Obama’s Passage to India

CAMBRIDGE – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vigorous foreign policy in the seven months since he took office has surprised observers. After inviting the leaders of Pakistan and other neighboring countries to his inauguration, he embarked on trips to China, Australia, and the United States. More recently, he welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi and signed a large number of trade deals and orders to import Russian nuclear reactors. India, Modi is telling his fellow citizens, is strong and well regarded around the world.

Next month, US President Barack Obama will travel to New Delhi as Modi’s special guest at events commemorating Republic Day, India’s national holiday – just three months after the two leaders held substantive talks in Washington, DC. The visit should thus be regarded as a clear signal of Obama’s desire, no less than Modi’s, to strengthen US-India relations.

So what is likely to be on Obama’s mind when he meets his Indian counterpart again, and what does he think can be done to cement bilateral ties? Three issues stand out – beginning with trade, which is as important politically as it is economically.

Obama hopes that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be concluded in 2015 and ratified by the US Senate. The TPP will not be as powerful a free-trade agreement as originally intended, owing to exclusions and a very long phase-in period. But it will tie the US and 11 other Pacific Rim countries (including Japan but excluding China) together in a new economic bloc. Obama should be eager to stress that India’s exclusion from the TPP is a matter solely of geography – India does not abut the Pacific – and that the US wants to increase bilateral trade and direct investment by American firms.