WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed on Tuesday to deepen U.S.-Indian cooperation on maritime security to ensure freedom of navigation in what amounts to a response to China’s naval muscle-flexing in the Asia-Pacific.
The agreement emerged from two days of talks between Obama and the new Indian prime minister as they worked to shore up ties between their countries after a diplomatic spat early this year.
Obama and Modi, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, said their discussions ranged from trade to space exploration to climate change to the Islamic State threat in the Middle East.
“We already have the foundation of a strong partnership,” said Modi, seated beside Obama. “We now have to revive the momentum and ensure that we get the best out of it for our people and for the world.”
Modi, who took office in May, received a warm welcome in the United States, even though he was denied a visa in 2005 over rioting in his home state Gujarat three years earlier that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Modi, a Hindu nationalist, was exonerated by an Indian Supreme Court investigation.
A stronger relationship between the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies, has the potential to provide a counterweight to China, whose maritime moves in the Asia-Pacific have rattled regional nerves.
A joint statement said Obama and Modi agreed “to intensify cooperation in maritime security to ensure freedom of navigation and unimpeded movement of lawful shipping and commercial activity, in accordance with accepted principles of international law.”
China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and East China Sea has angered its neighbors. India’s military has recently been monitoring Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean.
Obama and Modi also agreed to negotiate a 10-year extension of a military cooperation framework due to expire at year-end, and will stress counter-terrorism cooperation and joint efforts against militant networks.
While the leaders did not announce big-ticket agreements on a number of issues, they vowed to work closely together in what amounted to an official clearing of the air from earlier this year when India expressed outrage at the arrest in New York of one of its diplomats, who was charged with visa fraud and paying her nanny less than the minimum wage.
Obama said he was impressed by Modi’s interest in addressing poverty and growing India’s economy, as well as his determination that India help bring about peace and security in the world.
“I want to wish him luck in what I‘m sure will be a challenging but always interesting tenure as prime minister,” Obama said.
In a unique departure from protocol, Obama took Modi on a short motorcade drive from the White House to the memorial honoring slain U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Modi met with congressional leaders before his departure later on Tuesday. After the talks, he stressed the importance of addressing environmental issues and cooperation on security. “The humanity of the entire world needs to come together to fight terrorism,” he said.
additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by David Storey and Gunna Dickson