January 22, 2015

A Symbolic Visit

The following commentary was originally written for the Asia Society Policy Institute on January 22, 2015. 

The bilateral relationship between the United States and India has entered a new, and arguably more normal, stage. When a U.S. President visits Britain, France, or Japan, there is not always an expectation of major breakthroughs, announcements, or deliverables. Similarly, observers should get used to seeing India-U.S. bilateral summits for what they are: regular consultations and demonstrations of goodwill between the leaders of two important and friendly countries with a wide set of converging interests.

That being said, President Obama’s visit to India to participate in the 2015 Republic Day festivities is of immense symbolic and political importance. By inviting a U.S. President as Republic Day chief guest for the first time, New Delhi has shown a willingness to embrace its relationship with Washington in an extraordinarily public manner. Until recently, the act of featuring a U.S. president at a nationally-televised parade showcasing India’s culture and military power would have been perceived as being in contravention of the cherished vestiges of non-alignment. The government of Prime Minister Modi, however, recognizes that the presence of the president of the United States holds significant domestic and international political value.

Such visits also do continue to serve as valuable, decision-forcing mechanisms. We may see some forward movement on possible joint defense and civil nuclear initiatives, trade and investment, and climate and energy cooperation. The details, however, are likely to be negotiated until the very last minute.