The Buzz

Why India Is Still Hedging Its Bets on US

Obama’s official state visit to India this week is unique due to the U.S. president’s place as “chief guest” during Delhi’s Republic Day celebrations, a role never previously bestowed on an American president. The visit comes on the coattails of several highly publicized, official state visits from China and Russia, both shortly before and after Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the U.S. in late 2014.

Many Indians are likely to view Mr. Obama’s presence at the Indian Republic Day celebration as a sign of India’s increased global importance and influence. Still, challenges—on both sides—threaten the sunny relationship. There is a pressing need to share both the benefits and risks bi-directionally across a number of areas, including foreign direct investments; technology co-creation; security and defense trade and cooperation; and energy and environment matters. If the U.S. can wrap its head around the fact that India will be India, inevitably trading with Russia and China and not always agreeing or siding with the U.S., then there is some hope for a positive set of outcomes this week. Likewise, India has challenges as well, with the need to manage liability, create more transparent procurement processes, and understand that Buy American can conditionally work with Make in India. Moreover, both countries need to come to terms with policies vis-à-vis Pakistan that can actually enable South Asia to be stable and peaceful.       

What will be on the agenda this week has been largely kept under wraps, fueling cross-border, Indian-Pakistani media antagonism. The tit-for-tat media volley has New Delhi claiming that inside sources in Washington told Islamabad to clamp down on cross-border terrorism during Obama’s visit. Islamabad has dismissed these allegations as propaganda. If the allegations are true, they would be tacit confirmation that India faces an unwieldy “Pakistan problem” in which Washington would not likely interfere either before or after the U.S. visit. Moreover, Indian perceptions that the America’s lack of condemnation through actions—such as using aid as a bargaining tool—only adds insult to injury to those worried about the alleged condition for Obama’s visit. Secretary of State John Kerry’s most recent visit to Pakistan, where he offered $250 million in emergency aid, did not go unnoticed  in New Delhi.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 2014 visit to Delhi for the 15th India-Russia annual summit resulted in an hundred billion dollar bonanza, with Modi and Putin inking significant nuclear, oil, and defense deals. The more subtle yet most significant outcome of last year’s summit, however, was Russia agreeing to further jointly developed defense capabilities with India and to allow Delhi to harness Modi’s “Make in India” initiative. And in a well-timed visit just days before Obama’s arrival, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with his counterpart Mannohar Parrikar and Prime Minister Modi, reinforcing the "time-tested special and privileged" strategic partnership between India and Russia. While in Delhi, Shoigu visited the Russian-Indian joint venture, BrahMos Aerospace Limited, which makes supersonic cruise missiles. In addition, Shoigu reportedly discussed jointly developing a new-generation of missiles that would be smaller and compatible with the fifth-generation fighter, the MiG-29K, the Su-30MKI, and Indian submarines.

This visit prompted Parrikar to say that India will be “fast-tracking” many of the issues related to the joint Russian-Indian stealth fighter jet project. The visit also reinvigorated talk about building 400 Russian helicopters in India annually. Overall, the purpose of Shoigu’s trip seemed to be about marking Russia’s manufacturing territory in advance of Obama’s visit.

For the most part, Washington appears to be choosing its battles with India wisely, and not remonstrating Delhi too much for its choice of “partners” or for not enacting sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of the Crimean annexation and continued conflict in Ukraine.