China-India relations

With one eye on China, Modi’s India strikes up a firm friendship with the US, but will it endure?

Harsh V. Pant says the challenge for the Indian prime minister, who was on a visit to America this week, is to ensure bilateral cooperation has broad domestic support

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 5:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 5:14pm

India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has a once-in-a-generation opportunity for reorienting ties with the US. Modi has just concluded his fourth visit to the United States since taking office and his last engagement with the Obama administration. For President Barack Obama, strengthening US-India ties is an achievement in an otherwise underwhelming foreign policy track record, and the two men have developed a personal rapport. Both would like to institutionalise this rapport so that long-term sustainable outcomes can be achieved.

Even as Modi reinforces his credentials as the politician best placed to move forward not only Indian economic reforms but also Indo-US ties, he must address concerns about India’s record on religious tolerance as well as economic issues such as the protection of intellectual property and high tariffs.

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At a time when the US Congress is tightening the screws on military aid to Pakistan, the US House of Representatives in May approved a bipartisan legislative move to strengthen defence ties with India, bringing the nation on a par with Nato allies on defence equipment sales and technology transfer.

Indian moves towards the US are driven in large measure by China’s openly hostile acts vis-à-vis India

Indo-US defence ties have soared under the Modi government, powered by defence trade between the two worth US$14 billion in 2015. The two nations are collaborating on joint projects with a significant strategic imprint, such as aircraft carrier and jet engine designs. Joint exercises are routine. India has yet to agree to the US request for joint patrolling of the sea lanes, though after years of wrangling, in April it agreed in principle to open up its military bases to the US. Such sharing of logistics would allow the two naval forces to refuel and reprovision expeditiously.

Indian moves towards the US are driven in large measure by China’s openly hostile acts vis-à-vis India. The Modi government’s initial outreach towards China has not resulted in any improvement in bilateral ties. China blocked the United Nations from banning Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar, as a favour to Pakistan, by insisting that UN designation of any individual as a terrorist is a “serious issue”. And China is working in concert with Pakistan to block India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the 48-nation grouping that controls nuclear-related exports.

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The US supports India’s entry into the club and has come out fighting for the cause. India received a one-time clean waiver from the grouping in 2008 after convincing it of the effectiveness of its export-control regime, which was deemed in line with global standards. Today, India wants to be part of the decision-making at the highest levels of global nuclear architecture.

Modi wants India to emerge as a leading global power: not a bridging power, but a power that can shape global outcomes

China’s opposition to India’s entry seems unlikely to change. Whereas the US and other supporting members have called for India’s inclusion, based on New Delhi’s non-proliferation track record and the US-India civil nuclear accord, China has made the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signature its central argument to scuttle India’s’ entry. Beijing claims that a “compulsory” requirement for membership is that members of the grouping must be signatories to the non-proliferation treaty. China has also encouraged Pakistan to apply for membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, so as to link New Delhi’s entry with that of Islamabad’s, knowing full well that there will be few takers for Pakistan’s case.

Such obstructionist acts by China only serve the cause of strong Indo-US ties.

But the Modi government’s role itself should not be discounted. The administration does not carry the ideological baggage of its predecessors. Though it was the Congress Party-led government which signed the nuclear accord with the US, in the face of bitter domestic opposition, it had been ambivalent about the US role in Indian foreign policy. Modi, by contrast, wants India to emerge as a leading global power: not a non-aligned power or a bridging power, but a power that can shape global outcomes. He recognises that New Delhi needs Washington’s support in this endeavour and is willing to take risks towards that end, while not abandoning India’s traditional historic friendship with Iran, criticised by some in the US Congress.

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Modi’s visit to Tehran in May resulted in the signing of a trilateral Chabahar port agreement between India, Afghanistan and Iran, with India making about US$500 million available for the project. Chabahar port holds immense strategic and economic significance, allowing India to circumvent Pakistan to develop connectivity with Kabul. The port is also viewed as India’s challenge to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Though the Indian economy continues to do well, with an estimated growth of 7.6 per cent this year, and India replaced China as the top destination for foreign direct investment in 2015, there are concerns about Modi’s ability to push a reform agenda through Parliament.

As Modi makes his case that his government views the US as his country’s primary strategic partner, it is important for Washington to listen and respond. Strong cross-border relationships require broad-based domestic support. Recent sharp criticism of India’s human rights record by influential Republican senators underscores the challenges for the Modi government.

For India to develop stronger strategic ties with Washington, the Modi government must bring to heel its extremist Hindu rank-and-file and the administration’s authoritarian tendencies in dealing with non-governmental organisations. Strong ties between the two countries must be built on broad public support in both countries. This is Modi’s challenge as he reaches out to Washington.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College London and the author of India’s Afghan Muddle. Copyright: YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Centre. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online.