US and India share vision for Asia-Pacific region

US and India share vision for Asia-Pacific region
US President Barack Obama meeting the crowd after delivering a speech at Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi yesterday. While he lauded the partnership between India and the US, he also pushed India on battling climate change and raised concern about religious harmony in the Asian country.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted US President Barack Obama with a much-talked-about bear hug, poured tea for him in the gardens of a former palace and addressed him by his first name on multiple occasions.

In turn, Mr Obama called Mr Modi a friend, noting personal details such as how his host gets by with less sleep than he does - three hours compared to his five.

But analysts said beyond their bonhomie were hard-nosed strategic calculations that saw India and the US teaming up to counter China's growing assertiveness in the region.

While the visit laid bare differences over climate change and human rights, it also showed convergence in many areas, including progress on a civil nuclear deal and the renewal of the India-US defence framework agreement for another 10 years. Both sides agreed to collaborate on four defence projects, including manufacturing unmanned aerial vehicles.

The key takeaway, analysts said, was the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region that supports freedom of navigation and a plan to develop a road map to help the two countries better respond to diplomatic, economic and security challenges in the region.

"Now we are getting a slight sense that India and the US are getting into a partnership. The maritime domain is being identified as an area of robust engagement," said strategic expert C. Uday Bhaskar, a retired Indian Navy commodore.

"I think it will have resonance for the whole Asia-Pacific region from Japan to Singapore. This is one point of correspondence for India and the US. Neither wants a unipolar Asia dominated by China. I think that perhaps is one of the strategic messages embedded in the vision document."

Even though economic and political ties with China are still important for the US and India, South Asia expert S.D. Muni said the visit showed a new direction in India's foreign policy.

"It very clearly tilts towards the US as far as China's inclination to assert itself in the Asia-Pacific is concerned," he said.

But Mr Obama did spark contention with his remarks about the importance of upholding an individual's freedom to practise the religion of his choice.

Weighing in on the issue of religious conversions, he said India would "succeed so long it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith".

Hindu groups emboldened by the rise of Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have tried to bring Muslim and Christian converts back into the Hindu fold by holding so-called "homecoming programmes". Critics have slammed Mr Modi for not speaking out against this.

On climate change, India remains reluctant to commit on curbing carbon emissions.

Still, many analysts saw Mr Obama's visit as opening the door for further collaboration between the two countries. For one thing, Mr Obama pledged US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion) in investments and loans to release the "untapped potential" of their partnership.

"Overall, it was an excellent visit. It was intended to be a ceremonial visit but had so much substance attached to it," said for- mer foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

This article was first published on January 29, 2015.
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