In the two days since US President Barack Obama has arrived in India, we have witnessed a multitude of memorable photo opportunities: Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugging, them having tea at Hyderabad House, and Obama’s appearance at the Republic Day parade. But what is this visit all about? What is it meant to achieve? There are three ways of evaluating Obama’s second — and most likely final — visit to India as president.
The most obvious is through a purely symbolic lens: the significance of having a US president as chief guest at India’s Republic Day. This alone ensures that it is no ordinary visit but an implicit acknowledgement and celebration by the US of India’s constitutional democracy, its diversity and role as a responsible military power. Additionally, between his two visits, Obama will have spent almost a week of his eight-year presidency in India, a not-insignificant amount of time, given his priorities at home and abroad with respect to West Asia, Afghanistan/ Pakistan, Russia and China.
Obama was also greeted warmly in the Indian capital this week, at a time when US relations with several other major countries — Russia and China, and even allies such as Germany, Japan, Turkey and Israel — are relatively poor or frosty. Despite the tyranny of routine crisis management, both sides have shown that they can take the time to invest further in a mutually beneficial partnership. By this measure, Obama’s very presence at Republic Day already makes this visit a success.
A second way of evaluating the visit is by its political logic, on both the domestic and international fronts. Obama’s presence at Republic Day removed the last vestiges of a reflexive anti-Americanism that had persevered among many members of the Indian political and policy establishment. Modi’s government has gone further and recognised the domestic political value of a closer relationship with the US. While many in the UPA felt that maintaining equidistance in India’s relations with major powers was politically beneficial, this view was increasingly out of step with Indian public attitudes. Surveys still consistently reflect a high opinion of the US, especially among younger Indians, although this has declined somewhat since the global financial crisis.
The political logic within the US is less pronounced, beyond the gradual rise in importance of the Indian-American community as a politically organised actor that values good relations with their country of origin. Indian-Americans constitute the best-educated and wealthiest ethnic group in the US, and their numbers are no longer insignificant from a political standpoint. Obama’s administration has been the most heavily populated by Indian-Americans. But in future years, Democrats and Republicans will be in greater competition for Indian-American support. None of this means that there will not be continued differences — and sometimes sharp ones — between India and the US. But as long as they are discussed frankly and managed privately, they need not impede the overall relationship.
Another kind of political logic is international. Modi has been unabashed about deepening partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region with which India shares both interests and values, particularly Japan and Australia. And the Chinese military incursion during President Xi Jinping’s visit last year reinforced the need to manage China’s rise by diversifying regional security partnerships, even while deepening economic engagement with Beijing. A closer relationship with the US, a keystone of security in the Indo-Pacific, helps accomplish that objective.
Meanwhile, Obama’s advisors, after some vacillation, have come around to broadly sharing this viewpoint. The first term of Obama’s presidency swung from attempts at reassuring and accommodating China’s rise to a policy of managing it, described as the “Pivot” (or rebalance) to Asia. While it was only a year or two ago that the momentum behind the pivot was beginning to slow down, Obama’s India visit is one of a number of minor corrective measures that appear to be taking place. The international implications of this visit will not be dramatic, but are part of a gradual and steady process.
A third way of evaluating such bilateral visits is in practical terms, as decision-forcing mechanisms. India and the US now have a vast range of bilateral dialogues and working groups, and negotiations often get bogged down in bureaucracies. High-profile visits are a way of forcing negotiators to reach compromises.
A few such compromises appear to have been reached. These include modest efforts at joint defence development as part of operationalising the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), as well as initial discussions on more ambitious projects related to jet engines and aircraft carriers. A deal on civil nuclear liability appears to have also been struck, as well as a renewed defence framework agreement, and financing initiatives for clean energy. The visit, therefore, proved an occasion to finalise several agreements that might otherwise be languishing in working-level negotiations.
There has been much criticism in both countries, sometimes justified, of the India-US bilateral relationship becoming too transactional, at the expense of strategy. But combined, the symbolism, political logic and decision-forcing aspects of Obama’s visit amount to the closest thing to a strategic partnership that is possible in an increasingly tactical world. Obama’s advisors have made much of the fact that he is the first US president to visit India twice during his tenure. Hopefully he will not be the last.
The writer is a fellow with the German Marshall Fund, US