Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming 2-day visit to the United States from 7 June 2016, comes at the right time. The hallmark of the foreign policy initiatives since the time Modi took over as Prime Minister is that they have been deft and deliberate. Economic and strategic considerations have been at the centre of each of the initiatives. The upcoming visit to the US is no different.
Though the 50-hour trip has been labelled a “working visit”, the US has given it flourishes akin to that of a state visit. Modi is scheduled to stay at Blair House where state guests are lodged. The day he arrives Modi will have a one-on-one meeting with US President Obama followed by a luncheon hosted by the US President. The next day Prime Minister Modi will address a joint meeting of the US Congress and Senate, which will be followed by a luncheon hosted by the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. The Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees will host a reception for Modi that evening.
Addressing the 114th US Congress will afford Prime Minister Modi an opportunity to influence policy makers, impress upon them the value of good Indo-US ties, and give a push to Indo-US relations. This is especially important at this time when China and Pakistan are openly colluding to frustrate India’s efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). By a seemingly strange coincidence, just days prior to Modi’s arrival in Washington some elements in the US have sought to chastise India for alleged human rights violations, “slavery” etc. A hearing of the US Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission is also scheduled for the day of the Obama-Modi meeting in Washington. Modi will be the sixth Indian Prime Minister to address a joint meeting of the US Congress. The last time an Indian Prime Minister addressed the US Congress was in 2005 and before that in 2000.
Modi’s visit to the US serves the interests of both, US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Modi. For Obama, the visit will punctuate an otherwise dull season before the US gets fully enmeshed in the Presidential elections. It might lift his popularity ratings. It will help him move the focus to Asia and possibly leave behind as his legacy a lasting relationship that contributes to shaping a geopolitical environment more conducive to world peace. The various agreements on the anvil, as well as high-level discussions to facilitate India’s admission to the NSG, will smoothen the path for US companies wanting to invest in India including in the nuclear power sector.
Certainly there are lots of benefits for India too. With the visit, Modi will consolidate on existing goodwill — Obama and Modi have met seven times since Modi assumed office as Prime Minister two years ago — to build an enduring relationship that benefits both countries. The visit will give a momentum to the relationship, which has begun to show signs of plateauing, and thus keep it on the agenda of the next incoming US administration. There is already bipartisan consensus on the need for good Indo-US ties.
There are important items on Modi’s agenda for the visit. Some of them acquire a higher salience in the backdrop of the recently enhanced China-Pakistan relations which have inherent a strong military content. In fact, China put on display its growing military cooperation with Pakistan when a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) nuclear submarine arrived at Karachi port on 20 May 2016, on a 3-4 day visit. This is the first ever visit by a Chinese Navy nuclear submarine at a South Asian port, though Chinese submarines have been seen near the Andaman Islands and diesel-powered Chinese submarines have visited Sri Lanka and Karachi in the past. To coincide with Defence Minister Parrikar’s stay in Vietnam, the Indian Cabinet announced its decision on 3 June, to sell the game-changing supersonic anti-ship Brahmos Missiles to Vietnam. This will counter-balance Chinese actions.
The Indo-US agreement for aircraft carrier co-development and co-production requires forward movement. It is a major project that will not only give India self-sufficiency in hi-tech modern warship-building, but additionally spawn a number of ancillary industries and businesses and provide thousands of jobs to skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Acquisition of land and construction of large shipyards and docks, if necessary with foreign collaboration, need to be kick-started. There is similar need to fast forward the co-development and co-production of advanced jet engines along with the development and manufacture of advanced surveillance and armed drones capable of loitering for long hours. These programmes will each promote ancillary businesses, hi-tech ventures and specialised design bureaus while creating tens of thousands of jobs. Importantly, they will significantly upgrade India’s industrial and scientific technology base. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMA) will facilitate cooperation between the Navies once it is revised to meet India’s requirements.
Also on Modi’s agenda are agreements directly related to augmenting India’s counter-terrorism capabilities. These are the Communication and Information Security Memorandum (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). They will not only give Indian authorities access to non-classified US Government terrorist data bases and help Indian security agencies detect and monitor movements of terrorists, but raise the potential for real-time cooperation for counter-terrorism operations. Other agreements to promote commerce and ease of travel by citizens of the two countries are on the agenda.
While the nature of the relationship precludes any possibility of an alliance, Modi’s visit should position India to garner tangible benefits from good ties with the US.
Jayadeva Ranade is former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.