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Media Call on President Obama's Trip to India

Speaker: Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
Moderator: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
January 23, 2015


MCMAHON: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the CFR on-the-record media briefing ahead of President Obama's trip to India. I'm Robert McMahon, editor of, and I'll be presiding over this call.

President Obama this weekend will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit India twice. And the trip is rich in symbolic importance, as President Obama joins Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as guest for India's Republic Day. Now, Modi himself was in the U.S. last fall, and much has been made of the personal connection the two leaders appear to have.

So here to guide us on this important trip is Alyssa Ayres. She's CFR's senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia. And I will speak with Alyssa for about 15 to 20 minutes before opening up the call to you.

Alyssa, to kick things off, you wrote on CFR's "Asia Unbound" blog earlier this week about the importance of India's Republic Day. Can you go a little bit further to that and talk about why this invitation to President Obama matters?

AYRES: Sure, of course, happy to. And glad we could do this media call this morning. So in a run-up to this visit, which obviously is important, as you mentioned, because it's the first time an American president has gone to India twice during his time in office, and it's also the first time that an American has been the chief guest at India's Republic Day.

There's been a lot of sort of speculation, rather, a lot of comment about this being very symbolic, but then kind of not drilling down further into why it's actually symbolic. Republic Day is a pretty special day in India. It is distinct from the Indian Independence Day, which is on August 15th.

Republic Day is actually the day that Indians celebrate and commemorate coming into being as an actual republic, the day that the Constitution of India came into force. Shortly after independence, India created a constituent assembly that spent about two and a half years drafting a new Constitution for this newly-independent country.

And the head of that drafting committee actually has nice links to U.S.-India relations. The head of the drafting committee was somebody who had earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University, somebody who became a leading social-justice activist in India named Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. A lot of his ideas about social justice and equality, and the republic, came from his experience in the United States.

If you take a look at our Constitutions, they both begin with, "We the people." There're sort of similar inspirations in both about justice, liberty, unity, the union of the people. I also think it's nice to note that in the United States, we -- when people enter government service, we take an oath of office to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. We don't pledge to any person. We pledge to support the Constitution.

So it's actually really nice to see our president, somebody who is going to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, celebrating the day that honors India's Constitution with India's leadership. That's why I think this is symbolic.

MCMAHON: Let's talk a little bit more about this relationship then. Prime Minister Modi appears to be the first Indian leader to really speak openly -- and I guess openly and consistently -- about wanting warmer ties with the United States. And India famously was a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement for decades.

Can you address why he's moving in this direction at this time, and what his chances are for getting Indian support in particular for warmer ties?

AYRES: So this is a really interesting shift to see taking place. Modi hasn't been in office yet for a full year. But he already is demonstrating kind of a willingness to break some of those older truisms about wanting to sort of have equal ties with all great powers, remain equidistant, even as India kind of moves out of being a non-aligned country, focusing instead on a period of, you know, what people call multi-alignment.

Modi doesn't have any of the hang-ups that previous predecessors might have had about, you know, what will it mean if he appears too close, or appears to be leaning too far in the direction of the United States. He just simply doesn't care. I mean, he seems to think that the United States is a country that's going to be supportive for the economic transformation that he wants to deliver to Indian citizens. And he'll be able to develop close ties with the U.S.

That isn't to say that India is changing its relationships with its other longstanding partners. You saw a recent visit of Mr. Putin to India. You have a strong defense relationship still with Russia, and of course, has very strong ties with other powers like Japan, the U.K., France, Australia, Canada.

So there is a kind of, you know, effort to make sure India's maintaining good relations across the board. But I just think that Modi is not at all captivated by anxieties or concerns about looking too pro-American. That just isn't something that he worries about.

MCMAHON: So he's really changed the tone, as you said, this symbolism is very important on this upcoming trip. What about specifics? What about concrete developments or takeaways from this visit? Are we going to see any kind of agreements announced or advanced during this trip?

AYRES: So there's a lot of speculation about this. The administration, obviously, has previewed not agreements, but they've previewed the four areas that will be the topics of greatest attention during the bilateral conversations. And that's clean energy and climate change, civil nuclear cooperation, defense and economic ties.

If you talk to U.S. administration officials, they will say, "Hey, we're not going to preview any announcements that might potentially be made during this visit."

But if you read the Indian press, every day there's sort of four or five stories previewing what might be possible announcements. So we can try to sift through some of that to take a look at what might be on the agenda, either for, you know, reformation of the importance of the role of, let's say, clean energy in U.S.-India cooperation, or what might be on the anvil for a possible announcement, you know, in civil nuclear.

So why don't I take a couple minutes to talk about clean energy and climate change, if that's OK?

MCMAHON: Yes, I was just going to follow with that, because that was actually one of the concrete deliverables from the Modi visit to the U.S.; is that right?

AYRES: Exactly. Yes, exactly. In fact, that was the biggest sort of new announcement in September that pushed ahead on an area where there has been very good cooperation underway.

So on the heels of the U.S.-China announcement on climate change that came back in the fall, there have been a lot of people asking the question whether we're likely to see something similar come from the U.S.-India conversation. And, you know, I just don't think that's on the docket here.

India has been very, very clear that they're not, at the moment, ready to name a date certain at which they're going to cap emissions and begin drawing down. Their perspective on this is that they still are among the lower per-capita emissions countries, even though now, just because of sheer scale, it's the third largest emitter in the world.

And India's view is that they still have a great distance to travel in terms of economic growth and economic development. And they just don't feel that they're in a position, even remotely similar to China, to be able to take commitments that would be binding, and committed to at an international level.

That said, internally, India is making great strides in ramping up renewables. The renewable sector is growing quickly in India. It's something that they place great emphasis on. The Modi government, in particular, is revising their renewable targets quite dramatically. I mean, they've sort of quintupled what they're looking to do on solar, and shrunk the time frame.

So the earlier national solar mission target in India was 22 gigawatts by 2022. And the Modi government is now aiming for 100 gigawatts by 2019. That's the end of his first term. They're also looking to double wind, for example.

So you see a rapid scaling-up in clean energy in India. That has been reflected in a very, very positive and rapidly-growing partnership with the United States on clean energy. It's been the area that really, to my mind, has been one of the most productive in the U.S.-India relationship for the last several years.

This partnership to advance clean energy, which is known as PACE, was created in 2009 by President Obama, and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. And it has so far mobilized more than $2 billion in search for renewable energies, and in their deployment.

There is a joint clean-energy research consortia. It's the first time the U.S. has done anything this deeply joint with any other country that's focused on sort of new solar technologies, biofuels, and clean, efficient buildings, building efficiency.

So there's a lot of good stuff happening there. And I would look to this area, as you mentioned, in September. That was the one big announcement, kind of billion-dollar financing package that U.S. Ex-Im signed with India's renewable development agency.

I would imagine that this would be a space where we'd likely see more projects announced, or sort of new possible financings, or new collaborations, new research announced, because that's been going very well. I would not expect to see anything in terms of an emissions target. Despite everything that India's doing on renewable, it still remains a coal-led energy economy, and it's likely to remain that way for the coming couple decades.

MCMAHON: Now, another emissions-free type of energy is nuclear. And there was great hope -- there has been great hope that the two countries can get together and advance the development of civilian nuclear power in India. But that's been -- that's been a rocky road. Can you talk a little bit about where things stand on that front?

AYRES: Yes, that has sadly been a very rocky road. I worked on this agreement, and sorry to say...

MCMAHON: When you were in the State Department?

AYRES: When I was in the State Department, exactly, in two different times, actually. Yes. So I think everybody in the United States who went to bat for this agreement, and worked hard, I mean, Congress passed a new law, amendments to the U.S. Atomic Energy Act.

The diplomatic list on this internationally was huge. The U.S. led an effort internationally to get an exemption for India with the Nuclear Suppliers Group to allow nuclear suppliers to be able to export to India since they're not an NPT signatory.

What happened after this civil nuclear agreement sort of went through the bilateral part, in the NFG part, is that India's parliament in the summer of 2010 passed the Civil Nuclear Liability Law that is quite different from the international standard on these laws that typically channel liability to the operator. That's the way it works under the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Act's convention on supplemental compensation.

So for countries that have nuclear suppliers that are parastatal, that are backed by a sovereign, so for this -- you know, Russia's Rosatom, for example, it's not as big of a concern. But in the United States, our nuclear sector's of course private, because we don't have government-run companies. It's just not the way we operate.

So the private companies under this nuclear law in India see potentially unlimited liability. And it's very difficult to figure out how they could even function in that environment. So that's really -- that has been the conversation for the past several years is, is there any way for private players to find a kind of workable commercial solution under this law?

And what we're seeing in the Indian press is that the contact group that was created after Modi's visit to the United States in September, this group was created on both sides to try to continue discussions on what a solution might be. Reports in the Indian press suggest that there's a possible solution through some sort of a pooled insurance mechanism.

This is ultimately not something that United States government, or the Indian government, can sort of say, "Well, here's the solution. Go ahead, folks."

It needs to be something that the companies would find workable, otherwise they won't be able to participate in the commercial sector. So we don't know if that is going to be a space for a big announcement. It would be wonderful if it were, because it would really cap many years. In fact, it would be 10 years since the Civil Nuclear Initiative was first announced in 2005.

So if we were able to bring that to a sort of stage where commercial component of it could move ahead, that would be a wonderful way to end a decade.

MCMAHON: OK. So plenty of room for the growth on the economic front. Let's talk about geopolitics for a second. It's been much noted that India's importance is rising as China asserts itself more in the general region. And India, world's largest democracy, it's believed it could make common cause with the U.S. in a lot of areas.

One of those is a place where the U.S. is drawing down after its longest war, and that's Afghanistan. Obviously, India has had a rising profile there.

We, on our team at, just published an interactive on the Taliban, on the two Talibans, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And there's an India role that's important to understanding Pakistan's role with the both Talibans and so forth.

Could you talk a little bit about how much the U.S. and India might be more -- making more common cause in South Asia to the West?

AYRES: I just wanted to say that I think Taliban Interactive Guide is an amazing thing. It's superb and really well done. So I would urge everybody to take a look at that.

India's been a really important development partner in Afghanistan. It's the fifth largest bilateral donor. It's committed more than $2 billion over the course of the last decade. And it's done so very carefully.

India has been active in Afghanistan with things like building schools, building infrastructure like electricity networks. India built the Ring Road, the sort of outer edges of Afghanistan, to provide better supply-chain connectivity, really sort of link the country more together; built the parliament.

India's done a lot of training those civil service -- civil servants of women entrepreneurs. That was a project that the United States thought was just wonderful, sort of training women on how they can develop their own businesses and be more self-sustaining.

So India's role has been critical, particularly now in an increasing way, in terms of trying to envision a new Silk Road of connectivity, commercial engagement, to try to fill what is obviously going to be a huge financial vacuum with the departure of the international presence.

That really has been the whole idea behind the United States' strategy of a new Silk Road vision, sort of to try to better-link Afghanistan with all of its neighbors. India's not an immediate neighbor, but clearly, it's the regional economic vortex. If Afghanistan had direct transit to be able to export its different kinds of goods, its agricultural products, to this huge Indian market, that also would be beneficial for the Afghan economy.

Under the Istanbul Process, India is leading what's called the Chamber-to-Chamber Confidence-Building Measure. India's apex, there are two major chambers of commerce in India. One of them is the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce in Industry.

And that chamber has responsibility for coordinating with chambers of commerce from all the Istanbul Process countries. So they have kind of very detailed activities where they'll get together and talk about customs and border procedures, and how to facilitate those, and what more the countries in the region can do to try to really ramp up trade and engagement across all of them so this region can do much more to be better linked.

Of course, you know, a kind of major donut hole in that trade and economic relationship is the fact that trade transit isn't allowed through Pakistan. Pakistan won't allow Afghan goods to come through Pakistan and go to India, and definitely won't allow the other direction either. So if that were something that Pakistan could look to do, it would ultimately benefit the entire region, including Pakistanis.

So India has an important role to play. It will continue to have an important role to play. Afghans believe it has an important role to play, and the United States does, too.

MCMAHON: Great. So I want to ask one final question before opening up the call to those on the line; and that's about India itself, in terms of what kind of country -- what the status of the country is as the president visits.

You were there recently. You go there frequently. The president's going to be in New Delhi, and going to Taj Mahal, I believe. What could we say about the status of India at this point in terms of where the society is, where it's going, how much it's progressed, what the president might see, even though obviously his trip has sort of a specialized nature?

AYRES: Right. So his trip is quite special, and all of the interactions that a president has on any of these trips are kind of stage-managed. So it's not as if there's some surprise trip out into a random market, and kind of meeting with random people. It'll all be carefully put together for security reasons, as you can imagine.

But, you know, India has pretty dramatically transformed over the course of the last 15 years. And that's been driven by the country's economic growth. So if you -- I mean, I first went to India as a student in 1990 studying on a college semester of rod (ph) program before India began its economic reforms of 1991 carried out under duress with a Balance of Payments crisis.

So everything is different now in India; I mean, from a place where it was very difficult to have communications access, to now being the country that's got the second largest number of mobile phone connections in the world, and shortly to surpass China. This issue of economic growth and what it can deliver to Indian citizens has been Modi's number-one campaign platform, and it's been the area that he has concentrated on in an almost single-minded way since coming into office.

Because unlike the previous government, the new Modi government is looking at economic growth as the single most important vehicle through which India can eradicate poverty. Modi has spoken about not wanting to merely alleviate poverty, but rather to eradicate poverty. So to do that, India has got to continue growing, and it's got to grow faster in order to be able to create the jobs, to accommodate people who come of workforce age every year. And that means about 12 million jobs a year.

So that is actually a big change in India. So that's kind of driving what you see happening; government policies focused on creating a new manufacturing sector. India's growth has been services-led, unlike other countries at this sort of per-capita income level, that have grown quickly and developed a manufacturing sector that can really absorb people without sort of, you know, tertiary-level education.

That's what India's concentrating on now. That's going to be, I think, a priority for the coming decade at least. So for the president landing in India now, he's going to see a country that's right now infused with confidence about where they are in the world.

India feels much more confident about its role as a rising power; what it can do on the world stage, how its economy can continue to grow, the kinds of innovations India has been heralded for making, particularly in what's called frugal innovation. I mean, all of that is part of this sort of new India that we see growing. I think the president is going to have a good opportunity to see lots of new and different things since he was last there.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that great initial framing then. I want to open up the call to those on the line. And just a reminder, this is a CFR on-the-record media call ahead of the president's trip to India. I'm Robert McMahon, editor of

And we're speaking with Alyssa Ayers, who's a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at CFR. Alyssa, by the way, goes by the Twitter handle AtAyersAlyssa, all one word, and she contributes to the "Asia Unbound" blog at CFR.

So operator, is there someone on the call who has a question now?

OPERATOR: Yes. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the one key on your touchtone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are -- they are received.

If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, just press star-two. Again, to ask a question, please press star-one.

OK. And our first question comes from Joseph Marks (ph) with Politico.

MCMAHON: Yes, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Sorry. I'm taking myself off mute. Wonder if you see any development in cyber cooperation between the U.S. and India during this trip in sort of the same vein that U.S. has been trying to work on cyber-crime cooperation on a bilateral engagement with Japan and Germany, and places like that?

AYRES: That's a great question. Nothing has been previewed in terms of specifics on cyber for this specific visit. But that is definitely a growing area of U.S.-India cooperation. There are a couple different mechanisms that have been put in place over the past four or five years; again, sort of reflecting the way cyber is an increasing concern across the board.

There's a cabinet-level Homeland Security dialogue that was established a couple years ago. And under that dialogue, there is an area of cyber cooperation. So about two years ago, the U.S. and India signed an MOU between the CERTs of both countries, the Computer Emergency Readiness Response teams on both sides.

Ours is called CERT. India's is called CERT-IN with a natural way to link. It's my understanding that CERTs actually talk with each other, the CERT teams, once a month. So that's a pretty active level of engagement there.

We also have other kinds of collaboration in the cyber world. Obviously, India is a major player in I.T. There's an I.T. working group that gets at some of the cyber issues and the commercial side. There's a diplomatic conversation about some of the issues about Internet governance through a kind of consultation mechanism on the cybersecurity. So there's already a lot of work going on on that.

I'm not aware of anything specific that people are previewing for this visit. But if you're interested, and this is a topic that there is a lot of work underway, and that would be, you know, a great story to pursue further.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question. Operator, another question?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Joshua Kidding (ph) with Slate (ph).

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for holding this event. I was wondering if you see if there's any lingering fallout from the Devyani Khobragade affair that happened amid closing days of the second administration, or if that's been resolved since Modi came to power?

AYRES: Thanks for that question. You know, one year ago today, that probably would have been the only thing anybody would talk about if we were talking about U.S.-India relations. So a year, looking back, things have actually come a long way.

I think at the very sort of top level of optics, this is no longer an issue. I think people have moved past this. But it was a substantial, you know, kind of rupture in the relationship. For several months, there weren't the kind of ongoing bureaucratic meetings that normally take place across the sort of -- there are kind of ongoing meetings at various different levels that take place in almost every issue area you can imagine in U.S.-India, whether it's, you know, sort of regional consultation, or health, or defense, or as we just discussed, cyber or what have you, energy.

A lot of those were sort of postponed and put on hold last year. That's no longer the case. You see a kind of uptick, a tempo of ongoing conversation. The diplomatic dialogue has certainly resumed with gusto.

The one thing I would say is that a lot of the issues that the Khobragade case brought to the foreground have to do with really almost mind-numbing detail on what's called privileges and immunities, and the way that countries handle privileges and immunities for each other's diplomats. This is typically on a reciprocal basis, and it's sort of under both the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, and on consular relations.

So there has been ongoing conversation between the United States and India on all those kinds of questions. But you'll see none of this is sort of big public conversation. It probably is in the hands of lawyers where it really belongs, and is no longer sort of briefed out in the Indian press as kind of major cause for problems. So I think it definitely has been put in the past.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question. Operator, is there another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next questions comes from Roberta Ranton (ph) with Reuters.

QUESTION: Hi. I was wondering, in September, the joint statement from the president and prime minister, it talked about concerns about tensions in the South China Sea. And they agreed to intensify cooperation on maritime security.

Are you expecting that that may be a theme again during this visit? Would you expect them to discuss it, or have it as an element in their joint statements again? And is there anything tangible that you can point to, sort of demonstrating intensified cooperation on this issue?

AYRES: Thanks. That's a very good question. I would definitely expect this to be an aspect of consultation on regional issues, whether that's, you know, the question of looking at Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. India has been supportive of Vietnam on this question. They've actually spoken publically about this at the ASEAN regional forum a couple years ago if I'm not mistaken.

But, you know, India's kind of broader development and evolution as a growing maritime power, and as potentially a net provider of security throughout the greater Indian Ocean, and looking more broadly is where Indian officials are looking in the long term. And the United States has repeatedly said that it's very supportive of that growth and development.

Some of the defense cooperation that's occurred between the U.S. and India over the course of the last decade has been focused on finding ways to work more closely together, and better together, in a maritime sense. I mean, the Malabar exercises between the U.S. and India that go on, an annual basis, this year included Japan. There's been some talk about whether, on an ongoing basis, that exercise will be opened to become more regularly multilateral. It's been bilateral.

Also, some of the procurements India has made have been directly supportive of a broader maritime security role for India. India acquired some P-8Is that are sort of maritime surveillance planes a few years ago. That was an important procurement for them.

So yes, if you take a look at what India's doing with both its procurement process, where it's going, its vision, India's definitely focused on becoming much more of a maritime power in the diplomatic world. It has been talking more about maritime issues.

It's becoming much more engaged with the Asia-Pacific. It's very active now with the East Asia Summit. I guess last year, or a year and a half ago, for the first time, India appointed a full-time ambassador to ASEAN. They hadn't had a full-time ambassador there before. The ASEAN secretary is in Jakarta. So they'd had their ambassador, Indonesia, kind of wearing two hats.

But ASEAN is huge, so there's a lot of diplomatic work to do there. So they're really sort of stepping up what they're doing in Asia-Pacific. They've got a strong relationship with Vietnam, with the ASEAN countries. So I would definitely expect to see India becoming more involved and active in Asia definitely.

MCMAHON: Is it right to add to that, Alyssa, that maybe it's not just a question of South China Sea tensions, but maybe increasing intentions in the Indian Ocean, vis-a-vis China?

AYRES: That is an interesting question. So I think for India, one of the things that they have watched unfold over the course of the last five years has been a much stronger commercial presence of China in all of the countries that surround India. And that is certainly an issue of concern.

Modi has -- for the previous Indian government, obviously it had a foreign policy of trying to deepen ties with all of the countries of South Asia, including the smaller countries of South Asia that surround India. The Modi government is really doubling down on this. That was his kind of first initiative when he was inaugurated, inviting all the heads of government from the region.

All of the first visits were within the region. Modi's first visit was to Bhutan. He's already visited Nepal twice.

What China has rapidly done in the course of the last five years has been to become virtually the most important investor or foreign assistance provider in the case of Nepal, of a military hardware. Some surprise things happened.

Of course, everybody is aware of the strong relationship that China and Sri Lanka developed over the course of the last five years. China, with a lot of infrastructure financing for port development in Sri Lanka, there was a port project at the Colombo port. I think to India's great surprise, twice this past fall, a Chinese submarine showed up there.

So that was even more of a wakeup call. Is the Chinese presence, the commercial presence, just sort of beachhead for some sort of later security presence? You know, what exactly is happening there? So that is definitely an issue that Indian leaders are focused on, because for India, India sort of has like their own Monroe Doctrine for the Indian Ocean. I mean, India sees itself as the regional power, would not like to have another power usurp that role.

MCMAHON: That's interesting. Thanks, Alyssa. Operator, do you have another question on the line?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir, we do. As a reminder, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star-one. And our next question comes from Suprata Chuckaborti (ph) with S&C (ph).

QUESTION: Hi, Alyssa. This is Suprata (ph).

AYRES: Hi, Suprata (ph), how are you? Long time.

QUESTION: Fine, thanks. Yes, it has been. It was a concern during the elections, and for a while after the elections, about the essentially communal nature of Modi's party, and his allies. That has died down quite a bit.

But there is a considerable concern among the Christian community, and increasingly the Muslim community, that the Modi Administration is permitting forcible -- forcible requirement for -- from the Christians to -- to return to Hinduism; and increasingly, that -- among the Muslim community, that they will be pressured the same way.

Now, the Muslim community in India has been the least radicalized of all the Muslim communities around the world. Are you concerned that that will increasingly become a problem? And if it does, what would the Obama Administration, or subsequent U.S. administrations do about that?

AYRES: So I think this is an issue that really has come to the fore kind of late November and December, and is probably the most important domestic topic right now in India that has to do also, despite the fact that this is in many ways a separate conversation about kind of social religious issues, stands to, you know, stall Modi's economic agenda.

And, you know, late December was the moment that -- at least it seemed to me -- when many people in India, you know, sort of Modi's domestic honeymoon ended. That was when you started seeing people who were supporters of his agenda -- his agenda is pretty narrowly defined. It's an economic growth and good governance agenda.

You know, during the course of the campaign, he never said anything communal. In fact, he chastised people who did, and asked them not to do that. But what you started to see happening in December was people saying this kind of communalism and sort of, you know, emergence of vocal religious nationalism is causing a problem for the agenda on the basis of which the prime minister was elected.

So I see that as a domestic issue for India that's continuing to unfold. I mean, there's a huge and very active debate about this in India. So it's not as if it's, you know, something that goes without comment, or without kind of pushback in India.

But, you know, at some point, Mr. Modi is going to need to say something to these groups in the same way that he did during the campaign, because it's causing a complete paralysis in the Rajya Sabha, in the upper house. And literally, nothing is happening there, including on all of the issues that have been important for the whole platform of the most important agenda items for economic growth.

So I see that as an issue that's going to probably continue to be at stake in the political nature, anything that involves development of legislation.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up, do you see that as a role for U.S. governments to play, because India is now the second or third largest Muslim country in the world, and could cause havoc if that -- if they became radicalized.

AYRES: What role do you mean?

QUESTION: General...

MCMAHON: ... U.S.?

QUESTION: Yes. Just for the United States government to be able to just camp (ph) down any such behavior on the part of the Indian government.

AYRES: Well, I mean, I don't think the Indian government is, as a matter of policy, trying to do this. You know, that's a good -- there isn't a strong role for the United States government in the domestic politics of another country.

Now, in the course of bilateral conversations, will there be conversations about the priority that the U.S. places on human rights, and inclusivity, and all of these things? Of course. That's part of what the United States cares about.

So that may come up. But I just don't think there's a programmatic role for a foreign government to play in another country's domestic politics.

MCMAHON: Thanks for those questions. Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Stephani Busard (ph) with (inaudible).

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you for the conference. My question is about the TPP. I was wondering if this will be an issue during the visit of President Obama in India? There's a sense that it's a very important poll (ph) issue obviously for the U.S. And what kind of role -- how does actually India see the whole TPP? Thank you.

AYRES: Well, sadly, as I have written elsewhere, I don't think this will be an issue, because India has no role in the TPP. This is, you know, a trade negotiation that we are carrying out with 11 other Asia-Pacific countries, among which India is not one.

India is in the process of a negotiation along with China and other Asian countries, including seven TPP members, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiation, RCEP. So it's as if there are these kind of two parallel Asia trade negotiations happening, and they overlap with some of the ASEAN countries, but don't overlap with the United States and India. So we're kind of outside the framework of each other's trade negotiation practices.

You know, global trade has not been an area of great success so far between the U.S. and India. It's been very difficult. Our trading relationship is good, and continues to increase. But in terms of agreements, it's actually been quite challenging. You saw that unfold under the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement process last summer with India's decision to veto. So it was rescued in November, but you know, rescued from a situation created by India.

I've argued that I think, you know, we need to at some point -- it just doesn't make any sense for the United States to have an Asia-Pacific policy, an Asia policy of rebalance, if we're not more deeply engaged somehow with India in that process, particularly economically.

And to me, it seems it would be important to develop with Indian officials some kind of a pathway. You know, what does a long-term pathway look like for potential Indian membership in the TPP? I've also argued that that would be important for APEC. I have a longer piece about that as well.

You know, India's not, at the moment, ready to do the kinds of market opening measures that would make for a very robust trade agreement. So I think that is why it's not part of the TPP process now. Mr. Modi seems keen to be doing more in terms of market opening.

Whether his government is ready to do exactly the types of things that would sort of spur much greater market access, I don't have the answer to that yet, because his government hasn't been in place for long enough for us to know. But yes, I do not think that TPP will be a big focus of the discussion, because India is not part of those discussions now.

MCMAHON: And again, Alyssa, so India has not been necessarily petitioning to be part of TPP at this point, although Modi is still sorting out his policies on broader trade issues?

AYRES: So India hasn't liked to petition for anything if there isn't going to be a clear yes. I mean, it's, you know, whatever the old Groucho Marx quote was.

The one group that India has said that they'd like to be part of is APEC. And to my mind, I think the U.S. has fallen down on the job on that one. China was the APEC summit host this past year, and they invited the Prime Minister Modi to attend.

When you invite the head of a non-APEC member country to attend the summit, that's really an endorsement of potential membership for that country. So China now has the lead on that, and we didn't say anything. We didn't endorse it. We didn't follow through. I mean, for the U.S. government, there was just kind of great silence on that question.

I believe that that is likely due to the fact that the fallout of India's veto, the Trade Facilitation Agreement at the end of July, I think has just pushed the global trade community into a position of feeling like, how is it possible to create consensus on these important agreements, if at the last minute, India is willing to back out, even after having driven a really hard bargain to create the agreement in the first place?

So perhaps with some more time, some of that -- I mean, I've called it a bruise elsewhere where I've written about this. Perhaps that bruise will finally sort of heal and go away, and people will be ready to think about, you know, the importance of integrating India in all of these kinds of economic regimes.

I mean, you know, separately we could look at the OECD, and Indian membership in the International Energy Agency, and all kinds of things like that. But there's still a little bit of a bruise on that question right now.

MCMAHON: Thanks, Alyssa. Operator, do we have another question on the line at this point?

OPERATOR: No, sir, we do not.

MCMAHON: I would like to touch on another issue that's kind of playing out, Alyssa, as this trip unfolds, which is the death of King Abdullah, and succession issues in Saudi Arabia. Maybe more broadly, India's reaction to both that and to what seems to be just an ongoing cascade of problems in the Middle East. But first, what do we know about the Indian reaction to King Abdullah's death, and India's views on that part of the world?

AYRES: Well, I just saw that India's named January 24th a national day of mourning for King Abdullah. So that is the kind of formal government response.

India has, in the last three to four years, pretty substantially ramped up its diplomatic engagement with Saudi Arabia. India's got pretty important stakes in the Gulf.

Here's an interesting stat. We wrote about this on the blog last March. You know, every year the World Bank releases data on international remittances. And India is a country that receives the world's largest amount of remittances coming in from guest workers abroad.

And so, you know, we Americans I think like to imagine, you know, the greatest flows are probably coming from here. For India to not -- the largest flow of remittances into India from abroad comes from the UAE.

If you kind of drill down on all the Gulf countries, this is where all these Indian guest workers are. This has been a really important source of employment, and foreign currency injections into the Indian economy, for decades. So Saudi Arabia's a big part of that, Oman. This is really important for India. There's about 7 million guest workers.

Now, what's happened in the last couple years, and certainly with the rise of ISIS from last summer, is you now see a much more kind of urgent and growing security threat to India and its interests from ISIS. Last summer, there were some kidnappings of Indian guest workers in Iraq. Their release was eventually secured. I think there are still some nurses who've been unable to leave. That's now kind of very quiet now to the news.

Two weekends ago, there was a video released of people who claimed to be former Taliban, and now are self-identifying as ISIS members. They beheaded a person on this video, pledged their fealty to ISIS, and sort of ISIS goals.

So if that movement starts to move much closer, and it's much more dramatically violent, then some of the other terrorist groups that have been operating in South Asia, so that would be something that I know that India is worried and concerned about.

There's also been a small number of Indians who have somehow either made their way to Iraq and Syria, a very small number. But there was a pretty dramatic arrest in December of -- this was very surprising, I think, for people. Certainly, I was surprised. There was a technology executive in Bangalore who was arrested in India for having been a big Twitter supporter of ISIS on Twitter, and using that Twitter mechanism potentially to recruit people for ISIS.

So some developments in that space that are, you know, not so encouraging. And I think Indian officials are certainly worried about that.

MCMAHON: And just to be straight, India has solid relations with Saudi Arabia. It's obviously, as an earlier caller mentioned, got a very large Muslim population. Many will make the Hajj, which takes place in Saudi Arabia. So this is an important relationship.

AYRES: Yes. So, frankly, is India's relationship with Iran. I mean, India's a huge Shia-Muslim population as well. But those are important relationships for India. Absolutely.

MCMAHON: Well, great. I think we're going to end it on that note. I really would like to thank CFR Senior Fellow Alyssa Ayres for taking us on the path for understanding the importance of this upcoming visit by President Obama to India, where the highlight is going to be the India's Republic Day celebration on Monday.

This has been a CFR on-the-record media briefing. And I am Robert McMahon of And I want to thank everyone for taking part on this call. Have a good day, everyone.

AYRES: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This concludes today's teleconference, and you may now disconnect.


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