World Affairs

A New Era of Collaboration: How Modi and Biden Turbocharged India-US Relations

India-US relations

US President Joe Biden has described India’s relationship with his country as one of the world’s most consequential after a lavish state visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington. BBC’s Vikas Pandey and Soutik Biswas explore the factors that contribute to the visit’s potential to strengthen (India-US) bilateral relations.

A pomp-filled state visit by Mr Modi to the White House concluded with Mr Biden saying the India-US relations are “stronger, closer and more dynamic than ever before”.

Michael Kugelman of The Wilson Center, an American think tank, says the summit shows how broad and deep the relationship has become in such a short period of time.

As a counterbalance to China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, Washington wishes to draw India closer. Because of a liability law passed by India three years later, ties between India and the United States have not lived up to their promise after a landmark civilian nuclear deal in 2005.

During [former prime minister] Manmohan Singh’s second term as the head of a coalition government, the relationship dwindled. According to Seema Sirohi, author of Friends With Benefits: The India-US Story, Mr Modi has embraced the US with a lot more enthusiasm. He has also given an overall broad directive to make it work,” she says.

Defence-industrial cooperation and technology topped the list of US deliverables for Mr Modi’s visit, says Sirohi.

India’s indigenous light combat aircraft will be powered by advanced fighter jet engines made by General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Essentially, this means that “US jet engine technology will be transferred more than ever before” – a sign that Washington is comfortable sharing military technology with India as well as selling arms to it.

India will proceed with a $3bn purchase of the battle-tested MQ-9B Predator drones from General Atomics, which will also set up a facility in India. The drones will be assembled in India, which fits into Mr Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign. India receives only 11% of its arms from the US – Russia supplies 45% – but hopes to become the largest supplier in the future. According to Kugelman, Washington is trying to “strengthen India’s military capacity to defend against China in the short term”.

A semiconductor assembly and test facility will be built in India by US memory chip giant Micron Technology, creating thousands of jobs.

Indian semiconductor education and workforce development will be accelerated with the training of 6,000 engineers by US semiconductor equipment maker Lam Research. In addition, Applied Materials will invest $400 million in India to establish an engineering center.

Ms Sirohi says both sides are talking about cutting-edge technologies and how to seed and shape the future.

There has been many ups and downs in the India-US relations since the US seriously courted India under President Bill Clinton and then under President George W. Bush.

Nonalignment, begun by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, has been a deeply rooted part of India’s foreign policy from the beginning.

The Modi administration has not abandoned the ideals of what some refer to as “strategic altruism” in Indian foreign policy.

Modi is leading a different kind of India, one with considerable economic and geopolitical heft. He has cultivated close relationships with former presidents Obama and Trump.

However, India’s “strategic autonomy” has not been sacrificed. Washington would have preferred India to take a more aggressive public stance against China and Russia.

Mr Modi repeated the message that “this is not the era of war” without mentioning Russia, but the Biden administration did not seem disappointed. Though he did not mention China by name, the Indian prime minister talked about the importance of a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific without mentioning China by name.

Despite the fact that it wasn’t the ideal way for Washington, it didn’t stand in the way of Mr Modi’s success on his visit.

They are now working more closely together. They have arrangements in place so that they are able to use each other’s facilities for fueling and maintenance. They are holding joint exercises and sharing more intelligence. The fact that Mr Modi has managed to really test the limits of strategic autonomy is commendable. In the sense that he is coming close to a major power without signing on to a full-fledged alliance.

Since Trump took office, India and the US have had major trade differences over tariffs.

In terms of trade, there was no expectation that the two sides would announce anything major, since it was understood that those discussions could continue later without overshadowing the visit.

However, the two sides announced that six separate trade disputes at the World Trade Organization had been resolved, including one concerning tariffs.

Currently, the US is India’s top trading partner, with $130bn in goods traded. Delhi is Washington’s eighth largest trading partner.

India is a burgeoning market with a growing middle class, and it has been positioning itself as an alternative to China to become the world’s manufacturing hub as well.

In that context, the resolution of trade disputes will give further impetus to the unlocking of the full potential of India-US trade ties.

The sky is not the limit (for India-US relations), according to Mr Modi.

A number of Washington critics have questioned India’s perceived “backsliding” under Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In an interview with Mr Biden and Mr Modi this week, Mr Obama stressed the importance of addressing the “protection of the Muslim minority in a predominantly Hindu India.”

In the Democratic Party, progressives are concerned about the situation in India, but realists and centrists are in favor of strengthening the relationship due to the China factor, says Ms Sirohi.

There is a bipartisan agreement to deepen and broaden the relationship. “India is now a strategic partner and friend,” says Ms. sirohi

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