Barack Obama is not a president known for relishing the perk his office offers of frequent meetings with world leaders.
So when he sits down with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Tuesday for the seventh time in the Indian leader’s two years in office – and for their second White House meeting – it says something.
Mr. Modi’s three-day stay in Washington marks the surprising emergence of the Indian leader as one of President Obama’s few close associates among his global peers.
But Modi’s visit, which will include a rare address by a foreign leader to a joint session of Congress, also underscores the transformation of traditionally prickly United States relations with the world’s largest democracy to close and deepening collaboration.
For Obama, India plays a critical role in securing several legacy issues, including international climate policy, the rebalancing of US interests in a vaunted “Asia pivot,” confronting an expansionist China, and boosting global trade.
“Just as Obama got to Cuba, just as Obama got to Vietnam and Hiroshima, I think this [return visit by Modi to the White House] has been on his to-do legacy checklist as he counts down his days in office,” says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian Affairs during the Clinton administration. “He sees building on the foundation laid down by his predecessors in building a strategic relationship with India as one of his foreign policy contributions with the most significant long-lasting value.”
The transformation is all the more striking given that when Modi took office he was persona non grata in the US – unable to secure an entrance visa over the government role in deadly sectarian violence that struck the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was the state’s chief minister.
“The personal transformation of Modi is nothing short of remarkable,” says Milan Vaishnav, who specializes in India’s political economy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “In the course of just two years, Modi has gone from someone who could not set foot on American soil as a legal matter to addressing a joint meeting of the US Congress.
“He has gone from someone who was basically a pariah,” he adds, “to someone who is now going to be celebrated by official Washington.”
A triangle of powers
In his foreign policy, Obama may be more immediately associated with his vision of “dialogue with adversaries,” which has opened the US to working with Iran and Cuba over his presidency. But his deepening of ties to India – a process begun under predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton – is likely to turn out to be at least as significant, regional experts say.
“India’s rise along with China as Asia’s two major powers and the emerging strategic partnership between India and the US are key features of 21st century geopolitics that Obama wants to put his stamp on,” says Mr. Inderfurth, who is now an adjunct professor at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Affairs.
One reason for the focus on India is the crucial role that close US-India relations could play in countering an expansionist and increasingly aggressive China.
The US has sold nearly $15 billion in military hardware to India since 2007, with the US seeming particularly intent on working with India to build up its Navy. The US is anxious to see a beefed up presence of India in the Indian Ocean as well as in the South China Sea, two vast regions where China has been expanding its maritime footprint.
And India for its part has seemed ready to lay to rest its cold-war-era distrust of the US and to play the role of equal partner in a triangular relationship with the US and China, regional experts say.
“There is some lingering fear [in India] of the big bad imperial Americans coming to take us over,” says Ashley Tellis, a senior associate in Asian strategic issues at the Carnegie Endowment. “But what we’re seeing increasingly under Modi,” he adds, is “a willingness on the part of Delhi to be seen working in cooperation with the US” – on regional strategic issues including Afghanistan and in areas like space and cybersecurity.
Noting that Modi will be in Washington right as Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are in Beijing for the US-China strategic and economic dialogue, Inderfurth says the Obama administration sees India emerging as a “balance-of-power player in Asia” and increasingly as an Asian equal in the “triangular US-China-India relationship.”
The nuclear issue
But some regional analysts worry that Obama’s zeal to strengthen India’s role as a regional counterbalance to China might be prompting him to go soft on India in some key areas. That may be particularly true when it comes to nuclear proliferation and disarmament issues – two issues those experts note are also prime features of the Obama legacy.
Under Obama the US is supporting India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a collection of 48 countries that together aim to govern the global trade in nuclear-related materials and to prevent civilian nuclear energy program from diverting materials for military use. But critics of India’s bid note that India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and continues to produce fissile material while expanding its nuclear arsenal.
“We’re not supposed to help other countries get bombs or build a bunch more new ones, and we’re doing this why?” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
“Apparently we’re buying this argument that’s been out there since the Bush administration that India is going to do our bidding against China,” he adds. “But what have we seen from India that would tell us that that’s true?”
Better to focus on “things that really matter and would be wins for both countries, like trade policy,” Mr. Sokolski says.
Indeed Obama administration officials say trade will figure high in Obama-Modi discussions Tuesday.
But those officials add that no one should expect any big announcements on bilateral trade. That downplaying of any economic expectations only underscores what some US-India analysts have noted in the run-up to Modi’s visit.
The significant progress in the strategic relationship in recent years has not been matched in the economic arena, and that has been a disappointment for the US.
On the economy and in terms of the structural reforms the US would like to see, “Modi’s record is much more mixed,” says the Carnegie Endowment’s Mr. Vaishnav. As one example, India has balked at finalizing a bilateral investment treaty with the US, and relations between the two at the World Trade Organization are still often adversarial.
“Modi is putting India back on the map, not just as a regional player but also in declaring his country open for business,” Vaishnav says.
Obama’s legacy as it concerns India is tied more to the former part of that assessment than to the latter.