Obama’s opportunity with India and its new leader

When the new Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, visits the White House this week, President Obama should seize the opportunity to revive and rebuild an important relationship with a key Asian partner that has fallen on hard times in recent years.

In strategic terms, there are few countries more important to Washington than India, the dominant power in the Indian Ocean region and, with Japan, the most important U.S. partner in Asia seeking to limit Chinese assertiveness in the region. But, from the start of the Obama administration, India has never been a top priority and the long-term U.S. project to cement a strategic future with India is currently adrift. To be fair, Obama has had a multitude of critical short-term crises — Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Russia — to contend with. But overlooking India has had a price. Seeming U.S. indifference and an Indian government under former prime minister Manmohan Singh in domestic gridlock combined to put the two countries at odds on global trade, climate change, Iran and Russia.

All that could change with the arrival of the charismatic and strong-willed Modi this week. After one of the most decisive electoral victories in India’s history, Modi has become a presidential-style leader with striking power and credibility to lead India in new directions. One of his primary ambitions is to renew relations with Washington.

More than anything else, he is seeking greater U.S. investment and trade to further his top priority — to get the Indian economy moving again after alarmingly low growth rates during the past two years. Modi and Obama can begin by agreeing to conclude a long-sought bilateral investment treaty and to jump-start collaboration on science and technology, space research and the environment.

Modi’s key question in Washington, however, will be whether Obama sees India as a vital U.S. partner in Asia. Many Indians fear the United States ultimately will limit its strategic political and military engagement with Delhi in deference to a paranoid Pakistani leadership. They predict the United States will fall short of a full strategic partnership with India to avoid stoking resentments in China as well. India, after all, was never really described by the Obama team as a key partner in the Asia pivot.

Modi, however, has made clear from his first day in office that he intends to cement a security partnership with Japan— a positive for America’s own strategic ambitions in the region. He will look to Obama for assurances that the United States will accelerate growing U.S.-India security ties to balance China’s growing military power. At the same time, Modi will want further U.S. help in confronting terrorist threats from Pakistani-based groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and in dealing with multiplying cyber-challenges.

Obama has learned, as did his predecessors, that, despite all the promise of strategic engagement with India, that country can also be a difficult and sometimes disputatious friend. India has been a consistent spoiler in global trade talks and overly protectionist at home. Its environment minister said at the United Nations last week that India would not join the United States in undertaking a major effort to diminish its rising carbon emissions (now third highest in the world). India has also been an irresolute supporter of U.S. efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And Obama would be within his rights to ask Modi to repeal India’s discriminatory nuclear liability law, which scuttled the historic U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement.

Despite these differences, the upside of future U.S. strategic ties to India is obvious. With Modi’s arrival in Washington, Obama has a rare second chance to get India right after this country’s ties with Delhi atrophied over the past two years. A U.S.-India renaissance would bring the added benefit of clear bipartisan support at home. Bill Clinton began the U.S. effort to define a more practical foreign policy partnership with India at the end of his time in office. George W. Bush had great success in molding close security and counterterrorism connections to the Indian government. There is a Republican-Democratic consensus in Washington that India can be one of our central 21st-century partners. Now it is time for Obama to make his mark with India.