Will Obama’s India trip produce more than just pomp and circumstance?
Whether Washington can broker any meaningful accords from the visit remains far from certain, but the president will benefit from a palpable buzz surrounding the trip.
Just by setting foot in the country, Obama will become the only serving U.S. president to visit India twice and the first American to fill the role of chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade on Jan. 26.
The extravagant celebration — a cross between a Soviet-style military parade and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day pageantry — honors the ratification of India’s constitution with a convoy of ornate floats, well-groomed camels, and newfangled ballistic missile systems.
The goal for Washington will be to advance its agenda on security, the environment, and bilateral trade, and repair ties with New Delhi after an embarrassing diplomatic tiff at the end of 2013 sunk relations to historic lows. Additionally, the high-level U.S. diplomatic push — which includes a visit this weekend from Secretary of State John Kerry — is meant to push back against Russia’s latest embrace of New Delhi, which included new defense and energy deals.
“The main objective is to build on the moment that has been in place ever since Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi took office,” said Michael Kugelman, an India expert at the Wilson Center. “India craves recognition on the global stage, and what better way than to have Obama in the country attending Republic Day at the request of the prime minister?”
The previous meeting of the two leaders took place in Washington in September, but it ended without any breakthroughs or major commitments. Diplomats on both sides are working overtime this month to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Though the White House declined to outline a list of goals for the trip, a congressional aide familiar with the bilateral preparations said both countries are making a last-minute push to replace the 10-year defense framework agreement between the two nations that expires this summer.
Ideally, the compact would expand military-to-military partnerships — including joint training exercises, expert exchanges, interoperability, and technology transfers — and increase bilateral military sales. Another source familiar with the negotiations put the likelihood of an announcement on a newly secured agreement at “50-50” given the time crunch diplomats on both sides are up against.
“A lot of this will come up to the last minute,” said the source. “What makes this hard is how quickly this trip has come after Modi’s trip to the U.S. in September.”
Since the end of the Cold War, New Delhi’s roster of military trading partners has expanded beyond Russia, even though Moscow remains its No. 1 defense supplier. In December, the two countries pledged to remain strong partners and agreed to billions of dollars of deals, including the construction of 12 nuclear reactors in India by state-owned Rosatom and the assembly of 400 Russian multi-role helicopters in India.
In an effort for the United States to gain a foothold, many American observers are hoping the United States and India will announce a joint manufacturing project on a specific piece of defense equipment, but the path forward is unclear.
Until recently, the front-runner for this initiative was the Javelin weapons system, a ground-based anti-tank missile built by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. But in October, India announced a $525 million deal to buy Israeli Spike anti-tank missiles, raising doubts about the prospects of the Javelin deal. Still, sources say the two sides may still collaborate on Javelin anti-tank missiles or another defense project. Such technology transfers play to both countries’ objectives: They help India advance its own domestic defense industry and often come with implicit guarantees that New Delhi will purchase American-produced weapons systems.
“If the two countries do manage to tee up another project — or decide to go ahead with Javelin — it will signal a breakthrough in U.S.-India defense ties, and also a boost for Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative,” said the American Enterprise Institute’s Sadanand Dhume.
Even if diplomats don’t manage to complete a deal in time for this month’s trip, many see the announcement of a joint project as inevitable in Obama’s last two years in office. “Expectations for a new piece of military technology that the two countries will produce and co-develop have been heightened for this visit,” said Milan Vaishnav, an India expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It increasingly seems like it’s only a matter of time.”
A perennial sticking point between the two countries is America’s long and troubled security relationship with Pakistan, which receives roughly $2 billion in annual security aid from Washington.
Ahead of Kerry’s arrival in India this weekend, Islamabad accused New Delhi of killing four civilians on the India-Pakistan border. In response to the allegations, India said one of its border guards was killed in an offensive against those four Pakistanis, who New Delhi says were plotting an attack on Indian territory, which Pakistan disputes.
The border skirmish coincided with inaccurate reports in the Indian press stating that Secretary Kerry issued a certification of progress to Pakistan related to its counterterrorism measures under a U.S. law known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill. Although U.S. assistance to Pakistan continues, the State Department denied making a declaration of Pakistan’s progress on fighting terrorists. (The United States and India have both expressed strong dissatisfaction with Pakistan’s efforts to fight violent extremists in recent years.)
Though Modi is unlikely to make Pakistan a focal point of the visit, America’s ties to Islamabad’s security apparatus are unlikely to avoid mention. “India can simply not understand why the United States continues to engage the Pakistani security establishment, which has links to radical organizations that target Indians and Americans,” said Kugelman.
In recent weeks, rumors circulated that Obama might add a last-minute stop in Islamabad, but experts say that’s unlikely on this trip. “The U.S. has invested a lot of diplomatic effort in ‘de-hyphenating’ the India-Pakistan relationship,” said Dhume. “An unscheduled visit to Islamabad will be seen by New Delhi as a poke in the eye.” To mollify Pakistan’s generals, Kerry will visit Pakistan instead of Obama.
Another top priority for the White House is an expanded agreement on the environment and greenhouse gas emissions with India, after Obama clinched a landmark green deal with China in November. The two countries are expected to announce joint efforts to combat climate change during the visit, which is seen as a crucial opportunity to convince one of the globe’s biggest carbon polluters to become more proactive on the issue. (India is the third-biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, behind China and the United States.)
However, the two leaders are only expected to announce a modest set of initiatives aimed at expanding research and access to clean and renewable energy technology — nothing quite as ambitious as the milestone deal struck in November between the Washington and Beijing to reduce carbon pollution.
“There is a potentially grand bargain to be had on energy and climate,” said Carnegie’s Vaishnav, noting Washington’s commitment to climate change and India’s interest in shale and liquefied natural gas exports. “But we know we’re not going to get a deal similar to the U.S.-China agreement.”
Lowering expectations in December, Todd Stern, the State Department’s climate change envoy, said, “I am expecting a useful meeting but we don’t have anything in the works of the kind that we were involved with in China.”
Another major objective of the trip is to boost trade and investment between the two countries, for which the State Department is now laying the groundwork. On Saturday, Kerry will travel to Modi’s home state to attend the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit. The United States will participate as an official partner in the meeting, which was first launched in 2003 with the goal of attracting foreign direct investment to the region bordering Pakistan.
The two sides already resolved a divisive dispute over food subsidies in November, which threatened to upend a World Trade Organization deal to reduce international trade barriers. The next step for the two countries is to boost the two-way trade between the United States and India from $100 billion to $500 billion — a target agreed upon by both but with no immediate deadline.