Posts Tagged ‘Republic Day’

The hug and how it changes things

29 January 2015 2 comments

In the last few days, Indian news has been dominated by news of the US President’s visit to India. The visit is significant at many levels: firstly, it is the visit of a head of state to India, secondly, it is the United States’ President and thirdly, and probably most significantly, it is as Chief Guest for the Republic Day Parade. Hitherto, chief guests at the annual parade had been from a variety of countries. The big ones, to mention a few, have been the Queen (1961) and the UK Prime Minister (1993), the Russian President (2007), the French President (multiple times with the last in 2008) and the Japanese Prime Minister (2014). The glaring absentee in this list has been the President of the United States. Well that changed this year when apparently Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled off a coup of sorts by successfully inviting the dignitary to the parade that showcases India’s military capability and cultural diversity. An unprecedented event, the visit was sure to generate a lot of fanfare. I mean, imagine the amount of publicity that President Clinton’s or President Bush’s visit to India generated. And that wasn’t even to attend the Republic Day parade. Amidst preparations for the mega event, unfortunate news of the demise of the Saudi Arabian King Salman flowed in barely a day before the POTUS was scheduled to land in the nation’s capital. As a result, President Obama had to cut short his visit to India, his Taj visit falling victim to the more pressing need to visit Saudi Arabia to pay respect and condolences for the departed King. The roughly three day visit disappointed in that there were no bombshell announcements made. Over the last couple of days, the Indian PM met the visiting leader behind closed doors and also convened a meeting with the top industrialists of the country (again behind closed doors). The press and media were left clutching at straws, forced to highlight trivial things like the POTUS chewing gum during the parade and Mr. Modi’s suit whose pinstripes were actually his own name written in tiny letters.

The recent India visit of the US President could be a harbinger for great things

The recent India visit of the US President could be a harbinger for great things

The visit however had a lot of strong undercurrents that could drive Indo-US relations not only in the near future but even on a long term basis. The hug that Mr. Modi doled out to the visiting President was significant. It was a show of faith, one that Mr. Modi had reserved for a select few like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Tony Abbott. When Mr. Modi had visited the US last year he had shaken hands with his hosts. A similar treatment had been meted out to visiting dignitaries like the President of the PRC amongst others. So in a way Mr. Obama was upgraded to the “hug” when he landed in New Delhi earlier in the week. It was, as I mentioned earlier, an inclusion into an inner circle, a circle of trust. And this is not unprecedented. In 2007, India along with Australia, Japan and the US was involved in a slew of interactions that culminated in joint military exercises carried out in the Indian Ocean under the able stewardship and aegis of the nuclear powered USS Nimitz. Malabar-2007 was the first time the annual Indo-US Malabar exercises were expanded to include more countries and as many as 25 naval vessels. China felt insecure and filed formal protests with New Delhi, Washington, Canberra and Tokyo even before the informal interactions had begun citing what they called a “mini NATO” and demanding details of the interactions. Not interested in raising a conflagration, Japan and Australia backed out soon after Malabar-2007. Both, PM Howard and PM Abe, going out of power may have had a major role to play in this. India had anyway not been very convinced about the concept from the start and so things fizzled out. This time however things seem to be a bit different. Inviting President Obama to the Republic Day parade may have been a subtle demonstration of our military capability for his benefit. Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama reportedly discussed multiple topics in their closed doors meeting but it is believed that China and her presence in the Asian context were extensively discussed. Almost on expected lines, their joint statement announced an upgrade to the Malabar exercise.

The US obviously identifies China as a major economic power and in some ways as a threat to the stability of their own economy, what with China holding over a trillion dollars worth of US treasury bonds. India, on the other hand, has been thwarted entry into the UN Security Council as a permanent member multiple times through a Chinese veto. Additionally, the increasing affordability of Chinese manufactured goods puts pressure not only on India’s exports but, and more significantly, even on their domwestic markets where Chinese substitute goods have become cheaper than locally manufactured items especially in electronics, toys, etc. The move by Mr. Modi (possibly to recreate the four way partnership) is to place India as a preferred partner for US relations in the South East Asian region. There is also the ever present ambition to join the list of US allies to receive the preferential treatment meted out to such highly placed friends and while the US is a fickle ally, it is still better than having the US neutral, or worse antagonised, towards us.

What Mr. Modi has done then is fire an opening shot to build Indo-US relations. In 2007, the quadrilateral talks, termed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, were triggered by Prime Minister Abe and supported by US Vice President Dick Cheney, Australian PM John Howard and Indian PM Dr. Manmohan Singh. While the interactions themselves were informal, they culminated in the biggest ever Malabar Exercise. The partnership broke up soon after following protests from Beijing. This time, through the efforts of Mr. Modi, the QSD seems to be reconvening. India has forever played the fine act of balancing regional escalation while at the same time competing with Beijing. Now it seems, India is ready to take the bull by the horns and actually get moving forward. Bear in mind though that these are just the preliminaries and a lot is yet to be shaped. The intents will now flow into the strategic machinery of the two leaders thus allowing both countries (or if possible, all 4 members of the quadrilateral) to come up with a strategy that would suit the short and long term goals of all nations involved.

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