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US-India relations: New directions, old differences

  • Geopolitics
  • 10 Months ago
  • 18 min read
US-India relations: New directions, old differences

Source: ANI

Arun Singh
Arun Singh - Visiting Professor at Ashoka University

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 22 State visit to Washington DC is yet another assertion of the priority and value attached in both capitals to the bilateral relationship, and its regional and global implications.

PM Modi will be only the third State visitor of the Biden-Harris Administration since January 2021, following French President Macron in December 2022, and South Korean President Yoon in April 2023. He will also be the third Indian leader ever invited to the US on a visit of this level of protocol, after President Radhakrishnan in 1963, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009 (who also had the distinction of being the first State Visitor of the Obama-Biden Administration).

It is also a signal that the Biden Administration wants to sustain the bipartisan effort to consolidate relations: initiated through the Democratic President Clinton’s visit to India in 2000, Republican George Bush seeing through a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, Democratic Barack Obama declaring India a Major Defense Partner and articulating support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, Republican Donald Trump placing India at Strategic Trade Authorization Level 1 for technology releases on par with closest allies of US.

Reports of planned events indicate efforts by the Administration to emphasize the particular advantages they see in consolidating relations with India and making special gestures to the visiting Indian leader. Aside from the normal State dinner, White House ceremonial welcome, and bilateral meeting with the US President, there is also the possibility of a special informal dinner between the two leaders in the evening of June 21 and a visit to Presidential retreat Camp David on June 23.  It evokes memories of the special Obama-Modi joint visit to the newly installed statue of Martin Luther King in September 2014.

Aside from the visits of US Secretaries of State and Commerce in March, preparatory visits have included that of US Secretary of Defense and National Security Adviser in June, and of Indian Foreign and Defense Secretaries to US in May and June.

The June summit follows major bilateral initiatives, closer cooperation in existing or new plurilateral formats, and displayed the ability to manage some significant differences on global issues by showing an understanding for mutual compulsions.

iCET and beyond

On 31 January this year, the two National Security Advisers, Jake Sullivan, and Ajit Doval, launched a new initiative on cooperation in Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET): artificial intelligence, quantum, cyber/6G, semiconductors, defense, commercialisation of space, biotech and green energy. Bilateral mechanisms were established or identified in each of these areas to progress cooperation, and have held discussions towards outcomes during the forthcoming visit. According to reports, the US administration is favorably considering production in India and transfer of technology for General Electric jet engines.

During the visit of US Commerce Secretary to India in March 2023, it was agreed to set up a Strategic Trade Dialogue to deal with any technology release challenges that could arise in implementing iCET. It is a successor to the HTCG (High Technology Cooperation Group) set up in 2002 and has been renamed to indicate clearly that it would now be dealing with higher-level technology releases, with its first meeting in Washington DC on June 5-6.

Working with others

President Biden upgraded the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), involving Australia, India, Japan, and US, to summit-level meetings, after it had been reactivated during the Trump presidency first with official and then Ministerial level discussions.  It has met since 2021 with one virtual and three in-person summits. Discussions are being held in this format, inter alia, on issues related to health security, supply chain resilience, norms for critical and emerging technologies and greater connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.

In October 2021, the US also established, along with India, Israel, and the UAE, a new group, the I2U2, which had its first summit-level meeting in July 2022, during President Biden’s visit to Israel. The joint statement issued on the occasion spoke of cooperation in joint investments and new initiatives in water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security. It was announced that the UAE would begin by investing about $2 billion in food parks in India for food security in the Gulf region. Additional projects were announced in India on renewable energy, and plans for infrastructure construction to improve connectivity in the Gulf.

Managing differences

One important test of any relationship is the ability to manage differences and their consequences. In the India-US context, this was tested in the context of Russia/Ukraine, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

India did not go along with the US in condemning or sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. India has a legacy defense relationship with Russia, with nearly 60% of its defense inventory still of Russian origin, despite diversification over the past two decades and increasing purchases from US, France and Israel. In the past the USSR and then Russia have provided political support for India when it was under pressure from the West, and had opposed US-led sanctions against India following our nuclear tests in 1998. In this instance, the US showed understanding for India’s compulsions, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recognizing that India’s relations with Russia had developed when the US was “not able to be a partner to India”. He further asserted that the “times have changed” and US was now “able and willing to be a partner of choice with India across virtually every realm – commerce, technology, education, and security”. US National Security Adviser Jake Sulivan said that with India, the US was “playing the long game”. India also repeatedly expressed support for “territorial integrity and sovereignty” of countries, an indirect criticism of Russia’s action. In a meeting with President Putin, PM Modi said that “this was not an era of war”, a comment widely and approvingly noted globally.

The US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by end August 2021 caused anxiety in India with the inevitable prospect of a Taliban takeover, and attendant possibilities of Af-Pak based terrorism finding even more fertile soil and exploitation by Pakistani agencies for anti-India activity. There was, however, recognition of the fatigue in US society and body politic from extended overseas military engagements. India also moved deftly amidst the flux to establish a liaison presence in Kabul for continuing with its humanitarian assistance. There have been reports of differences between the Taliban and the Pakistan establishment, including on TTP. There have also been no reports so far of any major Afghanistan-based terrorism directed against India.

There was also unease in India on the US decision to authorize a $450 million sustainment package for F-16s with Pakistan, which it has used against India. From the US perspective, it wants to sustain some ability to communicate effectively with the Pakistani leadership, particularly in the army, and from a strategic and commercial perspective be able to sustain the efficacy of platforms it has supplied in the past. This is clearly an area where the two countries will disagree, but there is sufficient dynamic in the overall relationship to deal with this hump.

Role of the diaspora

The visit will also be a celebration of the breadth of the relationship.

The Indian origin diaspora in the US is now estimated to be more than four million, the largest single country presence of persons of Indian origin. They occupy key positions in the Administration, in the Congress and in business.

Trade has reached a level of $191 billion, with the US being India’s largest partner. Both have invested around $40 billion in the other, with Indian companies now having a presence in all 50 US States. The defense trade and technology partnership is growing, with both doing more military exercises with each other, with increasing complexity and building towards interoperability. There are more than 200,000 Indian students in US universities, with potential for developing new networks of commercial relationships in the future.

Both leaders will, no doubt, also use the visit to send a message to stakeholders in the relationship, and globally. There will be a recognition of shared interests, including in the Indo-Pacific, and the utility of shared values. There will be support for democracy, human rights and inclusiveness. But most of all, there will be an acknowledgement of the growing convergence of interests, despite some differences, amidst the current global flux and challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


     

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