Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2016-06-06 09:13:00 Published on Jun 06, 2016
Sense of urgency over South China Sea explains PM Modi’s US Visit

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fourth visit to the United States, scheduled from June 7-8, begins on the day when his host President Barack Obama will officially become lame duck.

With Donald Trump becoming the official Republican nominee for the US presidential elections that will take place in November, on June 7 the voters in California will probably seal the candidacy of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee, whether or not she wins the primary.

So the first question that comes to mind is why is Modi undertaking an official working visit to meet a President who will begin packing up to leave on that date?

Had Modi some pressing issue, say an emerging Kargil-like crisis, or the need to give the last push to some key Indo-American issue or project, his visit would have been been understandable. But there is nothing on the Indo-US agenda that can’t wait for a new US President who will take office eight months from now in January 2017.

Pretext of PM Modi’s visit to US

The government explanations are simple, if a trifle ingenuous: At their meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit, this April, President Obama asked a couple of world leaders to drop in on him later this year. Prime Minister Modi accepted the invite and so he’s going.

The second, and somewhat lamer, pretext is that the PM has been invited to address the joint session of the US Congress. But as the timing of the US Speaker’s invitation shows, the invite followed the decision on the visit. It is not as though there is some crucial legislation pending for which Modi needs to lobby the US Congress whose entire House of Representatives and one–third of the Senate will be up for elections in November as well. This is a ceremonial event, a sign of close India-US relations and all Indian PMs who served out a term or two have been invited to do so since Rajiv Gandhi did in June 1985, Narasimha Rao in May 1994, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in September 2000, and Manmohan Singh in July 2005.

Neither does the Administration now have time to discuss and deliver on its promises to get India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group or the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The more likely item is an issue related to regional politics.

Deepening military ties

India has been kept away from the quadrilateral dealing with Afghanistan, so that issue is probably the specifics that Modi agreed to when he signed up on a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean with Obama in January 2015. As part of this the two sides affirmed the importance of “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” Further, they said they would “develop a roadmap… to better respond to diplomatic, economic and security challenges in the region.”

That roadmap has seen discussions between the two sides on joint patrols and calls by the US to India to sign on to three “foundational agreements” that would deepen their military ties. In February, credible reports appeared in the media suggesting that India and the US could launch joint naval patrols within the year in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

A couple of days later, though, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar clarified that there would be no joint patrols “for now”, but the following month he did agree with his US counterpart Ashton Carter on an “in-principle agreement” to conclude a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement. This would enable the two sides to access each other’s bases for logistics support, including refuelling of aircraft and warships.

Countering China’s Influence

The importance of the Modi visit could stem from the sense of urgency the US has on the rapidly deteriorating situation in the South China Sea. Sometime in June, the arbitral court will read out its verdict on the Philippines complaint disputing Chinese claims on some South China Sea islands. Most observers say that this could go against China which has already adopted a tough posture and rejected the verdict in advance and denounced the court.

Such a situation can have serious consequences. It would torpedo the prevailing international law of the seas, more important, it could take the US on a direct collision course with China in the region.

None of this is to argue that Modi will do what the US wants, but you can’t blame Uncle Sam for trying. As the Indian Prime Minister he will undoubtedly keep India’s interests to the fore. There is nothing to indicate that the government wants to get involved in the quagmire of competing claims in the South China Sea. New Delhi’s game is subtle – it is aimed at keeping Beijing off balance, much the same way that China keeps India misbalanced in South Asia. Neither side wants to tip the other over because that could have unforeseen consequences.

(This article first appeared in

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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