The Prime Minister of the Republic of India, Narendra Modi embarked on a three-day state visit to the United States in late June 2023. The visit was symbolic and significant in many ways. Symbolic for the fact that the two nations have agreed to grow closer in their attempt to steer through geopolitical headwinds, and significant because it truly espouses to be “The US-India Comprehensive Global and Strategic Partnership”.
Graphics by Geostrata
If we dive back into History and understand the bilateral relationship since India’s independence, the US was instrumental in helping India achieve food security, first by facilitating wheat exports under the PL-480 scheme and later institutionally aiding India’s Green Revolution program. The Cold War narrative of India which was based on defining “strategic autonomy” was always a concept used when looking at the relations with the West and its leader in the post-second world war period, i.e. the United States.
When the American elites of the 1950s looked at an Asia that was undergoing decolonisation, the choice was simple, yet complex. They had a Communist China on one hand and an English-speaking democratic yet ‘socialist’ India on the other. They understood that the balance of power in Asia will be decided by how these two civilizational modern states grow their relations relative to each other and with the US.
America chose to deepen engagement with China in the early 1970s because in China, they saw a player with the potential to contain & counter India in South Asia whereas they contained the Soviet Union. The Sino-Soviet crisis had opened an opportunity for Washington to break the Communist bloc. This necessitated geopolitical compulsions and accelerated India’s engagement with the USSR as a natural partner.
It is important to remember the 1971 war when New Delhi unilaterally changed the political geography of the subcontinent despite strict warnings from Washington in favour of its ally, Islamabad. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, India and the US tried to grow closer but were distanced apart by how the two approached their Pakistan policy. The US wanted a competent India, but not a stronger India than Pakistan. It was in their interest to maintain the parity of powers between the arch-rivals in the subcontinent.
When India conducted the first peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974, the US was quick to build a global coalition of partners by institutionalizing nuclear regimes in an attempt to isolate India’s nuclear program. America’s attempts to isolate India at various international forums are in the open for academia and policymakers to look at. But as the two leaders summed it up - hesitations of History need to be erased.
There is a strong consensus across the aisle in Washington, on the need to have India by their side if they want to challenge the China-Russia axis in Eurasia. However, there is always an element of India's 'strategic culture' that always seeks to let the country be in near alliance-like positions with countries, especially with the US.
As PM Modi seeks to build an Atmanirbhar Bharat, India’s indigenous modernisation of armed forces is both complemented by greater facilitation of technology transfer by the ‘superpower’ as well as restricted by shifting dependency from Moscow to Washington in terms of defence equipment. However, the Modi Government is very tactful in how it handles its US policy.
What PM Manmohan Singh did when he signed the 123 Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal was that he opened the doors for the relationship to move ahead looking at the prospects of the 21st century. What PM Modi has done with this visit is clinch a victory in getting the bilateral relationship elevated to the status of ‘The U.S.-India Comprehensive Global and Strategic Partnership’.
The change in gears, so to say, which includes greater cooperation at various multilateral forums or technology transfer or enhanced security dialogue for the Indo-Pacific has been quite instrumental in silently giving India something which neither the Russians nor the Chinese could get. Elites in Moscow and Beijing have done everything that they could to get a global comprehensive deal from the US - the former called it “The Grand Deal” whereas the latter called it “The New Model of Great Power Relationship”.
However, one is engaged in an existential war in Europe whereas the other might be preparing for one in Asia. India could get the same deal from the US at a better offer, primarily because India has a democratic polity and a leader like Mr. Modi who is offering political stability to a big country at a time when the global order is undergoing churns.
Technology, once an impediment in building a trustful India-US relationship, has today become the cornerstone of this relationship, hailed by many in Washington as their most consequential relationship for the 21st century. Partnerships like iCET (Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology) is a major milestone between the two as both look to increase government-to-government, people-to-people and business-to-business cooperation to facilitate a greater harmony in how technology is used to shape democratic societies in an era that is seeing continuous challenge from authoritarian regimes.
It is important for India, having missed out on previous industrial revolutions because of being under the chains of colonialism, to look through the contemporary technological discourse and prepare the society to become an advanced knowledge economy with the help of cutting-edge technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing. This will help India in building Gross Comprehensive National Power while not missing the bus for the ongoing digital revolution across the globe.
India and the US have concluded their agreement in space cooperation, the Artemis Accords being the backbone in this domain. NASA and ISRO are possibly collaborating on sending Indian astronauts on space missions as India looks to benefit in space exploration and space mining by using the American Space Industry’s expertise. Apart from building the world's first Space Force, the Trump administration had embarked on what is called the “Artemis Program''. Undertaken under the same program, Artemis Accords has been written and signed by 27 nations, India being the latest one to join.
The two leaders welcomed India’s decision to accept the invitation to join the Minerals Security Partnership, a western led coalition to ‘corner’ critical minerals that are crucial for national security in this century. There was an agreement to increase camaraderie in various multilateral groupings under the QUAD and the I2U2 format. These include manufacturing of semiconductors in India, reshaping global supply chains in a manner which democratically diversifies from the country, on which both India and the US are heavily dependent for their core industries - China.
Although the two sides made sure to not make this relationship blossom completely on the ‘China Threat’ factor, there is an inherent consensus on the need to keep the Indo-Pacific free, open and inclusive to deter China from displacing the geopolitical theater of the 21st century.
America understands that the defence dependency that India has on Russia needs to be diverted if they are to really build a multi-faceted comprehensive partnership. The Defense Partnership has been hailed by PM Modi as the backbone of the contemporary relationship.
The two sides include fast-growing technological domains like quantum computing and artificial intelligence in defence collaboration, something not seen traditionally in defence discourses which tends to focus greatly on military equipment. The deal to manufacture the GE F414 jet engines and the MQ-9 reaper drones in India will serve as an advantage for India when it comes to building domestic defence manufacturing capacities.
For the first time in India’s history, one can say that the acceptance of having better ties between Washington and New Delhi is better acknowledged and appreciated in Washington than in New Delhi. The Biden administration has shown that India matters to their vision for the 21st century.
As far as the future of the two democracies is concerned, it suits them on paper as well as in reality to go walk together towards a shared destiny of people from both countries as well as a global good, rallied by the hugely influential Indian-American community.
BY SUMEDH DESAI