The upcoming visit of US President Obama as the chief guest for the Republic Day parade has created a lot of hype and expectations on both sides. It also has shown a very positive light as to the statesmanship of of Prime Minister Modi and also the value that President Obama attaches to this relationship. A year ago this would have been inconceivable as the PM did not even have a visa to visit the US but since his becoming the Prime Minister he has reached out to the US in a manner that puts aside any thought about his holding grudges. President Obama facing a stronger Republican opposition has decided that ISIS, Russia, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq are all going to be challenges that are going to live beyond his Presidency and thus he should look for small gains and the US India relationship is the one that has no downside and also has the Republicans support.
Barrack Obama will be the first US President to take salute from Indian troops at Rajpath, creating a history sorts. This will be Obama’s second visit to India; earlier the US President had visited India during his first term in the Oval office, in 2010 when Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister. Like all presidential visits, this will be extensively covered by all world media to the point of exhaustion. So what can we accept on this visit? There are many issues on the agenda, the most important ones in the long run are defense, climate change, bilateral trade, intellectual property rights and civil nuclear agreement.
Defense: The understanding on strategic framework for defense, which was signed earlier, expires this year. It is expected that a new framework will be signed along with Defense Technology Trade Initiative (DTTI). Unite States has become the biggest supplier of arms to India providing C-130, C-17 and P-80 aircraft and heavy lift, attack and VIP helicopters. Under the DTTI, several projects for joint development and production are expected to be initiated.
Climate Change: The issue of climate change is of great concern to both the nations. USA is keen to have India aboard the climate convention summit, which is to be held in Paris at the end of this year.
Trade: On the bilateral trade front negotiations are on to revive the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT). USA is trying to push for early conclusion of BIT to protect Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) of its companies. The big problem here is the pharmaceutical sector. Drug companies in both countries have locked horns over the IPR issues. US Food and Drugs Administration blames Indian Pharmaceuticals for manufacturing patented products in violation of IPRs, when they manufacture affordable generic medicines of patented drugs. On the other hand US based drug companies have been denied patents by India for their drugs. An outcome on this issue is a possibility in this trip of Obama.
Counter terror and cyber security: which are co related in these times of terror, would be another important factor that the two countries need to share a dialogue on and find ways to do it together. Both sides are working to announce closer co-operation on counter terror and fortifying of cyber security, especially on terror funding. The leaders are also expected to discuss the situation in Afghanistan post US withdrawal.
Civil Nuclear Agreement: Another issue to watch is of nuclear. While USA facilitated the wavier for India at Nuclear Supply Group (NSG) for nuclear trade India is yet to open its door for US Nuclear companies to invest in India. The issue of liability has been very challenging for both parties to agree on. There might be a compromise on its way, which might include creating an insurance pool, and part of the liability being guaranteed by India.
Even though this trip will be big on symbolism, there is still a lot of substance that can be covered during this visit. Sometimes it is better to go for singles than a six (using a cricket metaphor). While the headlines have been about:
- Civil Nuclear Agreement
- Climate Change
- Defense Manufacturing
There are some other key small wins that can be done by a President who has a hostile legislature in his last 2 years in power and a Prime Minister with immense political capital:
- Waiver to India for buying LNG from the US: US LNG is the cheapest and plentiful. However since India does not have a FTA it has to go through a very cumbersome process that takes years for approval. President Obama could give India a waiver to cut through the red tape.
- Setting up a US India Cyber Security Forum: The Sony attack, ISIS taking down the US Central Command Social media accounts show that the US with all its technological might is not immune to cyber attacks. The same applies to Indian security apparatus. The two countries should setup a joint task force and forum to promote exchange but incubate technologies and companies that can be a shield on these attacks
- US India STEM teachers program: The US has over 100,000 STEM teachers shortage and the Prime Minister has always talked about exporting teachers. This could be an arrangement where these teachers have to teach in US inner cities and assist them with their Science, Technology and Math skills
These are all very doable items and not controversial and will get Republican support in the US Congress.