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What Modi hopes to get out of his latest—and possibly last—state visit with Obama

Obama-US-Modi-US visit-Nuclear
EPA/Harish Tyagi
Best friends forever?
By Manu Balachandran
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has arrived in Washington for a two-day state visit to the US. It’s his fourth such trip in just two years. While the earlier visits have been marked by pomp—almost as if to compensate for the decade during which US authorities forbade him from setting foot in that country—this one is likely to be a more sober affair.

There is unlikely to be any blockbuster diaspora event of the kinds that have come to define Modi’s US visits. But the Indian prime minister will, for the first time, address the US Congress, where he is expected to tackle US legislators’ concern over rising religious intolerance in India. And there may be a few announcements on setting up six nuclear plants and reinforcing India’s right to be among the elite 48-member Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), which works to curb nuclear arms proliferation; India has already applied for membership but faces strong opposition from China.

Apart from this, however, the visit may not have much to showcase.

“Well, there is nothing Obama can give at this time,” says Manoj Joshi, a fellow at Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. “The NSG membership and APEC membership are a matter of negotiations which involve many other parties. The US president is lame-duck and no significant work can get done in DC from the time the election campaign begins. Also, don’t forget that the entire House of Representatives is up for re-election and one-third of the Senate.”

As the Indian ambassador to the US recently remarked, the visit is more about “consolidating and celebrating the relationship” between the two countries.

“From the two nations’ perspective, continuing to invest in the Indo-US relationship is important, though the agenda on that score for this trip is relatively low-key,” says Irfan Nooruddin, the Al-Thani chair in Indian politics at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. “There will be bilateral meetings between representatives from the two governments but the visit is more important for its symbolism.”

That symbolism isn’t without value, though. At the turn of the millennium, it was a lame-duck president who changed the course of Indo-US ties in the final year of his presidency. Visiting India in 2000, Bill Clinton was the first US president to set foot in India in 22 years.

A strategic convergence

This could be the last time Modi and Obama will meet in the US before the latter leaves office next January. The two have molded a personal friendship over the past two years, which has helped push Indo-US ties to the next level.

Last year, Obama became the first US president to attend India’s annual republic day parade. Shortly afterward, India and the US even set up a hotline for easier communications.

“The visit is important not because of any expected big-bang achievements, but because of what it says about US-India relations,” says Michael Kugelman, the senior program associate for south and southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “It will mark the seventh time that the two leaders have met in the two years Modi has been in power—a powerful testament to the strong personal relationship between Modi and Obama, and also an indication of how rapidly bilateral relations have deepened over the last few years.”

Over the last 15 years, India and the US have drawn closer as trade between the two countries grew three-fold over the last decade, and as each looked to contain China’s growing influence in Asia.

Last year, Modi and Obama openly expressed concerns over Beijing’s expansionist stance. Since then, the countries have reportedly held talks to conduct joint naval patrols in the Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea by the end of the year.

In April this year, New Delhi also agreed to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which gives American aircraft and warships access to Indian military bases for logistical purposes, including refueling and repair. In turn, India’s military will also enjoy similar access to US bases.

“India’s positioning in the Asia-Pacific is absolutely crucial to the United States,” Milan Vaishnav, a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said. “The Obama administration sees India as the lynchpin to its ‘pivot’ to Asia. The United States would like to see India emerge as a counterweight to China, even if it won’t come out and say that.

“The Indians, for their part, are not keen on this framing either. But, to a greater extent than his predecessors, Modi seems to believe the US and India do have a strategic convergence when it comes to China.”

And that could be a stabilizing force for Indo-US relations long after the US inaugurates a new president next January.

“I don’t expect significant changes, whoever is president,” says Walter Andersen, director of the South Asia studies program at Johns Hopkins University. “US foreign policy responds essentially to interests, and it is in the strategic interest of the US to have a good relationship with India. That is shaped in large part by the rise of a China with, whom we have some significant strategic problems.”

Will the bromance continue?

But there are other matters of diplomacy where a change in occupancy at the White House may very well have an impact. For Modi, that’s all the more reason to consolidate bilateral ties now.

“The point of this visit, as I understand it, is to consolidate further progress to keep the momentum going on into the next US administration,” says Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Indeed, the dramatic twists and turns of the US election season suggest there’s still enough uncertainty to keep Modi motivated.

While Republican nominee Donald Trump has business interests in India and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has been a key part of the Obama administration, it is unclear how foreign policy under either is likely to take shape under the next US regime. And both Trump and Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s challenger for the Democratic nomination, have been critical of outsourcing and visas—issues that have strong implications for India.

“The US-India relationship in the post-Obama era is one of the more fascinating unknowns in the world of international relations,” said Kugelman. “I imagine the relationship would continue to strengthen under president Clinton, who was a key member of the Obama administration and largely shares his views on South Asia, including policy toward India.”

But Kugelman reckons that if Donald Trump were to become the president, “then all bets would be off when it comes to figuring out the future of US-India relations and US foreign policy on the whole.”

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