During his January trip to India, President Obama scored a small win for his legacy and a big win for the Indo-U.S. relationship. While the U.S. president performed admirably in front of the cameras, the most productive Indo-U.S. summit in a decade owes its success to someone else—India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Obama-Modi summit was buoyed by the usual pageantry and showmanship, but for once the substance matched the symbolism. It wasn’t just the usual litany of new partnerships on everything from Energy Smart Cities to Climate Resilience. The two sides took a considerable step toward breaking the gridlock on the long-frozen U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal. By creating an insurance pool for nuclear suppliers and greater clarity on domestic law, the Modi government may have found a way to circumvent unwieldy legislation passed by its predecessor that effectively froze U.S. companies out of the Indian market. Technical hurdles remain but Mr. Modi proved his ability to execute and reportedly leaned heavily on his cabinet to resolve a controversial priority issue for Washington.
On the defense front, Mr. Modi surprised many observers by accepting a U.S. invitation to assist India in building indigenous aircraft carriers. Yet the bigger headline was the renewal of an expiring 2005 defense partnership framework. Though details of the new framework are under wraps, the Indian side finally agreed to select four “pathfinder military projects” to co-produce with the U.S. The recent confirmation of Ashton Carter, the longtime point-man on Indo-U.S. defense trade, as the new U.S. Secretary of Defense, and his new Indian counterpart, Manohar Parrikar, bode well for tapping the considerable latent potential in the defense relationship. Parrikar has already broken from his unremarkable predecessor by lifting the cap on foreign investment in India’s defense sector to 49 percent, with chatter that the ceiling may be raised further to 74 percent. (The Indian defense sector has attracted a measly $5 million in foreign direct investment in the last 15 years).
The summit also saw a continuing maturation in the conversation on terrorism, and on Pakistan. Not long ago, U.S. diplomats refused to discuss Pakistan with their Indian counterparts unless it was to address the Kashmir dispute. Now they are loath to utter the “K-word” while discussions on Pakistan and its links to terrorism are a common affair. In the joint statement, Mr. Obama specifically addressed the need to confront several Pakistani-backed militant groups like Lashkar-e Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and D-Company, while Mr. Modi noted his deep concern over the threat posed by Islamist terrorism and ISIS in particular.
In another welcome development, in the days after Mr. Obama departed India, the current Indian Ambassador to the U.S. was appointed as India’s next Foreign Secretary. Not only is Ambassador S. Jaishankar one of the most capable diplomats I’ve ever encountered, he is an acute geo-strategist from an elite pedigree. Private discussions with the ambassador reveal a man uniquely suited to guide and reform India’s foreign service bureaucracy and a more-than-capable advocate of Indo-U.S. relations. As important, the Mandarin-speaking former Ambassador to China is also highly capable of managing India’s contentious relationship with its neighbor to the East.
Ironically, it is here where arguably the most progress was made in the Modi-Obama summit. As reported in the New York Times, nearly the entire opening hour of the first meeting of the trip between the two leaders was dominated by one subject: China.
Delhi has long recognized that the U.S. provides the only effective insurance against China, a key factor in the initial Indo-U.S. rapprochement under the Bush administration. “Before 2005 China had gamed us,” a now-senior member of the Modi administration told me in 2010. “With the 2005 nuclear deal and the defense partnership, President George W. Bush ‘de-gamed’ us.” Yet, even after 2005, many in Delhi clung to the notion that moving too swiftly toward the U.S. could provoke aggressive and undesirable responses from Beijing. With America’s commitment to India’s security uncertain, Delhi has walked a diplomatic tightrope between the two larger powers ever since.
Modi’s advisors believe a closer relationship with the U.S. actually puts Delhi in a stronger position vis-a-vis Beijing, and is more likely to elicit positive responses from the Chinese. As such, during President Obama’s visit, Prime Minister Modi gave the strongest signal to date that India’s hedging game is nearing an end. This came in the form of a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region.
To be fair, the Vision Statement was little more than a compilation of previously-agreed principles. Still, to capitals across the region it conveyed a new level of strategic convergence and cooperation between the two powers. And by affirming “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea,” the two sides were unafraid to point a finger directly at Beijing. China’s nationalist Global Times was not pleased, opining: “A trap is a trap. Although craftily set, it will be revealed eventually.”
This new boldness is not entirely surprising to those who watched Mr. Modi on the campaign trail chide China for its “18th Century expansionist mindset.” He has repeatedly ruffled Chinese feathers: by inviting the prime minister of the Tibetan Government in Exile to his inauguration; by fast-tracking long-stalled military infrastructure projects along the disputed border with China; by refusing to recognize Beijing’s “One China” policy; and by his open love affair with Beijing’s regional rival, Japan. It’s also no secret that Xi Jinping’s visit to India last year, conducted under the pall of a People’s Liberation Army intrusion across their disputed border, did little to warm the atmosphere.
For decades India has been playing defense against Beijing in a regional “Great Game,” passively observing as China collaborates with Pakistan in Kashmir, docks submarines in Sri Lankan ports, and leans on Nepal to cut the flow of Tibetans fleeing to India.
This is at least partly why Mr. Modi has upgraded India’s underperforming “Look East” Policy to an “Act East” policy. Under this framework, he has deepened defense cooperation with Vietnam and approved additional energy projects off its waters. And during the recent summit with Obama, Mr. Modi agreed to upgrade a trilateral dialogue with the U.S. and Japan, and appeared eager to engage in more multilateral military exercises with the U.S. and its allies.
Coincidentally, Mr. Modi’s push to “Act East” parallels the U.S. “Pivot” to Asia. A confluence of interests, allies, and concerns should provide the perfect opportunity for the two initiatives to complement one another. In the past that may have been wishful thinking. But Washington finally has in Delhi what it has wanted all along: a willing, eager, and capable partner.
Jeff M. Smith is the Director of South Asia Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century (Lexington Books 2014).
Image: White House Photo