Jan 24, 2015 | 14:01 GMT

8 mins read

India Prepares for Obama's Upcoming Visit


India is preparing for U.S. President Barack Obama's second official visit to the country, during which he will be the guest of honor at India's Republic Day military parade. But Obama's visit will primarily be a working trip, and teams from both governments are working to hammer out a consensus on a number of key issues ahead of the Jan. 25 event. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hoping to improve his country's bilateral ties with Washington as part of a wider set of foreign policy initiatives. At the same time, Modi will be grappling with political upheaval in India's periphery. These challenges will test New Delhi's ability to alter India's relationships in its immediate neighborhood and with the West. Though India will continue to seek further assistance from the United States, the fundamental constraints that prevent New Delhi from strengthening its ties with Washington or its allies will persist. 

Media outlets have leaked an ambitious agenda for talks ahead of Obama's visit over many of the issues that have dogged the U.S.-Indian relationship for more than a decade: bilateral trade, economic reform, India's civilian nuclear deal with the United States, military issues, and Washington's desire for New Delhi to take a tougher stance against China. While none of these issues are new, the government's single-party majority in parliament has created new opportunities in India's foreign policy. Unlike previous administrations, the ruling center-right Bharatiya Janata Party does not have to rely on either far-left or far-right support in parliament to maintain its hold on the government, something Modi is hoping to leverage in shaping how New Delhi engages its potential "global partners," including the United States, and how it approaches its often-troubled relationships with its neighbors.

U.S. Interests in the Talks

Obama's visit will present the biggest opportunity for India to shift how it interacts with not only the United States but also the broader global community. Direct negotiations between Obama and Modi are rumored to have been responsible for a compromise that saved the latest Bali round of World Trade Organization agreements, which were originally threatened by India seeking to secure its right to stockpile subsidized food for its massive population.

The United States is hoping that close, deliberate negotiations between both leaders can now help advance other trade deals and spur investment, but obstacles to these goals remain. Obama will land in India less than 48 hours after New Delhi places new import restrictions on U.S. poultry exports, and Modi's hallmark "Make in India" economic reform initiative (though touted as an excellent opportunity for foreign investment in manufacturing and new economic zones) is replete with the kinds of protectionist policies that have long deterred New Delhi's closer economic integration with Western markets. Obama's trip also comes in the wake of Modi's September visit to the United States, which resulted in much fanfare but little in the way of concrete agreements. Obama will likely leave India without any formal trade agreements in place, with both sides agreeing to continue the work that began during the talks.

Economic issues will continue to be a sticking point in the United States' bilateral ties with India, but Washington may be more interested in improving its strategic relationship with New Delhi, particularly with regard to China. Washington would like to see Modi's more assertive government expand its activities in Southeast Asia and the broader Asia-Pacific, especially in tandem with U.S. allies Japan and Australia. Japan is one of India's strongest foreign partners, but Tokyo has expressed both frustration with Indian impediments to investment and a reluctance to compete directly with China's rising regional influence. Though Japan's reluctance has frustrated the United States, it will not keep New Delhi from pursuing its own relationship with Beijing, a potential investor in India's lagging economy. India will also continue to be assertive in its immediate periphery, and the United States has not failed to notice India's increased involvement in the Indian Ocean basin. However, New Delhi and Washington still do not see eye-to-eye on Pakistan and Iran, highlighting the difficulties of entering a formal alliance with India, a country with a complicated set of domestic and regional concerns

Still, there is a good chance that New Delhi will be successful in formalizing the Indian military's interactions with its U.S. counterpart. Such a deal would likely include granting mutual access to military bases, naval refueling and coordinating emergency operations. Obama and Modi will discuss the renewal of the two countries' defense framework pact, now 10 years old, as well as India's signature of foundational documents that formalize bilateral access to and transfer of military technology and weapons. The previous Indian National Congress government was unable to sign such an agreement because of opposition from its far-left coalition partners, but both countries have long engaged in these activities, albeit with a more complicated approval and vetting process. Modi will argue that streamlining this process will boost India's security and capabilities, rather than shifting policy. Negotiations toward a final agreement may extend beyond Obama's three-day visit, but they are one avenue that could lead to a clear deal between the two countries.

Pakistan: A Source of Contention

One of the biggest differences between the United States and India is their respective relationships with Pakistan. Washington's financial assistance to and traditional backing of Islamabad, New Delhi's regional archrival, have long soured ties between the world's two largest democracies. But Washington's end to combat operations in Afghanistan has decreased its reliance on Pakistan, creating opportunities for New Delhi (especially since the United States would like to see India counter China's economic and military heft in the region). However, instability in Pakistan, rather than its military or nuclear arsenal, is quickly becoming India's primary security threat as militant groups find a safe haven (or assistance, as some Indian politicians argue) in Pakistan's security vacuum. India and Pakistan inched toward trade deals under the previous Indian National Congress administration, and initial contact between Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was positive. Still, despite these potentially positive signs, recent border clashes and domestic politicking have again moved New Delhi and Islamabad further apart, and Obama is expected to mention his concerns regarding the rising violence during his visit. Washington will try to leverage its relationships with both Islamabad and New Delhi to reduce border tensions and prevent them from escalating into a war.

India's Concerns in Its Near Abroad

Modi's upcoming meeting with Obama is just one part of a broader push to retool India's relationships in the international community. This initiative is aimed at bringing in greater levels of investment, raising India's international profile and strengthening the government's domestic position by securing the country's interests in its surrounding region.

India's quiet backing of incumbent Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during Bangladesh's much-maligned January 2014 elections positioned New Delhi as one of Dhaka's few friends. Bangladesh's political fortunes have improved only slightly as the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party has led nearly a month's worth of widespread strikes, protests and clashes with ruling Awami League supporters that have crippled the country's already deficient transport systems and have left harvests rotting in the fields.  Hasina's heavy-handed reprisals have resulted in criticisms from international observers and key trading partners in the United States and the European Union, complicating negotiation attempts aimed at garnering investment to expand the country's manufacturing base. Instability in Bangladesh has the potential to give regional militants, including jihadists, a safe haven from which to plan attacks against India, and isolation from Western capital has made room for Asian investors, particularly China. In this setting, New Delhi's recent overtures, which include settling a long-disputed maritime border, have taken on a new strategic imperative, and Hasina will continue to be able to rely on India's diplomatic support as she works to rein in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party opposition. 

In Sri Lanka, India faces an uncertain political future with the recent ouster of strongman President Mahinda Rajapaksa. New Delhi long had a difficult relationship with the Rajapaksa government, despite the two countries' trade ties and New Delhi's begrudging respect for the man who oversaw an end to Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Hindu Tamil minority. As in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka's domestic troubles have created an opportunity for Chinese strategic engagement as the international community has withheld investment. Newly elected Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has made the public overtures toward India that New Delhi has been waiting to hear, but the country is set to embark on an ambitious plan to reform its constitution and hold fresh parliamentary elections. New Delhi's ability to push the island nation's fractured domestic political landscape into one of inclusion between the long-opposed Sinhalese and Tamil communities will be the ultimate test of the new Sri Lankan government's supposed pro-Indian orientation.

The Road Ahead

India's large population, potential for economic growth and geographic position in the Indo-Pacific will continue to make New Delhi an attractive candidate for a closer strategic partnership with the United States. But change comes slowly to India and the rest of South Asia, and Obama is unlikely to leave the subcontinent with much in the way of substantive change in the two countries' relationship. New Delhi will continue to focus its efforts on its immediate periphery, with an eye toward increasing regional stability. India will continue to work with the United States — though this cooperation will be restricted primarily to areas that benefit New Delhi, to Washington's chagrin — but the underlying obstacles to a deeper alliance between India and the United States will not be immediately overcome.

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