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Modi Comes to Washington: Prospects and Challenges for India-US Relations

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Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | South Asia

Modi Comes to Washington: Prospects and Challenges for India-US Relations

Exploring the trajectory of the relationship in four key sectors: defense, global order, business and technology, and climate change.

Modi Comes to Washington: Prospects and Challenges for India-US Relations

U.S. President Joe Biden greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Global Summit on Supply Chain Resilience, October 21, 2021, at La Nuvola Convention Center in Rome.

Credit: Official White House photo

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for his highly anticipated visit to Washington, the global stage is set for an important chapter in the India-U.S. relationship. As the United States deepens its Indo-Pacific engagement and India solidifies its regional prowess, the partnership between these democratic powerhouses has the potential to reshape the geopolitical chessboard. Against a backdrop of transformative changes, this pivotal moment prompts a question: What lies ahead for these two influential nations?

In this conversation-style piece, we bring together a group of accomplished experts, each illuminating a different facet of the complex tapestry that is India-U.S. relations. From shared concerns over global security to mutual interests in emerging technologies and sustainable development, our expert commentators dissect the intricate threads that bind these nations together – unraveling fresh prospects and critical challenges that await.

Elevating the Defense Partnership

–C. Raja Mohan

For nearly two decades and across many administrations, India and the United States have steadily expanded their bilateral strategic partnership. While much progress has been made in the last few years, Modi’s visit to Washington is expected to give the relationship “escape velocity,” in the words of a U.S. National Security Council official and Indo-Pacific coordinator. In boosting their bilateral cooperation amid a convergence of the two countries’ interests in Asia, the visit will focus on consolidating recent efforts to deepen ties in defense as well as the high-technology domain. 

The last few weeks have seen intense consultations between the two sides and a series of high-profile visits to finalize the outcomes of the talks between Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden on June 22. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited New Delhi earlier in June. India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra were in Washington in January and June of this year, respectively. 

A framework for cooperation in advanced technologies, a road map for defense industrial cooperation, and an agreement for expanding strategic trade are now in place. Modi and Biden have been pressing their respective bureaucracies to overcome the many regulatory obstacles to more productive collaboration in these areas. Agreements to facilitate the manufacture of jet engines for Indian fighter aircraft by General Electric and to promote cooperation in critical and emerging technologies are expected to figure prominently among the deliverables from Modi’s state visit to Washington.

India, which could not access U.S. weapons during the Cold War, has bought $20 billion worth of arms over the last two decades. The armed forces in India and the United States engage in extensive bilateral military exercises and minilateral ones with the four partners in the Quad Forum – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The ambition is to look beyond arms purchases and facilitate the production of weapons in India through collaboration between defense firms in the two countries. 

The incentive for the United States is helping India reduce its historical dependence on Russia for its military supplies. For New Delhi, it is about fulfilling Modi’s goal to turn India from the world’s largest importer of weapons into a major producer of weapons. Such collaboration will also help India bridge the massive gap in military capabilities with China with strong support from the United States. Both New Delhi and Washington have a strong interest in stabilizing the Asian balance of power and coping with the geopolitical churn triggered by China’s rise and Beijing’s assertiveness in Asia.

Navigating the Global Order

–Manjari Chatterjee Miller

The India-U.S. partnership has been transformed from a tense relationship into one of expanding cooperation across sectors. Although many, particularly in the United States, had hoped for a close partnership for years, few would have predicted the extent of the transformation in the relationship. India and the United States now collaborate on security challenges, defense, intelligence consultations, military exercises, health, disaster preparedness, emerging technologies, and even education. Both countries have concerns about China’s rise, contributing to a shared sense of urgency about the global order if China were to become the next superpower.

However, important challenges to the relationship remain. The United States worries about India’s commitment to the norms of the current global order and its perceived reluctance to rock the geopolitical boat. India’s reliance on Russian military imports and oil (Russia has displaced Iraq as India’s top oil supplier), and its reluctance to unambiguously condemn Russia in the Ukraine war, remain thorns. India’s position in the event of an escalation or even conflict in the Taiwan Strait is also ambiguous. The idea of mutual defense, a key plank of many of the United States’ bilateral partnerships, is unthinkable for the Indian government.

The state of Indian democracy and reports of the Indian government violating the civil liberties of minorities and journalists are another cause for U.S. concern. While the Biden administration is unlikely to make any public criticism – as made evident in Modi’s upcoming state visit – members of Congress may not have such inhibitions. Modi is set to address a joint meeting of Congress on June 22.

From India’s perspective, the Indian government was anxious, if not publicly critical, about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and what seemed to be a pivot away from important issues, such as Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism. India also worries about the divisions in U.S. politics and what next year’s presidential election could portend for the United States’ performance on the world stage and its commitment to its partners. U.S. immigration policy also poses a problem. Legal pathways of immigration for Indian citizens, a highly skilled source of labor for the United States, have run into myriad issues, including absurdly long wait times for visas. The India-U.S. trade relationship is also narrowly focused and hampered by Indian protectionism.

Overall, India sees itself as having a large stake in the success of the India-U.S. relationship – a drastic change from its past attitude – and the United States sees India as one of its most valuable partners today. This trajectory is unlikely to change in the near future.

Elevating Business and Technology Horizons 

–Mukesh Aghi 

Modi’s upcoming visit to Washington holds historical significance, as it marks the first state visit by an Indian prime minister to the United States in over a decade. The India-U.S. strategic partnership, which I believe is the most defining relationship of the 21st century, encompasses a wide range of shared concerns and priorities. These include deepening trade and commercial ties, strengthening defense and technology relations, joint clean energy efforts, and collaboration on health care in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to these priorities, there is a growing focus on rebuilding and restoring disrupted supply chains in the aftermath of the pandemic. Many CEOs are now adopting a “China plus one” strategy, seeking to diversify their supply chains. This presents an opportunity for New Delhi to bolster its manufacturing economy through initiatives such as Make in India and the Production Linked Incentives (PLI) schemes. Recent instances of successful India-U.S. commercial cooperation include Air India’s purchase of over 200 Boeing aircraft, which carries significant implications for the commercial partnership and the American manufacturing sector.

Furthermore, Apple’s decision to establish its first retail store in India not only enhances the country’s attractiveness to other tech companies but also showcases its capability to produce cutting-edge technology and strengthen its manufacturing potential. This move is a crucial indication that companies are diversifying their supply chains away from China. Given the geopolitical dynamics surrounding semiconductors, New Delhi can also signal its readiness to become a hub for chip manufacturing and case manufacturing.

Modi’s government has made commendable efforts to improve the business environment and simplify tax laws in India, addressing previous constraints on American investors. Initiatives like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and labor law reforms have helped foster a more investor-friendly climate. Earlier this year, the Washington-New Delhi strategic partnership was strengthened by the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET), which encompasses areas such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, defense, innovation, space, advanced telecom, and semiconductors. An anticipated announcement during the visit includes a potential jet engine deal that would not only foster commercial success but also boost India’s defense capabilities.

The India-U.S. partnership has the potential to transform the lives of citizens and tackle critical challenges in climate, supply chains, healthcare, and technology in the 21st century. Modi’s upcoming state visit underscores the significance of this partnership.

Advancing Climate Action and Sustainability

–Farwa Aamer and Meera Gopal

In recent times, the imperative to combat climate change and foster sustainable development has thrust climate and energy issues to the forefront of the India-U.S. bilateral relationship. The convergence of interests, shared commitment to climate action, and complementarity in expertise and resources provide a solid foundation for robust collaboration between the two countries. 

Initiatives like the India-U.S. Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE), launched in 2009, exemplify successful cooperation in research, technology transfer, and project implementation, fostering the growth of renewable energy deployment in India. Moreover, the 2021 Leaders Summit on Climate witnessed the launch of the India-U.S. Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership, reaffirming the two nations’ dedication to the Paris Agreement and their long-standing willingness to work jointly to achieve their ambitious climate and clean energy targets. In the lead-up to the state visit, the promise of India-U.S. joint action has been publicly reiterated by both countries at various levels of engagements. 

This partnership presents multiple opportunities, including reducing methane emissions, advancing the green hydrogen agenda, supporting India’s planned emissions trading system, and collaborating on decarbonization solutions as needed. There are ample prospects to jointly advance capacity for strengthening climate resilience, including increased research and development, data availability, and tools to help national, state, and local officials in climate adaptation planning. 

Modi is likely to maintain the focus on promoting the Mission Lifestyle for Environment (LiFE) and securing financing for consumption reduction policies. Additionally, as the current president of the G-20, India has a unique opportunity to highlight its crucial role as the “voice” of the Global South for the West. 

However, challenges persist, such as the necessity for international financing to achieve net-zero targets as well as the concerns surrounding an agreement on a Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) deal. The United States can assist by facilitating access to funds for India’s ambitious goals and working toward an equitable national energy transition plan that considers the socioeconomic impact of the coal phase-out.

Modi’s state visit has the potential to strengthen joint climate strategies ahead of COP28 – which includes the first-ever Global Stocktake under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – in December 2023. By deepening the partnership on clean energy and climate action, both nations can achieve their global climate goals while fostering economic growth, job creation, and energy security. This collaboration will serve as a powerful model for innovation and sustainable development, setting the stage for the wider Global South to follow suit.