A question currently raging in political and strategic circles is whether the prime minister’s visit to Washington D.C. on June 7 is essential and useful. Considering that President Barack Obama has only seven months left in office, public attention is on the November election, and two bilateral visits have already taken place in 2014 and 2015, why the June visit?
The key questions, however, are: Does the visit serve India’s “national interest”? Can India gain something out of this visit? What can be the benefit, tangible or intangible? There are seven possible positives, both for bilateral relations and, especially for India, which are listed below.
First, June is the last window for a bilateral visit. After that, holidays and then elections. It’s now or never. This visit will ensure that the US president and the Indian PM meet each year at summit level, 2014, 2015 and 2016. This has significance and establishes a precedent.
Second, the US president does take major decisions in the final year of office, for example, Obama’s initiatives on Iran and Cuba. India has major concerns. The situation in South Asia is one. There are others, such as Russia and Iran. India needs to press the US president to do some things and, also, not to do some things. This is the opportunity and the president is clearly ready to engage.
Third, the Indian economy has been slow to turn around to higher growth. Partly because of global headwinds even though FDI in India has risen sharply. The primary source of FDI is the US and its major corporates. A June visit gives the opportunity to meet US business leadership, reinforce India’s economic message and push for increased FDI. Since the business community, has a “herd” mentality, American corporates will influence those elsewhere. With domestic investment scarce, India needs this to happen.
Fourth, the US is the primary source of technology and innovation, together with entrepreneurship. The visit by Modi to Silicon Valley in 2015 was path-breaking. A renewal of this engagement, within a year, is worthwhile because India has to use this initiative to leapfrog development and raise the scale of job generation. The US is, and will be, the primary source of partnership for this to happen.
Fifth, India needs the most advanced defence technology and there are many pending issues to align systems and cultures and build trust. The PM needs to engage the US president to expedite the defence cooperation agenda. The long shadow of China building up its military capability on India’s border is a new factor. The message is clear that India has to raise its military capability and defence preparedness. The US plays a key role as a defence technology and equipment provider.
Sixth, there is distance between the US and India on trade policy. India is not in TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) or APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). Modi took leadership at COP21, in Paris, and surprised the world. He needs to do the same in the trade area, so as to avoid India being left out of world markets. Investment and trade go together. The Make in India initiative to create millions of jobs will otherwise be undermined. This is an important agenda for the Obama-Modi meeting on June 7. India must be pro-active on trade policy.
Seventh, the prime minister has never addressed the joint houses of Congress. This will happen on June 8. The importance of this invitation from the speaker to the PM is specially because the US Congress has huge influence on US policy. A US Congress which is positive to India is very important to take forward India’s national agenda. Increased understanding with the US Congress is very important mutually, but especially for India.
So the rationale for the June trip is clear. There are potential gains for the bilateral relationship and for India in particular. The Modi government has achieved a lot on the foreign policy front in the past two years. The PM’s June visit to the US can, and must, enhance this record.