Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister: Aim Higher

Obama and Modi “should set their sights on a more ambitious agenda for the U.S.-India relationship,” writes Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations.

January 22, 2015

Alyssa Ayres is Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2010 to 2013, she served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia. Follow her on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa.

Alyssa Ayres

When President Obama arrives in New Delhi this weekend, the first American chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations, he and Prime Minister Modi should set their sights on a more ambitious agenda for the U.S.-India relationship. They’ve cleared the hurdle of a difficult period in bilateral ties and should now draw both countries closer. To do that, they should focus on three things: Afghanistan and regional stability, trade and investment, and energy security. All three of these are areas where Washington and New Delhi broadly view the challenges in similar ways, even if they continue to have differences on what to do next.

New Delhi worries that the withdrawal of the great proportion of U.S. and international troops, drawing down further this year, will result in increased instability in Afghanistan, and therefore an increased terrorist threat targeting India. It is critically important for the United States to confer more closely and more frequently with India than ever in the past and to find ways to support India’s concerns. Our defense relationship with India is growing ever closer, and we have got to focus on this most immediate concern for New Delhi’s security.

Obama and Modi should also continue their ongoing discussion on trade and investment matters. If they can succeed in at last getting a bilateral investment treaty off the ground, they should look to larger opportunities to pull India into economic organizations in which the U.S. participates, like APEC. Though India is not prepared at present for the kind of market access the Trans-Pacific Partnership requires, the two leaders should at least discuss what a pathway for India into the TPP might look like.

Finally, though media speculation has focused on whether India and the U.S. will announce a climate deal similar to the U.S.-China agreement, Indian ministers have repeatedly indicated that India cannot yet declare a date at which it can begin to reduce its emissions. Although we should continue to confer with India under the UNFCCC framework, the area where New Delhi and Washington are making greater strides lies in clean energy research and deployment. This highly technical, highly promising aspect of bilateral ties positions both countries for future scientific breakthroughs, and should continue to be a cornerstone of our energy security agenda.

Next: Marshall M. Bouton, Asia Society Policy Institute