Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pulled off yet another diplomatic coup by getting the US President Barack Obama to be the chief guest at the Republic Day Parade.
This is the first time a US President is going to grace the occasion and the first time that a US President is making a second visit to India during his presidency. That in itself speaks of the importance India holds in the US strategic vision.
For someone who is barely six months in office, this is a major diplomatic feat to pull off and the Indian diplomatic community has never had it so good or have had their hands this full, in a long time. Ever since Narendra Modi took over as PM, he has been on a diplomatic offensive, wherein he has carried forward the momentum of positive sentiment to the diplomatic arena and it is working.
To his credit, the man has shown spunk that would be the envy of many a leader and he has been holding his own, as was seen in his meetings with global leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot.
Why is this visit so significant?
Firstly, the coming together of leaders of the oldest and the largest democracies on an occasion like the Republic Day is symbolic in itself and a reaffirmation of the success of democracy.
At a diplomatic level, President Obama’s prompt acceptance of Narendra Modi’s personal invitation to attend the parade gives out two strong messages to the global community — one, that India matters to the US, and two, that India means business.
At the strategic level, the visit is important to both countries. The US is keen to engage with India and position the country as its trusted partner in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region to counter China’s growing diplomatic and economic clout.
From an American perspective, the US needs India more than India needs the US. China’s rising military and economic status and America’s declining diplomatic influence, is a cause for US worry and it needs to strengthen its alliances, especially in the APAC region, as it now hosts two of the rising powerhouses, China and India.
On a military level, the US is keen to see India develop as a potent force, to keep the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean region safe and open. To check the Chinese influence in the APAC region, the US would like to develop and strengthen an alliance involving India, Australia, Japan and the perhaps Indonesia, at a later stage.
The challenge for the US is that India and Australia have an increasing economic agenda with China, while Japan is already a major trading partner with China, with massive investment. Given the recent high pitch military posturing by China regarding the dispute over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, Japan would be keen on an alliance to check China dominating the seas.
However, both Australia and India are in the process of pursuing their own agenda and engagement with China, therefore, it will be interesting to see how Narendra Modi does the balancing act of keeping the US on board while engaging China on the economic and the diplomatic front.
The US has been losing its diplomatic influence in the Middle East and with rising resentment against the US, it is keen to use India’s outreach in the Central Asian region to influence and check rising Islamic militancy. Therefore, India emerges as an important factor in the American strategic plan.
After the drubbing received at the hands of the Republicans back home, the Obama administration is keen to show some economic and diplomatic gains and the timing of the India visit fits perfectly. If the visit can catalyse the business opportunity for US industry, especially the defence, President Obama will have something to smile about.
From an Indian perspective, the country has been cautious about jumping onto the US bandwagon. India realises that the US is known to pursue its own interests over those of their strategic partners and should there be a military confrontation, however limited, between India and China, the US can or will do little, given its financial exposure to massive Chinese investment.
Sharing defence technology
But India still needs the US, as it continues to develop its military-industrial capabilities. The US is going to remain on the forefront in developing cutting edge defence technology and India will need that technology to augment its own capability. Although the US has been reticent in offering complete transfer of technology thus far, keeping the US engaged in a strategic dialogue will be to India’s advantage.
Signs of the US opening up on sharing defence technology can be seen with their offer to co-develop the fourth generation Javelin Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) with India. The Modi government, however, has chosen the Israeli Spike ATGM to be manufactured in India.
Meanwhile, Modi’s aggressive outreach to the international community is beginning to pay dividends and the timing is just right. The global economy is on a recovery path and with US business beginning to gain ground, American investment will now start seeking investment opportunities in emerging markets and India is well placed as an attractive option, ahead of China.
Modi seems to be the right man, at the right time and at the right place, to seize this opportunity to drive home the India advantage. India needs investment, big investment and with Modi initiating reforms, the coming time will see a surge in investment inflows. This Republic Day is going to be like no other and if that happens, history may just look back on a year that belonged to one man, Narendra Modi.