Exceptionally long-winded joint statements following a summit meeting could be intended to celebrate the enormity of the successful event.
Or, on the contrary, to distract attention from the barrenness of the event.
The 3785-word joint statement issued after an hour’s discussion between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi falls into the second category.
For the common people of our country, the most significant outcome of Modi’s visit to the United States will be that the statue of Lord Ganesha and 12 other ancient artefacts smuggled out of India are, finally, being returned to India.
Modi understood this, and duly dignified the ceremony of atonement in Washington for having stolen such priceless artefacts, some of them dating back to Chola Dynasty – and some to more than 2000 years.
The joint statement made no reference Lord Ganesha, but it is nonetheless useful to assess Modi’s visit.
The three significant “results” of the visit are the following:
- Creation of a $20 million US-India Clean Energy Finance initiative and a $40 million US-India Catalytic Solar Finance Program with equal financial contribution from the two countries.
- Announcement that US recognises India as a “Major Defence Partner”
- Announcement regarding the finalisation of the text of an Information Exchange Annex under the Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation.
In intangible terms, though, the joint statement
- Condemns the terrorist attack on Pathankot air base;
- Claims further bilateral collaboration against terrorism and a deepening of “collaboration on UN terrorist designations” and
- Calls on Pakistan “to bring the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai and 2016 Pathankot terrorist attacks to justice”.
The bit about “Pakistan-bashing” notwithstanding, its actual utility in practical terms remains to be tested.
On the economic front, the two leaders “pledged to explore new opportunities to break down barriers” in trade and “encouraged substantive results” on trade and investment issues for the upcoming Trade Policy Forum meeting due to be held later in the year.
Indeed, Obama reiterated the US support of India’s claims to membership of the United Nations Security Council, Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
What's in it for India?
Adding up all this, the question becomes unavoidable: What is there in it for India?
A short answer is, Modi’s visit has been disappointing. From the fine print, the thrust of Modi’s official talks was on two areas of immense interest to the American side, namely,
- Market access for US companies and India’s reforms, and,
- Arms sales to India.
The rest is sideshow. Thus, take, for instance, India’s status as “Major Defence Partner”. It means that the US prioritises India as a buyer of American weapons and technology and puts it on par with its allies.
Does it mean favourable pricing? No.
Does it mean free flow of military technology? No.
The proof of the pudding lies in the US’s willingness to actually step into co-designing and co-producing advanced weaponry with India. So far it is all confined to words. The US’ track record is abysmally poor even with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or NATO allies.
Again, Washington’s expression of support for India’s membership of the UN Security Council, NSG and APEC is only a reiteration of previous stance.
Clearly, the US will not block India’s efforts in this direction, but is unable (or unwilling) to ensure their success. In the prevailing international milieu, much will depend on the quality of the Sino-Indian discourses.
The silver lining
Therefore, one good thing is that the joint statement contained no reference to South China Sea, especially “joint patrols” in the disputed waters.
While the Joint Vision Statement on the Asia-Pacific during the visit of Obama to India in January last year exists on paper, India seems to realise that times have dramatically changed and there are misgivings about the policy trajectory of the US’ rebalance under a new American president.
Of course, India did well to mark its distance from the US rebalance in Asia lest it complicated the normalisation with China. Equally, it comes as pleasant surprise that the two leaders could only bring themselves to welcoming the “finalisation of the text of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement” or LEMA, which would grant access for the US forces to Indian military bases.
The signing of the document stands deferred. Why? No explanations have been given.
Can it be that there is some trade-off? The bottom line is that the LEMA is to the US’ advantage, since India has no plans in a conceivable future to project its military power in faraway regions, and its military expeditions are always under the UN flag.
Or, is it that Modi government needs more time to cultivate a favourable Indian opinion?
The geopolitical reality is that the signing of the LEMA is tantamount to crossing the Rubicon in India’s age-old strategic doctrine of steering clear of military alliances and retaining its autonomy, and it will complicate the regional security environment as well as impact adversely the relations with a host of countries.
The procrastination over LEMA is symptomatic of the Modi government’s predicament. On the one hand, the US feels encouraged to make bigger demands on Modi, drawing confidence from the influence that the Non Resident Indian community in North America wields over the ruling party and the Sangh Parivar as well as a host of other lobbyists – think tankers, corporate media groups, fatcats and so on.
Unless these eddies and undercurrents are understood properly, it becomes difficult to explain the intensity of the passion among Indian elites – Delhi-based corporate media in particular – regarding the ties with the US.
The heart of the matter is that the “Green Card” has become America’s Brahmastra. It can be invoked on a small blade of grass in the bureaucracy or a towering mountain among political elites.
How many times this weapon with the “radiance of a thousand suns” has been used we will never get to know.
Without doubt, a fateful outcome of Modi’s visit to the US has been the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding for Development of an International Expedited Traveller Initiative (also known as the Global Entry Program).
The MOU envisages that the US will complete the procedures relating to India’s induction into the Global Entry Program – so that select Indians (for whom time is apparently valuable), can arrive at any major American airport, simply check-in at the Global Entry kiosk and could be on their way – without joining processing lines, without doing paperwork.
Of course, it will be the prerogative of the American embassy in Delhi to decide on whom to confer this privilege. Do not be surprised if being a Global Entry Member will soon become the ultimate status symbol for Indian elites.
Suffice it to say, Indian establishment probably anticipated that there would be no beef in Modi’s visit. This, in turn, explains the media spin which hailed India’s induction into the Missile Technology Control Regime as an outcome of Modi’s visit to US.
The MTCR membership became possible only because Italy withdrew its objection after the release of the two Italian Marines.
As for NSG, it is a quest for yet another holy grail. Except for those who still suffer from post-cold war era “unipolar predicament”, it is obvious to most of us that any notion regarding the US’ capacity (or interest) to secure India’s NSG membership is simply laughable.