US government officials on Thursday confirmed President Barack Obama’s visit to India for this Republic Day was the first time he would be travelling to attend another country’s national day.
Also exceptional would be the US president’s exposure abroad to an outdoor security risk. While Obama had appeared in public for hours during his two inaugural parades, the officials said, “There’s not been a similar event that he’s attended overseas in which he’s done so. So, it’s unique in that case.”
US Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, Ben Rhodes, briefed the US media in Washington on Obama’s India visit.
Press reports have indicated Washington has warned Islamabad of the consequences of a terrorist strike on President Obama in India.
Rhodes also confirmed Obama’s State of the Union address, an important annual political rite in America, had been brought forward to Wednesday evening to enable the president to be free for his India trip.
Unusually, India’s “support” to US interests in Iran and Afghanistan was highlighted, though Washington and New Delhi haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on these issues. Stating India had been “an important element of our international effort with respect to Iran”, Rhodes said Obama and Modi would “discuss the status of the Iran nuclear negotiations”.
“India’s reduction in purchases of Iranian oil has been essential to the pressure we’ve placed on Iran that has them at the table in this negotiation. India has a relationship, a long-standing relationship, with Iran, and so we need to make sure we’re closely coordinated with India as we continue to enforce those sanctions and pursue a comprehensive resolution,” Rhodes said.
On Afghanistan, he noted, “India is a major contributor to development assistance in support of the Afghan government. We need to maintain that cooperation going forward, now that the US has drawn down its military presence.”
While reluctant to point out specific objectives of the visit – ‘deliverables’ in official jargon – Washington clarified forging a common position on climate change would be on the “front burner”.
“(C)ooperation on clean energy and climate change is critically important, both because the United States and India are working together to develop additional clean energy sources and because we’re both working independently in our own countries to reduce the public health impacts of our energy sectors, but also because of the international climate negotiations that are leading into Paris this year,” Rhodes said.
During Obama’s visit to China in November, the American and Chinese presidents had agreed on emission reduction targets for both countries. China’s carbon dioxide emissions will peak by 2030, with Beijing trying to achieve this earlier. Meanwhile the US will strive to reduce emissions 26-28 per cent from its 2005 levels.
With Washington aiming at emission targets more ambitious than those laid out under the Kyoto Protocol, it clearly believes New Delhi can announce ambitious emission targets that would take forward the battle against global warming.
“This trip is a very important opportunity for us to look at what can we do, what areas can we cooperate in, to give additional momentum to the climate negotiations,” said Rhodes. Suggesting strongly that agreement on civil nuclear cooperation remained elusive, Rhodes said, “(W)e’re pushing for progress in terms of the implementation of our civil nuclear cooperation, which is in the benefit of both countries. So that work is ongoing.”
Highlighting the growing ties in counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing, the US official termed it a “focal point” of the relationship. Referring to the new focus on India-centric groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Rhodes stated, “(W)ith India, our counterterrorism cooperation tends to be focused on those groups that are operating in South Asia.”
Ultimately, Obama’s visit seems likely to be characterised by symbolism rather than agreements signed. “(O)ur goal I think is to leave this relationship in a fundamentally different place than it was when President Obama took office and when Prime Minster Modi took office,” said Rhodes.