Reviewing Mr. Modi’s visit to the U.S. and U.S.-India security cooperation.
To say that Mr. Modi’s first visit to the U.S. as prime minister attracted considerable attention from India’s media would be the understatement of the year. New York City and Washington, D.C. were abound with media personalities, politicians, and supporters and protesters alike. In his four-day visit to the U.S., Mr. Modi attended and addressed the United Nations General Assembly, met with business and political leaders, addressed a large rally at New York’s historic Madison Square Garden, co-authored an opinion piece in the Washington Post with U.S. President Barack Obama, and held formal consultations with Mr. Obama and members of his administration.
However, despite the pomp and circumstance, formal consultations between Mr. Modi’s contingent and the Obama administration did not yield substantive results in defense and security. The India-U.S. Defence Framework, which is due to expire in 2015, is still in the process of being negotiated between the two governments and has not yet been renewed. The U.S.-India Joint Statement merely signaled a general desire to renew the framework, while also committing to expand political-military dialog to include defense licensing and cooperation.
No new defense deals were signed during the visit. Although the sale of Chinook heavy-lift helicopters and Apache attack helicopters are being discussed between India and the U.S., the negotiations are clearly not a point where the deal could be signed. Further, surprisingly little was mentioned on U.S.-India cooperation in a post-2014 Afghanistan, even as the U.S. and NATO concluded security agreements on force levels with the new unity government in Kabul. The departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is a cause for concern for India and has direct national security implications. India’s previous government shied away from arming and equipping Afghanistan’s armed forces, but positions of old need not preclude the new government from working with the U.S. to identify areas where India can substantively contribute to securing Afghanistan.
None of this necessarily means that Mr. Modi’s visit was a failure. It is clear that Mr. Modi views relations with the U.S. as being vital to India’s security and progress and that he has a vision for future cooperation between the two countries. However, Mr. Modi has only been in office for four months; it will take him and his government time to translate vision into action. But if the India-U.S. Joint Declaration is anything to go by, it serves as positive statement of intent for future cooperation between the U.S. and India. The statement reaffirms the commitment to fully implement the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, and specifically addresses the need for further dialog on the issue of supplier-side liability — where India is a victim of its own self-inflicted wounds — paving the way for U.S.-built nuclear plants in India.
The renewed commitment to cooperate on disrupting terrorist groups is also a positive. Contrary to some media reports, this was not the first India-U.S. joint statement signaling an intent to cooperate against terror groups (including Lashkar-e-Taiba), nor was it the first joint statement to call on Pakistan to bring those responsible for 26/11 to justice. Indeed previous joint statements by Dr. Manmohan Singh and Mr. Obama articulated similar objectives. This was, however, the first time that other criminal and terrorist groups – ISIL, al-Qaeda, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D-Company and the Haqqani Network – were specifically called out. It bodes well for future India-U.S. anti-terrorism cooperation that the U.S. Department of Treasury today announced further sanctions against Fazl ur-Rehman, leader of the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, and against two Pakistani individuals for providing financial support to Lashkar-e-Taiba.
While previous joint statements had quite generally alluded to the need to promote freedom of navigation in accordance with UNCLOS, this was the first time that the South China Sea was specifically referenced, as were the calls to resolve territorial and maritime disputes through “peaceful means.” A less-hesitant articulation on the part of India is welcome, since China doesn’t seem particularly placated by the weak and deliberately-vague positions of old anyway.
India is also faced with tremendous human security challenges as the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies target ISIL positions in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, despite the thousands evacuated earlier this year, many Indian citizens still continue to reside in Iraq (including some potentially illegally) and are vulnerable to being trapped in an area of active conflict or held hostage by ISIL. In this regard, the stated intention to cooperate on responding to the needs of those stranded in conflict zones is encouraging.
The U.S.-India joint statement was also unusually strong on Iran, calling on it to comply with UNSC-imposed obligations and cooperate fully with the IAEA. One wonders what the Iranians make of the language in the joint statement and Mr. Modi’s meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu on Sunday. Perhaps some quiet diplomacy is needed with the Iranians.
Ultimately, the joint statement augurs well for U.S.-India ties, but operationalizing many of the commitments outlined in the statement will require sustained political stewardship at the highest levels of government in New Delhi and Washington, D.C. It should serve as a warning to both governments that similarly visionary statements left much unrealized as a result of both the Obama administration’s preoccupation with domestic issues as well as the UPA’s feckless and ineffectual leadership.
In order to overcome the possibility of a relapse, Richard Fontaine’s policy brief for the Center for a New American Society recommends that each government designate a “high-level relationship owner,” suggesting that the U.S. vice president or a senior cabinet-level official for the U.S., and the National Security Advisor for India could play such a role. It is a recommendation worthy of consideration in New Delhi and D.C.