Mr. Modi goes to Washington (again)

Next week, Americans will be looking westward to the Tuesday Democratic primary in California. Meanwhile, in Washington, President Obama and then the U.S. Congress will host someone very familiar with electoral politics: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This will be the third Modi-Obama summit since the Indian prime minister took office two years ago. Since their first phone call on May 16, 2014, the two leaders have also met multiple times at regional and global gatherings or on the sidelines of those summits. This frequency has been a departure from the past and has even led some—particularly in the Indian media—to ask: why is Modi visiting the United States again? A simple answer would be “because he was invited,” and there are a few reasons why the White House extended that invitation and why Modi accepted.

At a time when [Obama] is being criticized for not having done enough or for doing the wrong thing on foreign policy, he can point to the U.S.-India relationship as a success.

Achievements logged

For President Obama, there’s the legacy issue. At a time when he is being criticized for not having done enough or for doing the wrong thing on foreign policy, he can point to the U.S.-India relationship as a success, particularly in the context of the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. U.S. popularity is up in India according to polls and three-quarters of those surveyed in India last year expressed confidence in Obama on world affairs. 

President George W. Bush left office after having signed the historic civil nuclear deal with India. Obama can claim to have put quite a few more runs on the board. At a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal indeed laid out some key developments in the relationship in the Obama era: 

the launch of the annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue (now the U.S.-India Strategic and Commercial Dialogue); 
the long list of functional and regional issues on which the two countries now have dialogues or working groups; 
the signing of the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions and the deepening cooperation under that framework; 
the increase in trade from $60 billion in 2009 to $107 billion in 2015; 
the number of jobs that American exports to India have created in the United States; 
the tripling of foreign direct investment from India into the United States; and 
U.S. defense sales to India increasing from $300 million less than a decade ago to $14 billion today. 

Strengthening friendships

For Prime Minister Modi and the Indian government, the visit represents another chance to strengthen India’s partnership with a country that Modi has called “a principal partner in the realization of India’s rise as a responsible, influential world power.” The United States is India’s largest trading partner and a crucial source of capital, technology, knowledge, resources, remittances, and military equipment. It can also help ensure multi-polarity in Asia, which is a crucial goal for Indian policymakers. 

The visit is also an opportunity for Modi to engage with legislators and the American private sector—two key constituencies that can help determine the pace of progress in the relationship. House Speaker Paul Ryan has invited the Indian leaders to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, and Modi will be the fifth Indian prime minister to do so (India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave back-to-back speeches to the House and Senate separately in 1949). But it’ll likely hold special significance for the prime minister and his supporters, given that from 2005 to 2014, then Gujarat Chief Minister Modi was denied entry into the United States. 

A busy calendar

Modi’s has a packed schedule in Washington. On June 6, he’ll visit Arlington National Cemetery, meet with the heads of think tanks, and participate in an event involving the recovery and return of stolen Indian antiquities. On June 7, he’ll meet with President Obama, who will also host a lunch for him, and then Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. That will be followed by meetings with business leaders and an address to the U.S.-India Business Council. Expect to see Modi highlight and defend his government’s two-year record on the economy and make a pitch for U.S. businesses to increase their involvement in India—and particularly some of Modi’s flagship initiatives such as Make in India and Digital India.

Expect to see Modi highlight and defend his government’s two-year record on the economy and make a pitch for U.S. businesses to increase their involvement in India.

June 8 will be devoted to Congressional engagement, including the joint address, a lunch hosted by Speaker Ryan, and a reception hosted by the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, as well as the India Caucus. Modi will acknowledge the legislature’s role and significance in developing the U.S.-India relationship, and will likely highlight the democratic values the two countries share, as well as how India and Indians have contributed to the United States, global growth, and the international order. Importantly, in an election year, Modi will likely note the bipartisan nature of the relationship—there’s no indication yet that he will or wants to meet any of the presidential candidates on this visit, though the sessions potentially offer opportunities for him to do so. Republican members of Congress will also seek to highlight their role in the development of the partnership. The interactions on Capitol Hill will also be a chance for Modi to address some Congressional concerns—such as human rights, Iran, non-proliferation, the investment climate—and for Modi to call for the two countries to “accommodat[e] each other’s concerns.”

Do not, however, expect to hear the word “Pakistan”—the Indian government wants to avoid hyphenation and get Americans to think of India beyond India-Pakistan terms. Nor should you expect to hear the word “China,” though there might be subtle attempts to note the contrast with that other Asian giant and make the case for the United States to support the rise of a large Asian democracy that can demonstrate that democracy and development aren’t mutually exclusive.

Parting glance between Modi and Obama

And what’s on the agenda for the Modi-Obama meeting? In one sense, the last few years have signaled a regularization of U.S.-India leader-level summits (with bilateral meetings in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016). Over the last two years, high-level meetings have been effective as action-forcing events. This time, officials have been managing expectations, broadly describing the visit as “part of consolidating and celebrating the relationship.” So this is a chance to recognize the steps that the other side has taken to increase the run-rate of the relationship—particularly on defense and security fronts—and tie up some loose ends with an eye towards sustaining momentum into the next administration (without necessarily tying its hands). 

In terms of focus areas, the governments have emphasized (to varying degrees) economic ties, energy and climate change, as well as defense and security cooperation. The Obama administration would like to India ratify the Paris agreement, for instance—unlike in the United States, India doesn’t require legislative approval. Indian officials recognize the importance of this issue to Obama, but are also concerned about U.S. policy continuity given the presumptive Republican nominee’s stand on the issue. Delhi, in turn, is partly using the shared desire for India to meet its clean energy commitments to make the case for an American full-court press to facilitate Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)—similar to the Bush administration’s efforts to help India get an NSG waiver in 2008. The U.S. position has been that India is ready for NSG membership and meets requirements for membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime, and it has supported Indian application and eventual membership of both, as well as two other nonproliferation and export control regimes. Asked if Modi would ask Obama to “go to bat for India” with others on this, the Indian foreign secretary didn’t answer directly but noted: “countries that feel we’re doing the right thing…if they take it upon themselves to…articulate their positions and talk to others, this is what friends do for each other.” Modi himself will visit two other NSG members (Switzerland and Mexico) just before and after the U.S. visit partly to make the case for India’s membership.

The visit will also be a chance to cement and highlight cooperation in and on the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. In addition, observers will be watching to see whether the two countries will sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA)—the logistics support agreement that the Indian defense minister said in April that Secretary Carter and he had “agreed in principle to conclude”—or whether there’ll be further announcements with regard to the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative. There’ll also be interest in whether the countries get serious talks restarted on a Bilateral Investment Treaty, and whether Westinghouse and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India can finalize an agreement to set up reactors in India. Overall, there is a desire to take the relationship to the “next level” but not necessarily in terms of a big deal; rather there’s a search for ways to deepen, operationalize, and institutionalize cooperation—such as through arrangements to share information in the counterterrorism space—and facilitate interaction between an increasing number of stakeholders.

While highlighting areas of convergence, both sides will likely also discuss the divergences that remain—perhaps including the east-west divergence related to Pakistan, the north-south divergence related to Russia, the security-economic divergence with more progress in the partnership on the former than the latter, and the potential expectations-reality divergence. And while the direction of the U.S.-India relationship is likely to remain the same in the near future, how the two countries deal with these divergences will determine the trajectory and the pace of the relationship.