Modi's US visit seeks to boost flagging ties

By R. Lakshminarayan in New Delhi Published: 2014-9-28 19:29:16

India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a landmark visit to the US, vowing to reboot relations that had been on the downswing for the past few years.

The September 26-30 visit is Modi's first to the US after his becoming prime minister and has Washington laying down the red carpet for the Indian leader whose entry the US had banned nine years ago over riots in Gujarat state in 2002 while he was chief minister.

Modi, whose nearly 13-year rule as chief minister of Gujarat saw a remarkable turnaround in the state's economy, infrastructure and people's prosperity levels, was wooed actively by Washington early this year when it became clear that he was headed to become the leader of a nation of over 1.2 billion people.

Modi has given enough indications that he will not allow the US' past behavior towards him to cloud bilateral ties.

Ahead of his visit, Modi gave his first interview after becoming prime minister to CNN's Fareed Zakaria. To a question on whether it is possible for the US and India to "develop a genuinely strategic alliance", Modi said, "I have a one word answer, and with great confidence I say – yes."

He said there are many similarities between the US and India and acknowledged that there have been ups and downs in the relationship.

Ties between India and the US had flagged over the past few years, and sunk further when last year an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip searched for alleged visa fraud. The incident saw both sides locked in a bitter stand-off for a few months.

But both the countries are keen to renew ties again.

"A very warm welcome is being planned for Mr Modi. The US has very high hopes from this visit," a US diplomatic source said declining to be named.

In preparation for Modi's visit, the Obama administration in August sent its topmost officials, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, to lay the ground for the red carpet welcome they are preparing for Modi who is holding summit talks with Obama in Washington.

In a rare gesture, Obama has invited Modi to a quiet dinner with him on September 29.

In his departure statement prior to the visit, Modi said he views the US as a "vital partner for our national development."

He said he will discuss with Obama "how we can use the strength of all that we share and all that we have built so far to take our relationship to a new level in the interest of our two countries and the cause of this world. I am confident that the visit will mark the start of a new chapter in our strategic partnership."

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, that appeared on September 26, the day he landed in New York, the prime minister wrote, "India and the US have a fundamental stake in each other's success — for the sake of our values and our many shared interests. That is also the imperative of our partnership. And it will be of great value in advancing peace, security and stability in the Asia and Pacific regions; in the unfinished and urgent task of combating terrorism and extremism; and in securing our seas, cyber space and outer space, all of which now have a profound influence on our daily lives."

Trade and investment is expected to top the agenda of bilateral talks as Modi is seeking to push up manufacturing in a big way in order to create jobs. The other areas of focus would be renewable energy, defense, railways, the government's 100 cities plan and climate change.

In their bilateral talks, Modi and Obama are set to touch on global issues. Setting the tone, Modi in his interview with CNN openly backed Russia and China. He refused to criticize Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and reiterated trust in China's handling of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. When asked whether India is as worried about China's "behavior in the East and South China Seas," Modi said he has faith in Beijing's understanding and its commitment to global laws.

A significant part of the Modi-Obama talks is to focus on bilateral cooperation in third countries, especially in Southeast Asia, Africa and Afghanistan.

The US is known to be keen on participating in connectivity projects through Myanmar, like the Trilateral Highway that is set to connect northeast India – from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand, via Mandalay and Yangon in Myanmar.

The US is believed to have expressed its willingness to provide funding for such connectivity projects.

In response to a question on whether the US interest in connectivity projects in Southeast Asia marked another step in its "rebalance" strategy in Asia, noted strategic expert Uday Bhaskar told the Global Times. "One envisages that Obama and Modi would be talking about how the US plans to reposition itself, what you call rebalance; and India's own engagement now with other Asian countries would be more of ‘Look East and Link West' as the formulation of Modi."

"What India is doing with Vietnam, with Australia, these would be very useful as there is strategic underpinning. One expects this to figure in the Modi-Obama dialogue – that what the US is planning to do in Asia, and what India is planning to do in terms of its bilateral relations and see where there are correspondences, particularly in the maritime and naval domain, because much of the rebalance has to do with maritime issues," Bhaskar said.

Former Indian envoy G. Parthasarathy said he does not see anything controversial about the US joining in connectivity projects in Southeast Asia. "Fair enough, after all we are talking of connecting with China through Myanmar. I would welcome it."

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