WASHINGTON–President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to India, his second as a serving president, is historic for both its optics and the potential to fast track the slow moving train of India-US relations.
Obama as the chief guest for India’s Republic Day parade—the first US president to be invited for the occasion—has great symbolism. The White House recognised the significance of the first-ever invitation and acted despite difficulties of scheduling. The president’s State of the Union address to the US Congress, typically in the last week of January, was brought forward so Obama could be in New Delhi.
The US establishment rightly determined that accepting prime minister Narendra Modi’s invitation and clocking this “first” was important. Also important was to reinforce Modi’s bold move—the invitation effectively jettisoned traditional Indian reluctance to go public with the Americans.
By honoring the US president thus, the Indian government has taken a step to shed some of the past insecurities to finally catch up with the people.
That’s all for the good.
Obama’s visit is also an acknowledgment that the India story is resonating once again in the world and the Americans ought to be in front not behind other countries. The US administration has responded well to the new energy coming out of official India despite being pulled in different directions by multiple foreign crises.
Foreign crises will form a big part of the discussion between Obama and Modi—the turmoil in the Muslim world at large, the rise of ISIS, the recruitment of youth through the internet, the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation and China. All of these point for greater cooperation between the US administration and India.
Toned down Obama
It’s worth noting that the Obama Administration has significantly toned down the harsh rhetoric on India’s trade policies. Recognising the progress made recently, the US Trade Representative last month closed its “301 out-of-cycle” review of India’s intellectual property (IP) laws, giving this perennial sword over bilateral relations a rest, even if temporarily.
Discussions on contentious issues such as IP are being held in private rather than in the public domain, which has led to an automatic improvement in the atmospherics.
The level of activity between the two governments since Modi became prime minister has gone up by leaps and bounds. Secretary of state John Kerry was in India last week—his second visit since Modi became prime minister—to attend the Vibrant Gujarat summit where the US was a partner country for the first time. Kerry’s trip was meant to nail down concrete progress in the India file that can be showcased during Obama’s January 25-26 visit.
Various bilateral groups, which hadn’t met for nearly three years but were always counted as proof that we had a “strong” relationship, have actually been meeting. These include the Trade Policy Forum, the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative and the High Technology Cooperation Group.
Then there are newly established contact groups—one to sort differences on India’s nuclear liability law, an investment forum and an infrastructure platform. The US side is happily surprised at the responsiveness of the Modi government.
Potential areas of progress include a finalised text for a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), an agreement on climate change and a renewal of the Defence Framework Agreement for another 10 years. In addition, India and the US are likely to further enhance their intelligence cooperation but without public pronouncements.
Aligning the needs of the two systems sometimes has proven difficult but what’s different this time is the desire to find solutions. And that is a definite change after losing nearly three years in limbo. The question is how much can India push the US to change its systems and make exceptions.
The US has its way of negotiating—what it says is normally accepted by other countries. India, which doesn’t fall in an easy category, has its perspective. Its positions are well argued and can’t be easily dismissed. The Americans, often unwilling to change their processes, find it frustrating to have to justify themselves.
Whether it is differences on intellectual property protection or obtaining basic development needs for Indians but also curbing emissions, buying high-end US defence technology but without signing basic agreements the Pentagon requires—every tussle brings out the difference in worldview.
The Americans want India to promise not to use the tool of compulsory license (CL) to force prices of life-saving drugs down except in an emergency. India is unlikely to commit to the demand because no government would give up a policy instrument, especially when it has not abused it. India has used CL only once.
Indian IP laws are TRIPS-compliant under the World Trade Organization rules. In essence, what the US is demanding on behalf of its pharma industry is something that can be described as “TRIPS plus” which would go beyond WTO agreements. More discussions may yield a new fuzzy position but the fundamental Indian stand will likely remain.
Similarly, the requirements of the American system hamper transfer of sensitive US defence technologies to India because New Delhi has refused to sign what Washington calls “foundational agreements.” There are at least five but two are seen as key to getting over regulatory hurdles—CISMOA or the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and LSA or the Logistics Support Agreement.
Even though US officials are “working around them”—as former deputy defence secretary Ash Carter put it—they say life would be a lot simpler if India just signed the agreements which all other US partners have. The flow of defence technology would be a lot smoother.
But New Delhi remains constant in its refusal—it feels it doesn’t need to tie itself down with these agreements, which may allow US an entre it is unwilling to grant as yet.
Another suggestion from Washington is for India to buy more off-the-shelf technology instead of trying to reinvent every wheel and make a quick “qualitative” jump in defence capability. Border security can be improved in new ways with what’s already available on the market.
Whether there are many breakthroughs or none, the fact that Obama and Modi are meeting again within a short span will keep the two systems focused and geared for progress.