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A man is known by the company he keeps. So is a country

January 28, 2015 14:23 IST

'Modi and Obama both had agendas that went beyond the nuclear deal. The threat from the chilly Himalayas had to be tackled in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

Obama and Modi

President Barack Obama would not have changed the date of his State of the Union Address, flown over the oceans, taken the risk of letting the world know more than a month in advance that he would be under the open sky in Rajpath for more than two hours, exposed himself to Russian aircraft flying too close to him for comfort, learnt many Hindi phrases, savoured Gujarati dishes and spent two nights in Delhi to secure a 'breakthrough' on the nuclear liability issue or to renew a defence agreement.

Nuclear trade with India was not his priority. He could well have accomplished them without leaving the White House.

Modi too would not have walked for an hour on the Hyderabad House lawn, talking about the minute details of the insurance pool to let the American companies off the hook on liability law.

Nor was it necessary for him to spend weeks together to make a 'lame duck' President's visit historical.

They both had agendas that went beyond these mundane matters. The threat from the chilly Himalayas had to be tackled in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

Obama came in search for a legacy for himself as the man who took the dragon by its non-existent horns. He had sensed that India was ready to be the kingpin of the Asian Pivot he had proposed earlier.

He had also sensed that Modi's disappointment with China and Pakistan would drive him to an American embrace. The legacy Obama wants to leave behind is a new map of the Asia Pacific, in which India, Japan and Australia would find common cause with the United States rather than with China.

He came close to making a beginning by handing a draft declaration on Asia Pacific to Modi, which the latter could not resist. Modi made it known in his joint presser that the visit was in the context of the increased relevance of the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

India did not sign on to a US-India-Japan Australia axis, but as the Chinese caught on in no time, Modi revealed his inclination to bank on the US for India's security and prosperity.

The message came loud and clear in the statement on the Asia Pacific, which stated, 'Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.'

'We call on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.'

As against this forthright statement of intent and the progress over liability law and defence agreements, Obama's disappointment over disagreement on climate change paled into insignificance.

Obama, therefore, played up the personal chemistry, though he addressed Modi as Namo only a couple of times, while Modi insisted on addressing Obama as Barack repeatedly. Both knew that, at least for the next two years, they would have to work together, given the start that they have made in identifying the complementarities.

They have to walk and talk longer to fashion an arrangement, which would ensure that China rose as peacefully as possible and did not threaten peace in Asia and the world.

And yet, the volumes of words generated in Delhi, perhaps, the largest in any India-US summit, did not add up to a containment of China alliance.

Space has been left for other nations, including China, to be part of the new configuration that is envisaged. The vision of Shinzo Abe has also been incorporated into the framework. The fact that the major countries in the region have more engagement with China than they have with each other weighs heavily in the formulations.

For this reason, the Chinese reaction was not only a blend of surprise and indignation, but also expectation that the US-India partnership will not turn hostile to it.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj may have much to explain to her Chinese hosts, but she will not face hostility when she travels to Beijing this weekend. Some more rabbits may come out of Modi's hat when he visits China.

Those who believed that the visit would not be substantive are stunned by the breadth and depth of the understanding reached between Obama and Modi.

It was a reflection of the new intimacy that Obama, in a parting shot, spoke of the need for religious freedom and tolerance in India. It was meant not for Modi as much as it was for the fringe elements, which threatened to destroy the heritage of the Mahatma.

If Obama had glossed over the obvious danger of religious obscurantism, he would have no credibility back home.

The blanks and the brackets in the various pronouncements, written and spoken, are no less significant than the issues, which have been spelt out with clarity.

Pakistan remains an imbroglio in the US calculations. China did not forget to drag Pakistan straight on to the centre stage by highlighting its perennial friendship with Pakistan. The message was that the Pakistan factor should not be forgotten, as China would operate through Pakistan to disturb the new coziness in India-US relations.

Climate change and IPR issues cannot be wished away even with the new bonhomie. Obama made it clear that India should play its role, if the strategies of the future should be beneficial in combating climate change.

As we get close to the Paris deadline, the differences between India and the US and similarities between India and China will surface, compelling Obama and Modi to readjust their positions. They cannot sustain the momentum in their relations without evolving a formula to save the earth.

The unfinished agenda remains daunting. India's permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council is not closer to fruition after the parade. In fact, Obama may well have opened his eyes to the Russian tanks that rolled in front of him and the Russian aircraft that flew over him.

The US showed some flexibility on India's membership of APEC, but even that is not a done deal. India had stopped asking for it because of the adamant opposition of the US for many years. The non-proliferation regimes are still out of reach for India, as highlighted by the Chinese.

The 'Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region' does not offer a solution for the security threats that India faces. But, together with the robust economic ties developing in the region, it will enhance our capacity to play our legitimate role.

A man, they say, is known by the company he keeps. And so is a country.

T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967), is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council, Director General, Kerala International Centre.

Image: US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hug at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, January 25, 2015. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

T P Sreenivasan