Modi's US visit was a personal victory, but India's loss

By flaunting 'military cooperation' with America, PM has pushed China to be openly antagonistic.

 |  6-minute read |   09-06-2016
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Narendra Modi has been visiting almost two countries every month as the prime minster of India. On a five-nation tour, the highlight so far has been his address to the joint session of the United States Congress, during a three-day trip to Washington DC to meet US President Barack Obama for the seventh time.

Addressing the Congress is a significant personal achievement for someone who not so long ago was virtually banned to enter the American territory for nearly a decade. To shed the pariah status at the global stage, Modi has also consciously made efforts in fabricating his friendship with Obama, and has gone miles to be seen as close to him.

Also read: Why Modi is pushing India closer to US

Much has been written already about this "unnatural" friendship. Whatever the quality of the friendship between Modi and Obama, the relationship between two large countries is not guided by personal equation between leaders, but over the convergence of their core national interests.

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Addressing the Congress is a significant personal achievement for someone who was virtually banned to enter American territory for nearly a decade.

Thus, in order to evaluate Modi’s US visit, it is not important how many times Modi called Obama as his "param mitra" in the joint address to the press, but to see how that "mitrata" has translated into bilateral relationship.

The "realist" Obama, in the final days of his presidency, is single-mindedly pursing containment policy vis-à-vis China to secure America’s core national interest, particularly in the Asia-pacific region. In pursuit of that goal, he has not "hesitated" to be friends with anyone, even recently travelling to Vietnam and eating bun cha with chopsticks. The only thing that binds Obama with Modi is his priority to create a military alliance against a growingly assertive China.

Also read: Modi once told me he'll deliver a first-rate speech in English

No other than Modi’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar has recently described that the military cooperation has become the "central pillar" of the India-US relationship.

In April, India committed itself to a Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States, which will open up its military bases to the Americans. This will allow American fighter planes and warships to use Indian facilities. LEMOA is one of the three "foundational agreements" which guide the high technology cooperation between the United States and its other defence partners.

India is regularly engaged in joint naval exercises with the United States. Serious negotiations are going on over the joint patrolling of the Indian Ocean as well. India’s military purchases from the United States have taken a big leap in recent months. India is planning to build its own aircraft carrier with technological support from the US. India is also negotiating with US to get jet engine technology.

Cooperation over nuclear energy and comprehensive military cooperation are the two cornerstones of the joint statement issued after the Obama-Modi meeting on June 7, 2016. The major outcome of Modi’s visit is that the United States has formally recognised India as a major defence partner, and India is fast becoming an American ally.

Also read - No more hesitations of history: Capitol Hill is Modi's greatest speech ever

It is not surprising that immediately after arriving in Washington, Modi went to Arlington Cemetery to pay tribute to American soldiers with US defence secretary Ashton Carter. Ironically, when Modi was with defence secretary, secretary of state John Kerry and trade secretary Jack Lew were in China, and this reflects that military, not trade is becoming the core of this bilateral relationship.

Whatever India has got from the "defence" focused cooperation with the United States is nothing for the Modi administration to boast of. In 2003, at the time of Iraq war, Bush administration had proposed exchanges of logistic facilities, to which the then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee had wisely declined.

Since 2005, the United States has been time and again pressurising India to be its defence partner and get into the three "foundational agreements" for military cooperation. The "weak" UPA government had resisted the pressure, while the Modi government has succumbed to it.

For more than a decade, India has been resisting the allure of turning to an American ally due to changing global politics. Whether anyone likes it or not, China has already become a serious and fast ascending global power. China does not need India as much as India needs China to achieve its economic development, energy security and to break into exclusive global power clubs.

Modi visited Switzerland and Mexico before and after his US trip in order to get these countries’ support for India’s application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Their support does not make much sense besides the photo-ops, while China has openly come out against India’s inclusion. While Modi is dragging the country to a US-led military alliance against China, someone has to be unrealistically optimistic to hope to get the Chinese nod for India’s NSG membership.

Also read: How Modi, RSS are turning the Indian abroad into a Hindutva bigot

As the reports have started to come out, India’s application for NSG membership is unlikely to be accepted in the group’s meeting on June 20. Moving India from previous regime’s balancing act to a pro-American tilt, Modi has made it almost certain that China will harden its opposition to India’s application to join the exclusive club for years to come. US does not have the power anymore to push China in India’s favour. Since the 2008 economic crisis, much has changed in global power equation.

NSG membership will not be the only casualty in Modi’s push for joining American-led alliance against China. Modi’s gambit will also cost India’s quest for permanent seat at the UN Security Council. China is the only permanent member with a veto that has not come out openly supporting India’s bid. If Modi hopes to bring a change in China’s position, that will be only possible by working with Chinese leadership, not by being part of a military alliance against it. India getting a permanent seat in the UN Security Council looks like a distant dream.

Modi’s visit to the United States has been full of hype and hoopla, particularly for Indians. His address to US Congress has been some sort of redemption for him at a personal level. However, by flaunting the "military cooperation" with America, Modi has pushed China to be openly antagonistic, and this will inflict serious harm to India’s long-term national interest.

Writer

Ashok Swain Ashok Swain @ashoswai

The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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