For the week leading up to the Prime Minister of India’s arrival to Washington, DC, the first State Visit for the Obama Administration, the anticipation in this city was noticeable, a temporary relief from the gloomy winter in an even gloomier economy. Policymakers and pundits in the city and region described the importance of this meeting between the world’s largest democracy and the oldest, but also cautioned that India was not to be easily wooed by the young American president. To add masala to the upcoming meeting, a few days prior to Manmohan Singh’s landing at the White House, the US signed a joint statement with the Chinese Government that acknowledged a role for China in India-Pakistan relations, a sensitive relationship for which India has expressly refused third-party involvement.
The Prime Minister of India has now departed the nation’s capital. The tri-colored tiranga, the Indian flags, no longer line the streets near the White House. The coverage on the news, here in the US and even in India, has dissipated into how an unknown couple “crashed” the much publicized White House State Dinner on Wednesday night. And, now the United States redirects its focus back to the turmoil of the region neighboring India as President Obama prepares to unveil his strategy in Afghanistan on Tuesday evening.
There has been little coverage on how Prime Minister Singh’s visit with President Obama fared, the achievements, and the implications for the future of US-India relations. In his lead up to our web forum prior to the visit, Shuja Nawaz asked, “Expectations are high. Will they be met?” Therefore, it seems appropriate to ask, were they?
It is clear that the goal of building a stronger strategic relationship between the US and India was achieved, although deeper challenges remain and will not be resolved merely by the pomp and circumstance of this state visit. Much of the public dialogue touched upon the strong and growing economic ties between the United States and India, the global financial crisis, India’s avoidance of a meltdown, and the Prime Minister’s assurance that India was in need of and open to additional investment by the Americans. As a kick off to Prime Minister Singh’s arrival, the White House unveiled the US-India CEO Forum, to strengthen economic relations between the two countries. In addition, the Indian Prime Minister seemed pleased with the American President’s reassurance of the US Government’s commitment to finalizing the historic civil nuclear accord, although crucial details have yet to be worked out. He expressed his country’s willingness in working with the US regarding climate change, and the two countries signed various MOUs regarding education and development, health, economic trade, and agriculture, as well as one on “Advancing Global Security and Countering Terrorism.” The visit also demonstrated the growing influence and affluence of the members of the Indian-American community, who were a significant presence throughout the activities surrounding the Prime Minister’s trip.
The week of Prime Minister Singh’s visit coincided with the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks that brought South Mumbai under siege on November 26, 2008, and he used the opportunity to urge greater action against terrorist networks in Pakistan that may be responsible for such acts. In addition, he re-affirmed India’s commitment to achieving stability in Afghanistan and encouraged the United States and other countries to provide it with “sustained support.” One can assume that the Obama Administration used this visit to consult with the Indians, behind closed doors, on the White House strategy in Afghanistan.
In short, expectations of a fruitful visit between Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh, covering a wide breadth of issues, were met. No surprises (except for the party-crashing couple, of course), and the Obama Administration was able to provide the Indians with undivided attention, a rare occurrence given the recent priorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the real test of this growing relationship will continue to occur in the coming months and years as India finds its footing as a regional and global power.
In fact, the events following the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington, DC may be more indicative of the direction of the U.S.-India relationship and India’s growing regional and global prominence. On Saturday, India joined China, Brazil and South Africa in a collective approach to the upcoming climate change discussions in Copenhagen next month, representing the first major India-China accord in international affairs. On the same day, India joined the US, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China in voting in favor of the new resolution against Iran’s nuclear program, but qualified that it not be the basis of a “renewed punitive approach or new sanctions” against Iran. Both of these steps demonstrate India’s increasingly important role in determining the course of global and regional issues and self-determinism in their strategic relations with other countries, which may or may not necessarily serve US interests.
As a follow-up to our online forum, “Passage to America,” the Atlantic Council asked experts on the region to contribute their thoughts on the results of the Singh visit to Washington DC.
Shikha Bhatnagar is associate director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.