A New Beginning
“Instead of getting carried away with rhetoric, the two sides should use this opportunity to signal their long-term commitment to each other on a number of fronts,” writes Harsh V. Pant of King’s College London.
January 22, 2015
Harsh V. Pant is Professor of International Relations at King’s College London. He is also Associate at the Centre for Science and Security Studies and Non-Resident Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
President Obama’s visit to India this month as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations of the country underscores the importance the Narendra Modi-led Indian government attaches to its ties with the U.S. Instead of getting carried away with rhetoric, which will be there in large doses, the two sides should use this opportunity to signal their long-term commitment to each other on a number of fronts.
As the Modi government moves ahead with its plans for reinvigorating the Indian economy, the U.S. needs to envision stronger economic ties with India, with trade policy, energy, telecommunications, climate change, and intellectual property as major areas of focus. Bilateral trade stands at around $30 billion. The U.S. and India share the goal of increasing annual trade five-fold in the future. In recent weeks, the Indian government has moved rapidly to usher in a range of reforms including the implementation of a nationwide goods and services tax; changes in land acquisition laws; amendments to archaic labor laws; cuts in wasteful subsidies on fuel, fertilizer and food; and the lifting of foreign direct investment caps in various sectors including insurance, defense, and e-commerce. Reforms aimed at boosting manufacturing and encouraging capital investment have also been initiated. The U.S. will have to up its game, and a bilateral investment treaty would be a major step forward. The two sides also need to work toward the operationalization of the civilian nuclear energy pact, which is stuck because of the nuclear liability law.
Defense cooperation has emerged as a major area of bilateral cooperation. Obama and Modi have already indicated that they want to renew the 2005 New Framework on Defense and expand its scope with the declaration that the two states will “treat each other at the same level as their closest partners” on issues including “defense technology transfers, trade, research, co-production, and co-development.” Since the coming to office of the Modi government, there is a new momentum on the India-U.S. Defense Trade and Technology Initiative promoting collaboration on defense technology and enabling co-production and co-development of critical defense systems. Two major projects, one involving unmanned aerial vehicles and the other involving systems for the C-130 military transport aircraft, are likely to be finalized during the U.S. president’s visit. The two states now need to infuse their defense relations with a new vision to meet the challenges of the future.
Regional security cooperation between Washington and New Delhi needs to gain momentum. During the Indian prime minister’s visit to the U.S. in September 2014, the two states had identified new areas of collaboration, including ensuring stability in the South China Sea and sharing information on strife-torn parts of the Middle East. And now reports are emerging that India has decided to join the fight against the Islamic State. The Modi government favors India’s participation in the peace mission in Iraq and Syria. If so, this would mark a major shift in New Delhi’s worldview. Washington has long been keen that Indian armed forces should participate in global missions in the conflict zones in the Middle East. At the same time, India and the U.S. need to work together to manage the negative externalities emerging out of the departure of western security forces from Afghanistan. Obama’s visit should result in a fuller picture as to what tangible actions the world’s two major democracies plan to take to manage regional security.
U.S.-India relations are poised for a new beginning as the Modi government re-defines the terms of India’s engagement with the rest of the world, bereft of the shibboleths of the past. Obama’s visit will be an important opportunity to reshape the contours of the U.S.-India strategic partnership. For Washington, this is a moment to seize.