On America’s 21st-century global chessboard, few countries are as important to our long-term fortunes as India. That is why the recent visit of the new Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to Washington and New York was so much anticipated.
Modi had been barred from the United States for nearly a decade over allegations he did not act decisively to stop savage revenge killings of Muslims in 2002 when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat. All that seems forgotten now that he is prime minister. Indeed, Modi spoke before 20,000 admiring Indian-Americans in New York’s Madison Square Garden at an event that had all the hallmarks of a political rally.
But, curiously, Modi said very little publicly about what is normally the centerpiece of a foreign leader’s visit to the United States — what he wants his own government to achieve in trade, security ties, and political cooperation with the US government. His public remarks seemed transported from his recent electoral campaign in India and were remarkably thin on the traditional subject of India’s diplomatic ties to the United States itself. Apart from a joint op-ed published with President Obama, he focused almost exclusively on the need to jump-start India’s sluggish economy, make India into a manufacturing titan, and rebuild the country’s sagging infrastructure. It is certainly understandable why Modi chose to emphasize business and economics. That is his central mandate as India’s new leader. But in offering so little about his priorities with the Obama administration, he missed an opportunity to signal how he intends to put his own imprint on the government-to-government relationship that is so important to both countries.
This was not an insignificant omission. From Washington’s perspective, India is one of its key potential global partners on nearly all of the most significant issues for the next decade. India’s increasingly powerful naval and air forces can join with those of other like-minded democracies to check Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. India will be an influential force for stability in Afghanistan as NATO begins to draw down its military presence. India shares some of America’s core concerns about the terrorist threat from radical Islamist forces based in Pakistan. And New Delhi will be central to whether or not a global agreement on climate change is reached in 2015. For these reasons and more, India is a core priority partner for the United States.
It is thus important that Modi move in the coming months to define in more concrete terms just how closely aligned he will be with America’s strategic aims in South and East Asia as his predecessors, former Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, clearly were. Here are just a few, key questions Americans should want to hear Modi answer in the months ahead. Is he willing to retire India’s antique allegiance to nonalignment and reorient its future to a closer relationship with Washington on homeland security, counter terrorism, and military cooperation? Will he work more closely with the United States than the previous Congress-led government on some of the tough problems of the Middle East — Iran and the struggle against ISIS and a recalcitrant Syrian government? Will New Delhi continue to be a spoiler on global trade?
President Obama has more than two years left in his term to strengthen America’s position in Asia — one of his central priorities. His administration has signaled clearly that it wants to strengthen ties with New Delhi. The ball is now in India’s court to make clear where America stands in Modi’s long-term foreign policy calculations. Few priorities are as important for both countries.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.