New York: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with President Barack Obama on Friday in what may be his last visit to the White House to cement defense and military ties and burnish his legacy: the India-US civil nuclear energy deal.
Hours before his sit-down with Obama, Singh’s challenger within his own party, Rahul Gandhi, embarrassed the prime minister by hitting out at a controversial ordinance aimed at protecting convicted lawmakers. Gandhi rubbished the ordinance passed by the Cabinet as “nonsense,” creating a predictable media titter.
Singh ignored the brouhaha back home and got down to serious business with Obama. He swept aside India’s skittishness about being identified as a US ally. Both sides have used euphemisms like “natural partners” to get around becoming formal treaty allies. But on Friday they came right out and said they ''share common security interests and place each other at the same level as their closest partners.''
Co-development of weapon systems
Both China and Pakistan are likely to sit up and take note that the two sides produced a Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation, separate from the Joint Statement, to codify and announce their defence relationship.
Expanding on the 2005 Framework Agreement which first initiated the military relationship, the two sides said the principle of treating each other as “closest partners” will apply with respect to defence technology transfer, trade, research, co-development and co-production for defence articles, and services, ''including the most advanced and sophisticated technology.''
The declaration said the US supports India's membership in the four international export control regimes, which would further boost technology sharing.
Last week, US Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton Carter proposed ways to deepen defence ties between the US and India through co-development of the next version of the Javelin anti-tank missile now built by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. The two sides didn't mention the Javelin project on Friday, but committed to intensifying their partnership in co-development and co-production.
"The two sides look forward to the identification of specific opportunities for cooperative and collaborative projects in advanced defence technologies and systems, within the next year," said the Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation.
The US has sold close to $8 billion worth of arms to India in the last five years.
"This is the new frontier of Indo-US relations," said Nirupama Rao, India's ambassador to Washington. "And it is a very promising one at that."
Washington also sees a strong India as an important ally in Asia to counterbalance China. India now conducts more military exercises with the US than any other country and is working with US forces to bolster maritime security and combat piracy. On Friday, President Obama welcomed India’s decision to participate in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise hosted by US Pacific Command in 2014.
Fighting terrorism together
America’s military drawdown in Afghanistan has upset the balance in the region. India is concerned that once US troops pull out of Afghanistan by 2014 a resurgent Taliban will allow Afghanistan to become a haven for Islamic jihadists obsessed with Kashmir. Without the American security umbrella Afghanistan could revert to the kind of chaos that beset it in the mid-1990s from which the Taliban grew all-powerful.
"We both have a shared interest in making sure that Afghanistan continues on its path to a peaceful democratic country," Obama said in an effort to reassure India.
Singh said he told the president of the difficulties he faces, given that the "epicenter of terrors still remains focused in Pakistan."
Both leaders called for Pakistan to work toward bringing the perpetrators of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks to justice.
“The leaders decided to significantly expand information sharing and intelligence cooperation to address threats to their respective nations including strengthening the bilateral relationship to exchange information on known and suspected terrorists,” said the joint statement.
They also looked at the importance of exchanges on megacity policing strategies and anti-counterfeiting efforts. America has been successful in using the advanced XPAK bomb detection system in Iraq and Afghanistan, to quickly detect trace levels of conventional high-explosives, including TNT, DNT, Tetryl, RDX, C-4, PE-4, PETN, Semtex and nitroglycerin. India may be interested in the latest American bomb detection devices for smashing clandestine terrorist bomb-making facilities.
Good news for Indians travellers to US
India welcomed the US offer of membership in the US “Global Entry” Trusted Traveler Network Program. This is a US border protection program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers. Though intended for frequent international travelers, there is no minimum number of trips required to qualify for the program.
Participants can enter the US by using automated kiosks located at airports. This is a big break for Indian travelers as the program is currently open only to US citizens, Netherlands residents, and Mexican and Canadian citizens.
Nuclear thaw: Westinghouse and NPCIL sign pact
A big idea unfulfilled can lead to disillusionment as with the two countries’ civil nuclear deal, so both governments are trying to create an impression of progress. Casting a positive light on possibilities for the future, Obama said that in the last few days, the first commercial agreement has been reached between a US company and India on civilian nuclear power. He was alluding to a pre-early works agreement between Westinghouse and Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL).
For several years, Westinghouse has been in talks with state-run NPCIL that would pave the way for construction of an AP-1000 nuclear power plant in Gujarat. Westinghouse even signed a memorandum of understanding with NPCIL in June last year to work towards a contract for preliminary licensing and site development in Gujarat.
The preliminary deal with Westinghouse does not involve putting in place nuclear equipment, so will not brush up against the liability issue, Indian officials said. A preliminary contract between Westinghouse and NPCIL would be limited in scope to site assessments.
A final contract will still take years as both sides still have to resolve the problem that has dogged nuclear negotiations: India’s 2010 Nuclear Liability Act that hands American companies large financial liabilities in the event of an accident.
Toning down expectations from Sharif meeting
Obama praised Singh for his "consistent interest in improving cooperation" between India and Pakistan. Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, are expected to meet in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Sunday. Singh said he was looking forward to his meeting with Sharif, but recalibrated expectations.
"The expectations have to be toned down given the terror arm which is still active in our subcontinent," Singh said.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has adopted the position that there is no point talking to Sharif if he is unable to prevent attacks like this week’s twin assault in Kashmir by suspected Pakistan-based militants.
Before Singh’s comments, Sharif addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Friday said he is looking forward to meeting the Indian prime minister to "make a new beginning" in the relationship. Aware of the Indian outcry against Sunday’s talks, Sharif painted Pakistan as a fellow-victim of terrorism.
“We have lost 40,000 precious lives of men, women and children, which include 8,000 defence and security personnel. There have been colossal damages to social and physical infrastructure as well. Our economy has been denied the opportunity to grow fully,” said Sharif. “This must change now.”
Sharif then talked of the resources Pakistan and India had wasted in an arms race mostly directed at each other.
“We stand ready to re-engage with India in a substantive and purposeful dialogue. I am looking forward to meeting Prime Minister Singh here in New York to make a new beginning,” said Sharif.
“We have a solid basis to do that. We can build on the Lahore Accord signed in 1999, which contained a road map for the resolution of our differences through peaceful negotiations,” he added.
The composite dialogue, which has made uneven progress since it was launched in 2004, has added more train and bus links but has been in a long hiatus since the 2008 Mumbai attacks and cross-border terrorism.
Sharif is likely to keep pushing the Kashmir issue onto any talk’s agenda. On Friday, he pressed the UN to work towards the implementation of the right of self-determination in Kashmir.