial backdrop for resolving bureaucratic obstacles that are bound to emerge in promoting investment and technology transfers. That is true for bureaucrats on both sides.
Of course, strategic cooperation between democracies requires the accelerant afforded by private investment and growing trade ties. Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign is a good start to remove the deep-rooted socialist mindset in India and his pro-business rhetoric might encourage sceptical American CEOs to return to India. But unless his promise of a red carpet instead of red tape becomes a reality investors would not be persuaded to make things in India. And without economic growth and modernisation, the goal of strategic cooperation could remain in the realm of lofty but ultimately empty rhetoric.
Nayan Chanda is editor in chief of YaleGlobal Online.