President seeks to foster stronger ties with three-day visit to India

President Obama arrives in India on Saturday with hopes of a legacy-defining visit that would improve relations with the world’s largest democracy — and the best hope at limiting the rapidly expanding influence of China. 

The president has found a surprisingly willing partner in new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, despite a high-profile diplomatic dispute with the United States nearly a decade ago has signaled a pro-American agenda. 

The White House is hopeful that the president’s trip, which coincides with the India’s Republic Day celebration, can strengthen those ties and lead to breakthroughs on security, the environment, and easing restrictions on American companies hoping to operate in India.

Obama is the first president to be invited to serve as the chief guest on Republic Day — the Indian equivalent of the Fourth of July — and both sides appear hopeful the gesture will precede a warming of relations. 

And he’s bringing a delegation of top officials, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), as well as top American business leaders and members of the Cabinet.

The seeds of the trip — the second of Obama’s presidency — were planted during Modi’s trip to Washington last fall, when both leaders enjoyed a friendly rapport.

“It goes without saying that this is a seminal moment in the bilateral relationship, and that the extension of this invitation by the prime minister really continues to set a different tone for our reinvigorated partnership,” said Phil Reiner, the National Security Council director for South Asia.

But tough policy challenges continue to confound the diplomatic relationship.

The U.S. remains frustrated India has not done more on international efforts to punish Iran over its nuclear weapons program and Russia over its incursion into Ukraine. 

And the U.S. remains upset over liability issues that have stalled the construction of new nuclear power projects by American companies. 

House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceState Dept insists cyber a priority despite office closure It’s time to use surgical strikes, naval blockades and more on North Korea Giffords targets 8 Republicans on conceal and carry in new ads MORE (R-Calif.) said the relationship has “lagged the last several years.” Royce argued there is a need for “greater engagement” between U.S. and Indian intelligence agencies, as well as progress on trade and nuclear energy issues.

“This visit is a jump-start chance not to be missed,” he said.

The U.S.-India relationship has “had a lot of things backed up” and “a lot of unfulfilled potential,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes conceded.

But Rhodes said there was “no substitute for leader-to-leader engagement to un-stick issues.”

“We believe this can be part of a continued transformation of the U.S.-India relationship, both in bringing about substantive outcomes that can advance our top foreign policy priorities, but also realizing the potential of the relationship that will do a lot to define the 21st century,” Rhodes said.

The three-day trip will include a presidential speech on the future of the U.S.-Indian relationship, as well as visits to the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and the Taj Mahal. Obama will also participate in Tuesday’s Republic Day Parade in New Delhi, the centerpiece of the annual celebration.

The U.S. is eager to gain a greater foothold in India in no small part because of the ongoing struggle for leadership of the East playing out between New Delhi and Beijing.

“Both India and the U.S. do share an interest in managing China’s rise,” said Brookings Institute fellow Tanvi Madan. “Neither would like to see what some have outlined as President Xi Jinping’s vision of Asia, with a dominant China and the U.S. playing a minimal role.”

But, Madan said, both sides are unsure about each others’ “willingness and capacity” to play a greater role in the Asia-Pacific — something certain to play into discussions between Obama and Modi.

More concretely, the administration is hoping to make substantive progress with the Indian government on environmental targets ahead of the global meeting later this year in Paris. 

Obama is bringing along senior aide John Podesta, who has made climate change a central part of his portfolio. Podesta is leaving the White House next month for a role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but his replacement, longtime aide Brian Deese, is also coming along.

White House officials said they hoped to discuss ways India could increase clean energy production while limiting the emission of greenhouse gasses. 

“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,” Rhodes said.

The White House is also hopeful that it can work through a range of trade and investment related issues. 

The largest of those remains the liability law that has kept American corporations from constructing nuclear plants. But India is also pushing the U.S. to allow the import of more medicine. And the two sides hope to finalize a series of defense purchases.

And the two sides also expect substantive talks on both the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and ongoing negotiations with Tehran over disbanding its nuclear weapons program. 

Counterterrorism will also be on the agenda, although the issue could again emphasize the complexity of the relationship between the countries. The U.S. has worked closely with rival Pakistan to combat al Qaeda and other militant groups, and Rhodes said that the U.S. was mostly working with Arab and European partners in its campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“With India, our counterterrorism cooperation tends to be focused on those groups that are operating in South Asia,” he said.