In addressing the US Congress on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the partnership between India and the United States has overcome the “hesitations of history”. That this is not mere rhetoric is borne out of by the advances on nuclear, defence and counter-terrorism cooperation during the PM’s visit to Washington. Although concrete results will take a while, there is no denying the new sense of strategic purpose between Delhi and Washington.
The first of the three-fold advance was about ironing out the last wrinkles relating to the renewal of civil nuclear energy cooperation between the two countries and the integration of India into the global nuclear order.
Modi and President Barack Obama announced that India’s nuclear plant operator, NPCIL and the US vendor, Westinghouse are now ready to begin the preparatory work on the construction of six nuclear reactors in Andhra Pradesh. That this will be first Indian nuclear reactor contract with the US in more than half a century tells the tale of prolonged nuclear turbulence between Delhi and Washington.
Way back in the early 1960s, the US stepped forward to build India’s first nuclear power plant at Tarapur. When it came on line in 1969, it was the first nuclear power station in Asia. The Tarapur station symbolised the expansive high technology cooperation between India and the US in the 1950s and 1960s. The nuclear warmth between India and the US would soon turn into four decades of nuclear hostility. Not long after the Tarapur power station came the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that Delhi could not afford to sign under any circumstances. India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 put Delhi at seemingly permanent conflict with Washington.
India became the principal target of the US’s domestic non-proliferation law and the newly set up Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that set global terms of nuclear trade that were so inimical to India. The denial regimes did not stay nuclear; but extended to all major advanced technologies, including space and more recently cyber.
There is no denying, then, of the extraordinary significance of renewed civil nuclear cooperation and President Barack Obama’s support to India’s membership of the NSG. Obama also welcomed India’s imminent entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime and backed its claim to join the Australia Group on chemical weapons and the Wassenaar Arrangement on conventional weapons and dual use technologies.
Although Delhi must yet overcome China’s objections, India is now tantalisingly close to becoming a member of a club that was set up four decades ago to counter India’s atomic aspirations. Indian diplomacy deserves full credit for turning the global antipathy in the wake of India’s second round of nuclear tests in 1998 into a mutually beneficial partnership.
The second area of cooperation is in the domain of defence. The formal declaration of India as a “Major Defence Partner” during the PM’s visit could help launch a very consequential phase in India-US strategic partnership. That prospect takes us back to the early 1960s again.
After India’s border conflict with China in 1962, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President John F. Kennedy began a conversation on an expansive defence partnership. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 and Nehru’s own death in 1964 saw the evaporation of those plans.
India and the US seemed to pick up the threads 40 years later in 2005, when the two sides unveiled an ambitious 10-year defence framework of cooperation. Strong political reservations in the UPA government and entrenched bureaucratic resistance prevented India from taking full advantage of the new possibilities.
Modi, however, had no problem seeing the advantage of deepening defence ties with the US. The PM and Obama renewed the defence framework with a more ambitious agenda than in 2005. At the White House this week, the two sides announced the successful negotiation of an agreement on mutual logistics support and made progress on a range of other agreements.
In declaring India as a “Major Defence Partner”, Washington will give Delhi the same level of access to defence technologies that it grants America’s closest allies and partners. Obama has also committed US support for the Make in India projects in the defence sector that will help modernise India’s arms industry.
Modi and Obama have resolved that Delhi and Washington must look to each other as “priority partners” in the Indo-Pacific. Beyond the bilateral and regional, the two leaders have also set out an ambitious framework long-term partnership in maritime, air, space and cyber domains.
A third significant outcome from the meeting is the directive from the two leaders to their security establishments to “identify specific new areas of collaboration”. Although short of detail, this mandate could generate the momentum for a big leap forward in addressing the shared challenges from violent extremism in the region.
If concern for Pakistan’s sensitivities seemed to prevent the US from extending full cooperation on counter terrorism in the past, the growing American disenchantment with Islamabad may finally move towards substantive engagement in this issue-area.
The nuclear, defence and counter-terror initiatives have certainly not been conjured up by Modi. They were central to India’s engagement with America since the early 1990s. If P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee opened the door for rethinking security ties with America, Manmohan Singh had the opportunity to advance cooperation on all the three fronts.
If the Congress leadership panicked at the historic opportunity, Modi has brought fresh energy and momentum to strategic cooperation with America. Modi has replaced Delhi’s long-standing tradition of defensiveness towards the US with a refreshing self confidence.
As Modi told the US Congress on Wednesday, there is a new level of “comfort and candour” in the conversations between Indian and American leaders. The objective convergence of Indian and American interests in recent years has finally been matched by Modi’s instinctive feel for deal-making and set the stage for the strategic “symphony” that the PM said is in play.