January 26, 2015

Beyond the Obama-Modi Bromance

The following article originally appeared in the Huffington Post India on January 26, 2015. An excerpt is included below, and the full text can be accessed here

Official negotiations have a tendency to be bogged down in bureaucracies, at one or both ends. And this is particularly true when it comes to technical or legal discussions, when either one or both negotiating teams lacks the authority to stray from their guidelines. Today, high-profile bilateral summits serve a useful function in providing clear deadlines for decisions to be reached, and forcing negotiators to compromise.

Such periodic brinkmanship has been a hallmark of India-U.S. engagement since at least 1998, when India conducted a series of nuclear tests. Bilateral India-US negotiations have been described in detail by the likes of former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Indian scholar and journalist C. Raja Mohan, the Indian Prime Minister's former media adviser Sanjaya Baru, and academic Rudra Chaudhuri in their books, and hint at some of the limitations of bureaucratized working-level talks.

Similar negotiations were taking place over the past few months, and Obama's visit enabled a series of compromises, detailed in the joint statement and a joint press conference. Headlines will undoubtedly be dominated by the two leaders announcing an agreement on civil nuclear liability, an issue that had stymied U.S. civilian nuclear commerce with India despite a U.S.-led initiative between 2005 and 2008 to grant India access to nuclear imports and investments. The lack of compromise had lead to much frustration with India in Washington, and limited cooperation in an area that has important implications for India's energy needs and economic growth.

A further set of agreements relates to defense. In addition to agreeing to a ten-year defence framework agreement, which follows a similar agreement signed in 2005, the two sides agreed to operationalize four small-scale joint defence development initiatives. These include jointly developing and improving tactical Raven drones for battlefield scenarios, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment for C-130J aircraft, protection for soldiers against chemical and biological weapons, and mobile electric hybrid power sources. They also agreed to start talks on the joint development of jet engines and aircraft carriers, which are far more ambitious and long-term.

Finally, the two sides agreed to establish, continue, or strengthen a series of discussions, financing initiatives, and technical information sharing endeavours. These relate to economic growth, energy and the environment, and technological fields such as health and space. While an agreement comparable to that between the United States and China on climate targets was not forthcoming, nor realistically expected, clean energy initiatives find considerable space in the joint statement. Additionally, there were a range of issues related to third countries and regions, the most important of which was the Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.