By Chintamani Mahapatra*
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fourth visit to the US and second meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House had not raised heightened expectations, and thus, the outcome of his visit also failed to generate much excitement in either India or the US.
The main event that drew the attention of the Indian media was his address to the joint session of the US Congress. It is difficult to extract any aspect of his speech or statements to highlight any newness in the emphasis or novel initiative. What accounts for little anticipations from Modi’s recent visit to the US and tiny excitement over the outcome after his visit?
Firstly, Prime Minister Modi has already met the US president multiple times and it was to be yet another round of interactions. Secondly, his first visit to the US after assuming office as the Indian prime minister was already spectacular both in terms of optics and substance. And nothing more could have been expected in just about two years. Thirdly, his initiative to invite President Obama to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebration also indicated both his innovative diplomacy and coherent efforts to effect a deeper cooperation between the US and India.
All that needed to be said had already been said in last two years and this time the visit perhaps meant to reinforce the mutual commitment to implement the measures agreed upon. Many believed that it was not prudent to visit the US to speak with an outgoing president and especially at a time when that nation was acutely engrossed in an election year. But such an argument is fallacious. Regular interactions at the highest levels of government undoubtedly have value-addition; and especially since the two countries have begun a journey along a new trajectory in their bilateral relationship in the midst of a difficult transition in the global political economy and subtle power shift. Moreover, Modi did not yet have an opportunity to directly engage with a powerful component of the US federal government, whereas President Obama had addressed the Indian parliament during one of his visits. That gap has been desirably filled with this visit.
The principal question that needs to be examined is whether Modi’s recent visit would have any substantial impact on the US’ policy towards South Asia. What were the major points raised by the Indian prime minister during his recent visit to the US? First, he expressed his desire to elevate the level of economic and technological cooperation between the two countries. India’s economic performance in the backdrop of a slow recovery of the global economy from recession, and the Modi government’s ambitious economic agendas to develop India’s infrastructure to fit the 21st Century global standard; create one hundred smart cities; and improve rural-urban connectivity through digitisation; certainly provide a great opportunity to expand Indo-US economic cooperation.
Secondly, Prime Minister Modi reiterated his idea of more robust Indo-US cooperation to fight global terror whose incubation takes place in India’s neighbourhood. Here, one may say that the two countries have been making some combined efforts to combat terrorism for long, but the nature of engagement between Washington and Islamabad has and will continue to set the limits. So long as the US forces are present on the Afghan soil, Pakistan will remain a relevant security partner of Washington’s. No matter, who enters the White House after the upcoming November election, expecting more than what already is the level of cooperation between New Delhi and Washington would be like building castles in the air. Pakistan seems to be a necessary evil that no US government can close its eye on.
While the US apparently is seeking closer security ties with India in the emerging context of escalating challenges from enlargement of the Chinese sphere of influence in South and Central Asia, it remains to be seen how India and the US actually collaborate extensively in the economic sphere. China’s economic footprint in Pakistan has been enlarging and the promised implementation of Sino-Pakistan economic corridor will further strengthen Beijing’s influence in South Asia. This in combination with Chinese economic presence in other smaller countries in South Asia do pose a long term security risk to the US’ influence in this region. Unless the US considers this aspect and seeks to enhance its economic involvement in this region, its single-minded effort to forge defence and security partnership with India will be inadequate to maintain a regional balance.
The Indo-US strategic partnership at present seems heavily loaded in favour of defence and security ties. There is no need for course correction, but greater economic and technological focus is necessary to make it more balanced. Modi’s reemphasis in the US on enhanced economic cooperation is thus a welcome development.
* Chintamani Mahapatra
Rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Professor, School of International Studies, JNU, & Columnist, IPCS
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