India and US Engagement: Deliberate and Determined Delivery
K P Vijayalakshmi

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US has become the focus of discussion amongst the strategic community across the world. Being dubbed as “the most consequential, comprehensive strategic partnership”, India-US ties have withstood the degree of differences over areas of concerns by their measured candor created by valuable dialogues such as the 2+2 Dialogue and the more recent, the Strategic Trade Dialogue. Parsing the positive developments in various areas reveals a deliberate pace that both countries have adopted with emphasis on deliverables.

In the recent past, the assessment of several calendarized dialogue mechanisms as well as Summit level agreements provide testimony to the determination of India and US to sustain the relationship in multiple sectors. The current level of engagement displays ‘all of the government and society approach’ that continues to be based on bipartisan support in both countries despite internal political changes over the last ten years.

Since entering into “Strategic partnership” in 2004, cooperation in the ties have been pursued with deliberation and determinationin areas of nuclear, defense, healthcare, technology, space, education, energy and so on with both displaying “the ability to manage some significant differences on global issues by showing an understanding for mutual compulsions”, as rightly posited by Amb. Arun Singh. However, arriving at such an understanding has taken time and effort with some missteps.

Given that both are democracies, the negotiations and the outcomes have been transparent thereby, differences as well as growing convergence have invited tremendous scrutiny around the world. Yet, the logic of this persistent pursuit of mutual gains has been self-evident. For instance, the strategic convergence has led the way for defence cooperation and trade between the two countries, such as the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) which acted as a “silent enabler”, which moved the framework in the direction of high technology transfers beyond the alliance rules of the US. Since the first “framework on defence cooperation” in 2005, the numerous extensions (the last one in 2016 for ten years), have helped the cooperation to grow. However, as has been pointed out, the perceptual differences over geographic responsibilities in the Indian Ocean region and the weightage for maritime over continental domains in India’s tussle with China, issues arising in the area of interoperability, India’s dependence on Russian defence equipment and indigenisation vs protectionism need to be addressed. Yet, to the credit of the interlocutors, some efforts in this direction such as the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s statement to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on ‘State Department Budget Request 2023’on April 26, 2022 regarding the opportunity of reducing Indian dependence on Russian defence exports has been noteworthy.

Encompassing the geopolitical, strategic and economic spheres, the relationship has fairly withstood the pressures of day-to-day internal politics of both, while firmly focussing on not just shared values but strategic interests as well. Defence cooperation, a “robust pillar of the relationship” has been accompanied by the synchronizing of bilateral (Atmanirbharta and Make in America) regional (Indo-Pacific strategy, QUAD, I2U2) and global (Energy, healthcare, resilient supply chains amongst others) goals. The Indian signing of the four foundational agreements has cemented the cooperation firmly. At the root of this broad strategic cooperation is the perception of China as a ‘major strategic competitor’ for the US and as a ‘military threat’ for India. Evidence points to the continued overriding strategic interests that both have in deepening their partnership.

The year has witnessed further elevation of the strategic partnership as a new initiative on cooperation in Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) that involves “artificial intelligence, quantum, cyber/6G, semiconductors, defence, commercialisation of space, biotech and green energy” was unveiled. The subsequent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding, announced at the relaunch of the U.S.-India Commercial Dialogue with a focus on clean energy as well as semiconductor supply chains..

Previously, the US Department of Commerce and Government of India had launched the U.S.-India CEO Forum in November 2022 that identified key priorities as increasing supply chain resilience; enhancing energy security & reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions; advancing inclusive digital trade; and facilitating post-pandemic economic recovery, especially for small businesses.

The March 2023 Strategic Trade Dialogue further reiterated, that along with commercial opportunities, key areas of shared interests would take centre stage “…including the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) for Prosperity, semiconductors, and supply chain resilience”. These plans exemplify the interest of the two countries in investing in a long-term relationship that involves a combination of geopolitical and geo-economic strategic thinking. However, as key officials have brought out, while India has joined many verticals of the IPEF, the trade pillar has not been in those. Long standing divergences on market access, tariffs (especially on steel and aluminium), agricultural subsidies, labour and environmental standards, along with issues of data localisation and US’ temporary worker visa policy to name a few, cause concern. The well-known investment details between the two have been well supported by the following: “Many US companies view India as a critical market and have expanded their operations in India. Likewise, Indian companies seek to increase their presence in the US markets and at the end of 2020, Indian investment in the United States totalled US$ 12.7 billion, supporting over 70,000 American jobs. Nearly 200,000 Indian students in the United States contribute US$ 7.7 billion annually to the US economy”. Providing a strong mechanism to overcome these issues thus remains the key to unlock the geoeconomic potential that awaits.

The continual developments in India-US ties provide a strong context to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US. Reports already point to a number of tangible outcomes that were expected with this state visit, beginning with setting “… new benchmarks in the India-US defence relationship and bring the two closer on issues of co-production and co-development in unprecedented ways”, as posited by Ely Ratner, the US Assistant Secretary of Indo-Pacific Security Affairs. Confirming the “revolutionary transition” that would characterize the US export control system, the Strategic Trade dialogue on June 6th between the Indian Foreign Secretary Kwatra and his American counterpart deliberated on the issue of export control barriers. Even as critics point to the unrealistic expectations based on previous record or on the basis of reciprocity of sharing the burden during crisis (such as Indian support during a Taiwan crisis), or on the transactional nature that misgauges intent of both countries, there are indications that, at the time of writing, “big, historic announcements” regarding defence industrial cooperation are going to be made that include US support to a major GE project to produce jet engines in India. This signal’s US’ trust of India as future partner of choice given that the only countries that have the capability of producing jet engines are Russia, France, UK and the US. India, on its part, has been a willing dialogue partner determined to overcome the bureaucratic dismals.

While deliverables are the focus, the issue of Micron Technology to set up an assembly, testing, marking and packaging (ATMP) facility in India involving an investment of about $1 billion is also being reported. According to one report, “The world’s fifth largest semiconductor company, based in Idaho, USA, will use the facility to process some of its own wafers, manufactured across the globe”. In the already heated atmosphere of the US China tech war, the possibility/ probability of a Micron investment in India will in fact be a game changer.

The state visit of Prime Minister Modi has been meticulously curated by the White House. While the PM will address a joint session of US Congress (a rare opportunity for a second time), diasporic (the 2.7 million Indian immigrants constitute a total of 6% of the foreign-born population) events also feature as a part of acknowledging the close people-to-people ties that have played an integral part in taking the relations forward. Their strong presence in key states like California and Texas, increasing political clout and high median incomes certainly attract members of the US Congress as indeed the Presidency.

Noteworthy is the role played by the House India Caucus (where one of the Co-Chairs (Sherman)and Vice chairs (Ro Khanna) are from California as is speaker McCarthy) in curating the Prime Minister’s visit. The Senate India Caucus ( first country-focused caucus established in the Senate in 2004) co-chairs Senators Mark Warner (D) and John Cornyn (R) while praising India “for standing up to China on the border” and expressing understanding of India’s legacy issues on the Russian defence purchases, have yet called attention to India’s domestic politics. This is a signal that such issues will have to be factored in the overall management of the relationship as other lawmakers have also been vocal on such issues. It remains to be seen whether they can become irritants as both countries face elections next year. The much-awaited speech by Prime Minister to the joint session of the US Congress is thus a critical opportunity to articulate India’s critical interests.

Part of the discussions will certainly involve the continuing War in Ukraine and the need for India to be “more explicit” on Russia; however, contrary to the anxieties of many observers that it would pivot US attention away from the Indo Pacific theater, reports of the US Defence Secretary Austin’s statement in Delhi “We established an ambitious new roadmap for defence industrial cooperation with a fast-track (and) high-priority for co-development and co-production projects and to build closer ties between our defence industries. We look forward to advancing some of those projects during the upcoming visits" and Indian Defence Minister’s statement “India-US partnership is critical for ensuring a free, open and rules-bound Indo-Pacific region. We look forward to closely work with the US across the domains for capacity building and further consolidating our strategic partnership,"emphasized how the focus was on developing a joint strategy that addresses geopolitical and regional interests well into the future.

The expected approval by the Defence Acquisition Council of India for acquiring Predator drones from US (General Atomics) that would enhance anti- terror capabilities of India has emphasized that the relationship is not constrained to the “C” factor alone. The June 14th meeting between the two NSAs, Duval -Sullivan, put the relationship as entering a phase of “orbital jump” in which technology cooperation through the “India-US Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies” would be the key to unlock further potential of the relationship. The resultant "co-development and co-production of high technology products and services in both countries … (in) artificial intelligence, quantum computing, semiconductors, defence and space” would be enabled by the strategic trade dialogue that will address issues of regulatory barriers and export controls.

Setting up institutional mechanisms to deal with what have been the proverbial roadblocks, balancing the critics of India and China hawks point to a mutuality and equity approach that transcends the reciprocity and transactional. As the long-term US strategy recognizes India as a growing economic, technological and military power with which multi-faceted engagement is vital, India too, with a border conflict with China and increasing tech driven wars, has swiftly realised the opportunity it provides. By choosing the connect of defence industry, India has shown its own long term strategy of building capacities and readiness for technology absorption while committing to a rules based international order.

Thus, progress in the maturation of the relationship and deepening of ties has been steady as US interest in maintaining a “calculated long-term strategy to ensure India remains part of a networked security architecture in the Indo-Pacific” and “maintains the confidence and capabilities to stand up to Chinese aggression” has met with Indian interests. Such an approach was already visible in the Biden Administration’s focus on Quad alliance that includes Australia and Japan, and the more formal partnership with India, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (I2U2). The realistic nature of this approach provides opportunities for recalibration of policies to mutual benefit that transcends the reliance on an alliance only model with unrealistic expectations.

In sum, in the historic juncture of PM Modis visit, it is important note the many developments in the geopolitical environment starting with the long-drawn Russia-Ukraine War, Meetings of G7and G20, several Security Dialogues such as Shangri La Dialogue have already had an India-US imprint. Given the strategic requisites, that will surely grow.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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