US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are likely to meet during the East Asia Summit being held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 19-20. Obama is also likely to make a quick trip to Myanmar, becoming the first US president to do so since the military junta seized power in 1989.
Obama’s determination to lean across the political aisle in Washington will reflect in his foreign policy in his second term, and making up with Myanmar is perfectly in sync with that belief. Obama has already met Myanmarese President Thein Sein at the ASEAN summit in Indonesia last year and outgoing US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Yangon and Naypyidaw last year.
The Obama-Singh meeting will reconfirm all the public platitudes —strategic partnership, et al — that have recently served to define India’s most important relationship, and underscore the vast panoply of mutual interest, from China to Central Asia, Afghanistan-Pakistan and the Middle East. The challenge to both India and the US, in the next four years of Obama’s administration and the remaining 18 months of Singh’s, is to put into place a big idea so that the rest of the relationship can gravitate around it.
Official sources in Washington and Delhi say there is revived interest in a free-trade treaty even though large parts of the economic relationship is driven by the private sector, which includes tensions over US visa policies for IT workers and US disinterest in pushing for totalisation of tax reimbursements to Indian workers in the US. But both sides agree that they “need something more”.
The sources said that with the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in mid-2014, and presidential elections due in April 2014, India could assist in stabilising that country. But with Pakistan unhappy about India playing a greater role in Afghanistan, the sources conceded this would remain an area of tension.
Meanwhile, in official comments on whether the US is changing its policy over giving a visa to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the State Department said: “There has been no change in US policy. While we legally cannot discuss individual visa cases for any particular individual, we of course will evaluate any visa application based on its merits and in accordance with US law.”
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi)