Sunday, August 07, 2016

Modi's US visit 2016

The challenge a writer confronts in analyzing anything Prime Minister Modi does is separating hype from achievement. And so it is with his recent US visit which was mainly routine, but has important clues pointing towards a maturing of his foreign policy.
The hype, of course, remains overwhelming and so does the spin. But that’s the Modi style, and you need to discount for it.  Take the issue of the Indian entry to the Missile Technology Control Regime. “India becomes a member of MTCR: PM Modi’s  big diplomatic success” read a headline in one of the country’s leading Hindi dailies. Actually, the moment the Supreme Court allowed the Italian marine held on murder charges to go back home two weeks ago, pending his trial, the Italian government withdrew its hold on India’s MTCR membership.
MTCR is not a gift from anyone; it was part of a deal in which the US agreed to get India into a range of technology control cartels like the MTCR and NSG, in exchange for a) putting its  civil reactors under IAEA safeguards b) agreeing not to conduct any more nuclear tests c) accepting the IAEA’s stringent additional protocol d) agreeing to abide by the NSG’s rules, current and future, without being a member of the NSG and e) giving significant business to American nuclear reactor companies.
We have kept our part of the bargain, now the US must reciprocate.
When you measure the visit on transactional scales-- the kind you must always use in international relations—you will see it was about  give and take. Notwithstanding the optics and the hype, the alleged friendship between Modi and Obama has little leverage here.  
Intriguingly,  in the joint statement issued on Tuesday the words “South China Sea” are missing. In Modi’s first visit to Washington in 2014 and during Obama’s visit to New Delhi  in 2015, the joint statements had spoken of the need of ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the Asia-Pacific region, “especially in the South China Sea.” There are three possible explanations. One,  India is delicately distancing itself from the somewhat advanced position of 2014 and 2015. Two, that this is part of a bargain with Beijing whose payoff will be in the NSG. Three, that it is simply an oversight signifying nothing.
An interesting  addition to the formulation this time speaks not only of upholding UNCLOS, ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight, but also “exploitation of resources as per international law” . This must be seen in the context of India’s interests in oil blocks off Vietnam, one of which is under challenge from China.
The Modi government finally announced its agreement on the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA),  something of primary  benefit for the US Navy since for some time to come, the Indian Navy will focus on the region between the Malacca Straits and Suez. Additionally, India committed to join the  Paris Climate Change Agreement but without accepting any  timeline which must have disappointed the Americans since the pact is something of a  legacy issue for Obama and he is keen have it ratified before it leaves office.  
On defence, there is more spin than achievement. “Major defence partner” means little, unlike “major non-NATO ally” which has a legal standing. The much touted Defence Technology Trade Initiative (DTTI) is not likely to yield much anyway.  A  technology leader does not share technology for love or money. You may do it for  money, as the indigent Russians do, but you do not give your  cutting edge stuff. But beggars, they say, cannot be choosers.
There is important movement in cyber-security and information sharing between the US and Indian terrorism screening authorities. But as for economics and trade, the ball remains in the court of the respective private sectors. The things that the two governments should do are simply not happening--  the completion of  the totalisation agreement, ironing out  differences over IPR and the Bilateral Investment Treaty.
Beyond the give and take is the emerging triangular relationship in Asia involving the US, India and China. It is in India’s interest to remain a pole, howsoever weak in this triangle, instead of becoming an adjunct to the US. By playing a balancer, New Delhi stands to gain, and beyond the rhetoric over the South China Sea, our border dispute and Sino-Pak relations, there is a lot that China has to offer. Our interest is in steadily and surely building up our economy in the period of our opportunity, which is the next two decades, and avoiding conflict to the extent we can.
In his speech to the US Congress, Modi spelt out the scope and terms of our engagement. He spoke of the overall convergence between the US and India, flagged several key issues like the lack of a security architecture in Asia and the importance of isolating “those who harbour, support and sponsor terrorists” (read Pakistan). But he also said that “autonomy in decision making and diversity in our perspectives can only add value to our partnership” (read strategic autonomy).
Economic Times June 9, 2016

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