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The Real Reason Behind Obama's India Visit

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By Manoj Joshi

US President Barack Obama will be the first American to be a chief guest at the Republic Day parade. He will also be the first US President to have visited India twice in his presidency. There was a time when American presidential visits to India were few and far between. But since Bill Clinton came to India in 1999, signalling a grand reconciliation after harshly punishing India for the May 1998 nuclear tests,

American presidential visits have been regular. In just seven months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has met Obama three times - in the US during the former's official visit in September, at the East Asia Summit in Nay Pyi Taw and then later at the G-20 summit in Brisbane. Despite interaction in a range of areas, and providing crucial assistance to India in its times of troubles, no American leader was ever invited as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade; a Chinese marshal and even two Pakistani leaders have figured in the guest list.

The Modi strategy is visible in the pattern of his foreign visits which has seen him develop strong ties with Japan and Australia, two key US allies in East Asia. The Japan visit, the first outside the subcontinent after he became PM, was notable for the display of the good chemistry between Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, besides being successful in attracting Japanese investment and laying out the basis for a strategic partnership. The Australian visit, too, clearly signalled a stepping up of the engagement between New Delhi and Canberra, an important US military ally.

Reading between the lines of officials' statements and those of itinerant think tankers, it is clear what the US wants of India.

First, they seek a clear articulation of how Modi views the place of the United States in his scheme of things. The Americans, for their part, have not hesitated to indicate that they are for an alliance with India. Short of this, and perhaps more realistically, they want the closest possible partnership. To this end, they say that they want to assist India to emerge as a major global power, a view first articulated by the Bush Administration in 2005. It does not take a genius to understand why the US wants this - India is the only country of its size which has the potential to offset the enormous geopolitical pull of a rising China. And India is also a country with which the US has no real conflict of interest, at least for the foreseeable future. Previous Indian leaders like Manmohan Singh have waxed eloquent on the need for close Indo-US ties, but they never quite spelt out their longer-term vision beyond the diplomatic niceties. Of course, India wants technology, investment, people-to-people ties and so on. But how does it see its relationship with the US in strategic terms? After all, it is not just the US which wants to offset the Chinese pull, India, too faces the Chinese heat, even in its own South Asian region.

Second, the US is looking for a sound economic partnership with India. In today's gloomy economic scenario, the only large economies that are managing to hold their head above water seem to be those of India, China and the US. But for the full potential of the India-US relationship to be exploited, there is need for some homework. India needs to ease the terms of doing business in the country. Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley have repeatedly emphasised their intention of doing the needful, but for the moment, the investors are waiting and watching. As it is, the Americans remain unhappy with issues relating to the nuclear liability act and intellectual property rights in India.

Third, the US wants to step up its defence partnership with India. During this visit, the two sides are likely to sign up for another 10 years on their framework agreement for the US-India Defence relationship. The crown jewel of this has been the Defence Trade and Technology and Initiative through which the two sides are trying to identify high-tech items for co-development and co-production.

Fourth, the Americans want India to come on board their push for a climate change treaty when the Climate Change Conference is held in Paris later this year. After striking a deal with China, the Americans hope to pin down India in a bilateral deal. Obama is hoping to make this treaty the capstone of his administration. To this end, the US will offer India agreements in clean energy technology, as well as hold out the promise of making India eligible for US oil and natural gas exports. This is just a quick sketch of what is, of course, a much more complex and layered relationship. Back in the year 2000, the then Prime Minister termed India and the US as "natural allies".

This formulation was reiterated by Modi in an interview during the campaign for the general elections and subsequently, as PM, he restated it in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where he called the US "our natural global partner". Throughthe Obama invitation, Modi has sent an important signal about the place of the US in his scheme of things. Obama is now virtually a lame-duck President of a country whose Parliament is controlled by the Opposition.

So Modi is viewing the visit on a longer perspective where he seeks to leverage the US connection to attract technology and investment from the western world, as well as build ties to balance China.

* Manoj Joshi is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.

[Source: Daily O]

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