NEW DELHI – U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to India and his chemistry with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have resulted in bilateral advances that were more symbolic than substantial in nature, although they have opened the door to a re-energization of relations between both countries, which had frozen in recent years.
The world’s two largest democracies announced the renewal of their defense agreement and advances in a civil nuclear energy deal over the course of Obama’s visit last week, during which he became the first U.S. president ever to preside over India’s annual Republic Day parade.
After the ties between the countries had deteriorated and even frozen in the past decade, culminating with the arrest in 2013 of an Indian diplomat in New York, Obama’s presence in New Delhi can be considered a great achievement from a symbolic and political point of view, Happymon Jacob, professor of international policy at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Efe.
“It’s good news that they are improving ties. It will keep India centered, though I don’t expect anything spectacular to happen in the next one or two years,” predicted Jacob.
Of the wide range of topics discussed between Jan. 25-27, the civil nuclear energy deal got the most attention from both parties as they reached an agreement on the matter of liability in case of an accident, an issue that had paralyzed negotiations for six years.
Both countries agreed to the creation of an insurance fund, financed by the Indian government, that would cover up to about $244 million of the costs in case of an accident at a nuclear plant, where liability would lie with the installations’ operator.
The final decision would nevertheless remain in the hands of companies interested in entering the Indian nuclear energy market, warned W.P.S. Sidhu, an expert at Brookings Research.
According to Sidhu, resolving the energy debate is essential for making progress in other areas.
As to matters of defense, another key area taken up by Modi and Obama, India and the U.S. signed a renewed military cooperation pact and made the first joint declaration ever regarding both countries’ strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific region.
In the statement, both countries highlighted the importance of ensuring freedom to navigate in or fly over the South China Sea, which is currently embroiled in territorial disputes between several countries in southeast Asia.
China responded to the statement by declaring that the conflict needed to be resolved directly by the parties involved.
“Before, India was unwilling to act as a provider of security (in the Asia-Pacific region); now it is ready to go out, though it has not made any formal commitments,” Sidhu said regarding India’s stance towards the world’s two main superpowers.
However, this does not mean that India is going to team up with the U.S. to contain China, as “it cannot afford to have problems” with Beijing and “any negative move” could lead to tensions along their shared borders, professor Jacob explained.
Besides, China, led by President Xi Jinping, is a key ally of India’s main enemy, Pakistan, possessing heavy influence over the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, talks between Modi and Obama failed to advance when it came to renewing the anti-terror agreement against radical groups in Pakistan.
According to Jacob, such cooperation could materialize in the future through the sharing of intelligence on Pakistan, as the United States possessed more resources for information-gathering.
Obama put the finishing touches on his visit with a powerful speech that included a social message, in which he underlined the importance of women’s rights and religious freedom, two areas that still require much attention in India, a country governed by a Hindu-majority nationalist party and populated by a diverse array of minority groups.
The Hinduist Indian prime minister will need to comply with Washington’s petition and ensure religious freedom or risk damaging his government’s reputation and dampening relations between the India and the U.S., warned Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, in an article published in the local daily The Hindu.