Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Washington had a packed agenda. He held bilateral talks with President Joe Biden and discussed a range of issues ranging from COVID 19 and climate change to trade and defence. And if the hint from former President Obama is to be believed, the subjects of democracy and human rights made a guest appearance as well.
The PM also made an impressive address to a joint session of the US Congress (he was one of a handful to have done so twice) and highlighted the shared values and interests between the two countries, as well as the challenges posed by terrorism, extremism, and authoritarianism.
Modi also participated in the first-ever in-person Quad summit (earlier ones had been virtual) with the leaders of the US, Australia, and Japan and agreed to work together to ensure a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.
That was not all. He met with CEOs of leading US and Indian technology companies and discussed ways to enhance cooperation and innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence, digital economy, clean energy, and space. He signed several agreements and memoranda of understanding with the US to boost collaboration in several sectors.
Major Breakthroughs During Modi's Visit
A major breakthrough in the India-US technology cooperation that occurred during the Modi visit was the signing of the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET), which aims to foster collaboration in areas such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, quantum computing, 5G and cyber security.
This initiative will involve joint research and development, co-production and co-development of technologies, capacity building and policy dialogue between the two countries.
Micron Technology, one of the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturers, announced it would invest USD 825 million in a new chip assembly and test facility in Gujarat. This will create thousands of jobs, support India’s ambition to become a global hub for semiconductor manufacturing and innovation, and help India reduce its dependence on China for electronics.
India also signed the Artemis Accords, facilitating cooperation between ISRO and NASA, which will enable us to join the US-led lunar exploration program and participate in the US goal of again landing humans on the moon by 2024.
All in all, the Modi visit confirms that the Indo-US relationship is strong and strategic, based on common values and interests, and aimed at addressing global challenges and opportunities. It also shows us that the relationship is evolving and expanding. On the whole, the two leaders could look at each other and echo the words of the 1970s ad: "you’ve come a long way, baby!”
The Emerging Indo-US Bilateral Relations
No wonder things have taken off. In the first decades of India’s independence, its relations with the US were far from close. For decades during the Cold War, the world’s oldest democracy and its largest were essentially estranged.
The American preference for making anti-communist allies, however unsavoury, had tied Washington to a series of increasingly Islamist dictatorships in Pakistan, while the non-aligned democracy drifted toward the secular Soviet embrace.
With the end of the Cold War and India’s increasing integration into the global economy, a thaw set in, but India’s explosion of a nuclear device in 1998 triggered a fresh round of US sanctions. Bill Clinton began to turn things around with a hugely successful India visit during his last year in office. The Bush administration took matters much further with a landmark accord on civil nuclear cooperation. Obama and Trump built on this transformed relationship, and now it is Biden’s turn.
Both nations are anchored in democratic systems and are committed to the rule of law, diversity and pluralism, and the encouragement of innovation and enterprise.
As Henry Kissinger has noted, the two countries have 'no conflict of interest in the traditional and fundamental sense.’ The two countries’ trade and investment relations have multiplied significantly, giving each nation a more significant stake in the other than ever before.
Non-Governmental Ties & Contribution of the Diaspora
The US is India’s largest trading partner (if you take goods and services together) and American exports to India have, in the last ten years, grown faster than to any other country.
But governments do not determine every aspect of the economic relationship. US–India business ties have emerged as particularly crucial drivers of the relationship; despite the bureaucratic and domestic political impediments to faster growth, earlier delays in upgrading India’s shoddy infrastructure and the unavoidable transaction costs of doing business in India (including the prevalence of corruption), American firms rightly see the country’s long-term potential as one worth being invested in.
The transformation of the India–US relationship from estrangement to strategic partnership has occurred; thanks to various governments over the past quarter century, but very often also in spite of governments.
People-to-people relations, strengthened by a common language, by 150,000 Indian students a year spending USD 5 billion-plus on American educational and related services, and by more than four million people of Indian origin who have made their lives in the US, have been characterised by friendship and warmth.
The prominence of Indians in America, their vital role as fund-raisers for US politicians, their presence on Congressional staffs and governmental offices, all points to the influence of what is called the “samosa caucus”.
The US has had two Indian-American Governors, currently seven Congresspersons, a former Ambassador to the UN and now a Vice-President of Indian descent.
Many Indian-Americans have shown a willingness to stand up and be heard on issues that matter to India. I believe that in the long term, Indian Americans will come to play the same role in relation to US policy on India as Jewish-Americans play in relation to US policy on Israel, and for similar reasons.
Areas of Divergence
Today, both countries have a fairly comfortable view of each other. Both believe they can afford to take a benevolent view of the pursuit by the other of its own interests, secure in the belief that that pursuit would not fundamentally be incompatible with their own core national objectives on the world stage.
For all these areas of convergence, there have been equally strong areas of divergence in the relationship. How our two countries manage and navigate these differences will prove crucial to developing an enhanced strategic partnership.
The pattern down the decades has been one where every few years, with much optimism, declarations are made, or at least hopes loudly expressed, that India-US relations have entered a new, positive era, only to be undone by one setback or another.
Difficulties and differences have arisen on trade barriers, human rights and regional issues (though on those, the US has graduated from being a patron of Pakistan to a sceptic, and from illusions about China to a clearly adversarial stance). However, both sides have shown a willingness to engage and resolve issues through dialogue and mutual respect.
The major defence-related deals agreed between India and the US during the recent Modi visit prove that the differences are clearly not an obstacle to strengthening the strategic partnership.
Growing Defence Cooperation
India will procure 30 MQ-9B Predator armed drones from the US under a government-to-government framework to provide high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. India and the US will jointly produce General Electric F414 fighter jet engines for the Indian Air Force, to be manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
A Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, on the sharing of geospatial data and intelligence between the two countries, and a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, which will allow the two countries to use each other’s military bases and facilities for refuelling, repair and replenishment, were big steps forward.
And a Defence Technology and Trade Initiative will facilitate joint research and development, co-production and co-development of defence equipment and technologies.
All this suggests a sea-change from the cusp of the millennium. Today, the fundamentals undergirding our relationship include our democratic systems, mutual understanding, no significant areas of difference with the end of the Cold War, growing defence and technological co-operation, increasing business relationships and a thriving Indian-American community.
The Arena of Geopolitics
There is also an increasing convergence of geopolitical views, particularly on China’s rise and the threat it poses in East Asia, notably Taiwan, and also to India, after recent border incidents.
India is gradually moving from its traditional obsession with merely preserving its own strategic autonomy in the face of external pressure to a broader acceptance of its own responsibilities in shaping the world in which it wants to thrive. But it has been curiously diffident, even reluctant, to play an active global role. This may be changing, albeit slowly.
India has the capacity, the human and technological resources to play a major part, alongside the US, in the stewardship of the global commons, from cyberspace to outer space.
But there is not yet a fully-fledged consensus in New Delhi on what that entails and how far it permits the two countries to flesh out the meaning of the expression ‘natural allies’, first used by both governments at the beginning of the century.
It was long said that for the US, Pakistan was an ally but not a friend, and India was a friend but not an ally. That is still the case, but India is now clearly more a partner than a friend.
Perhaps, as the wicked expression has it, it is “a friend with benefits”.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’ (Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)