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Obama’s India Visit and India’s role as a ‘swing power'

Paper No. 5864                                 Dated 27-Jan-2015

Guest Column by Prof. B. R. Deepak

US President, Barack Obama became the first American President to be a chief guest at the annual Republic Day parade of India, the only US president having visited India twice during his presidency and perhaps the only lame duck president to meet Indian Prime Minister 4th time in a gap of one year. 

Historically, India-US diplomatic relations have been devoid of mutual trust, the reasons being India’s 1971 treaty of friendship with the erstwhile Soviet Union, and US’s warmth to India’s arch rival China and Pakistan. In the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests and abortive economic sanctions against India, Bill Clinton’s 1999 visit attempted to push the reset button for better relations, however, it was under George Bush’s Presidency that India-US relations were catapulted to a new high with the conclusion of India-US civil nuclear deal that could not take off owing to domestic policies from both the governments, but could be a major take away from Obama’s current visit.

India and the US has done enough as far as symbolism is concerned, however, what is important at this juncture is the substance in this relationship. If the former Indian Prime Minister, Vajpayee demonstrated his commitment to turn the ‘estranged democracies’ into ‘natural allies’ then Prime Minister Modi has openly revealed India’s enthusiasm for building strong strategic ties with the US and its allies such as Japan and Australia much to the suspicion of China that India is playing a pawn in the containment of China.

If the US is clear what it wants from India, I believe India has to be clear what it wants from the US too. Modi seems to move away from the diplomatic niceties and move on to the deliverables in terms of operationalization of the civil nuclear deal, revival of the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) that may enable joint development and production of advanced weapon systems, extension of the 10-year India-US defence framework, technology transfer for renewable energy, food processing industry so on and so forth.

In a decade, India has already procured $10 billion worth defence equipments from the US, and there are talks to jointly manufacture Javelin anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in India. Bilateral trade has catapulted to near $100 billion trouncing China as India’s largest trade partner. Both plan to take this figure to $500 billion mark in a decade.  The symbolism and nature of bilateral engagement indicates that both want the closest possible strategic and trade partnership. However, in order to realise this excellent and cautious excitement over defence and trade, India needs to initiate a series of structural and infrastructural related reforms so as to create conducive environment for the investment inflows and technology transfers. Even if India is successful in doing so, the US companies may not necessarily find the 49% equity cap offered by the government attractive enough.   

The US has time and again articulated that it would like to see India as a major global power. One should not be mistaken that it is the rise of China that has enable the ‘estranged democracies’ to forge strategic partnership! However, there are problems too, for the US does not see any role for India in Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and its companion agreement Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which are yet to be signed. Neither has India warmed up to the Chinese proposal of ‘Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Route’. There are other differential issues relating to climate change and WTO where India does not have the kind of understanding or the playing field China has with the US.

In such a scenario, India is faced with uncertainties as well as opportunities to capitalise on the invaluable geopolitical strategic space it has in the Indo-Pacific. If the US is attempting to offset China’s geopolitical pull by way of India confronting China or in tandem with the US and its allies in the seas and land it would be disastrous for all the stakeholders. From an Indian point of view, if the US is looking for a strong economic partnership with India, so is the case of India’s economic engagement with China and the US alike. It would be naïve to say that the US will dump its interests in China for India. Imagine the $521 billion trade volume between China and the US and compare it with our trade with China and the US combine!

It is in this background that if at all India would like to be a so called ‘swing power’ between China and the US, we need to be a swing power as far as cooperation and healthy competition is concerned not the confrontation and conflict, which is neither in India’s interest nor in the interest of China and the US. 

(Prof. B R Deepak is Professor of China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own. He could be reached at bdeepak@mail.jnu.ac.in)

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