News Wrap: Prime Minster Modi's US Visit

In an unprecedented move, writing in the Washington Post, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi co-authored an op-ed on the promise of the US-India relationship, presenting a united front: “As nations, we’ve partnered over the decades to deliver progress to our people…Today our partnership is robust, reliable and enduring, and it is expanding. Our relationship involves more bilateral collaboration than ever before — not just at the federal level but also at the state and local levels, between our two militaries, private sectors and civil society.”

Both leaders also looked to the future, promising a re-energized relationship and a new agenda. They committed to cooperation in several areas, including defense, health, and food security.

“As global partners, we are committed to enhancing our homeland security by sharing intelligence, through counterterrorism and law-enforcement cooperation, while we jointly work to maintain freedom of navigation and lawful commerce across the seas. Our health collaboration will help us tackle the toughest of challenges, whether combating the spread of Ebola, researching cancer cures or conquering diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and dengue. And we intend to expand our recent tradition of working together to empower women, build capacity and improve food security in Afghanistan and Africa.”

Encouraging and increasing India’s engagement and connectivity to the wider regional neighborhood was another important theme: “we remain committed to the larger effort to integrate South Asia and connect it with markets and people in Central and Southeast Asia.”

According to an editorial in The Hindu, this op-ed, coupled with the Vision Statement and the comprehensive Joint Statement, “speaks volumes for the breadth of discussions between them in a short period.” However, “while the three documents contain all the parts of the relationship, they fail to convey the whole. On issues where the countries agree, such as defense and energy, they show only incremental progress, without any big announcements. On issues where the countries differ, like the nuclear deal, trade and WTO, they seem to have deferred negotiations, indicating that no progress was made in resolving them.”

In a similar vein, some observers have characterized the visit as being higher on symbolism than substance. Sadanand Dhume writes “You could also argue that symbolism matters—it creates conditions that allow substantive progress in the relationship. But, for now at least, the jury is still out on whether this visit was the first step in a revitalized partnership, or merely a series of skillfully choreographed but ultimately ephemeral photo opportunities.”

A summary of the visit by CSIS asks the key question: did the visit repair the relationship? “We do not yet have clarity over whether the biggest strategic fissure—the inability for U.S. nuclear firms to do work in India—will benefit from the visit. Other smaller though important economic issues remain unresolved as well. But this new vision for cooperation looks like a stronger balance of shared interests.”

Many other key foreign policy thinkers took advantage of the visit to provide broader strategic advice on the relationship.

John McCain analyzed the visit in Foreign Policy, calling the “pivot to India” the “heart of America’s future in Asia.”

He first noted past failures of the relationship, arguing that “recently, our partnership has not lived up to its potential….Too often, our relationship has felt like a laundry list of initiatives that amounts to no more than the sum of its parts. Too often, we have been overly driven by domestic politics and overly focused on extracting concessions from one another, rather than investing in one another's success and defining priorities that can bring clarity and common purpose to our actions. Our strategic relationship has unfortunately devolved into a transactional one.”

McCain urges a renewed focus on the relationship from both sides. He argues that in the past, both the US and India have failed to afford this partnership the necessary energy. Moving forward, he believes that it is imperative to inject new life into the relationship.

“India and the United States need to think more ambitiously about investing in each other and improving our capacity to work together. The United States wants Modi to succeed because we want India to succeed. When India thinks of its partners in the world, we want it to think of the United States first -- positioning our country as the preferred provider of the key inputs that can help to propel India's rise.”

He goes on to list the many areas where India and the US should collaborate, including foreign policy, security, energy, trade and investment. He closes by emphasizing that the two countries are united by their shared values.

Madeleine Albright also provided advice to the two leaders, writing on CNN. She urged President Obama to take advantage of this moment to “reaffirm the strategic partnership between our two nations.” She made a few suggestions about how this might be accomplished.

 “We should welcome the Prime Minister's engagement with traditional U.S. allies in Asia, including South Korea, Japan and Australia, and emerging partners such as Vietnam, as part of his "look east and act east" policy.”

“The President should also encourage the negotiation of a new Defense Framework Agreement with India, to replace one that is expiring in 2015. Our defense cooperation is increasingly robust, featuring major naval exercises, military exchanges and high-level consultations. These should continue, as should the trend of Washington permitting higher levels of sensitive technology to be released to Indian defense forces.”

“Domestically, Mr. Modi's biggest challenge is returning India to the level of economic growth that is necessary to provide opportunity for the nation's fast-growing, youthful workforce. An important part of this effort will require a focus on improving the trade and investment climate, for example, by following through on India's commitments to the World Trade Organization.”

Nicholas Burns, writing in the Washington Post, made similar suggestions to President Obama. He argues that “President Obama should seize the opportunity to revive and rebuild an important relationship with a key Asian partner that has fallen on hard times in recent years…In strategic terms, there are few countries more important to Washington than India, the dominant power in the Indian Ocean region and, with Japan, the most important U.S. partner in Asia seeking to limit Chinese assertiveness in the region.

He closes by noting that this visit also represents an opportunity for President Obama politically. “Obama has a rare second chance to get India right after this country’s ties with Delhi atrophied over the past two years…Now it is time for Obama to make his mark with India.”