How Modi-Biden chemistry proved to be a game-changer | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

How Modi-Biden chemistry proved to be a game-changer

By, Washington
Jun 29, 2023 04:42 AM IST

The personal relationship between PM Modi and US President Joe Biden has become a driver of India-US ties, officials say

The personal relationship between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been the “game-changer” in driving the India-United States relationship, according to Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator of the US National Security Council.

US President Joe Biden with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.(PTI) PREMIUM
US President Joe Biden with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.(PTI)

A senior administration official, separately, also said the national security advisers (NSAs) of the two countries, Ajit Doval and Jake Sullivan, were the “architects” of the GE jet engine deal, which will now be a model going forward for bilateral defence industrial cooperation, including in domains such as hypersonics. The US system is sending a very “clear signal” to the American private sector to invest in India in sensitive domains, the official added.

Read | India-US friendship among most consequential in world, says Biden

Reviewing Modi’s State visit last week to the US, in conversations with HT, administration officials acknowledged that Biden and Modi had discussed China, both were “pragmatic” and wanted a stable relationship with China, but both also wanted to engage with China “from a position of strength”.

Looking ahead, the administration, they said, believes that it is time to deliver on the promises in the joint statement, maintain the ambition in the relationship, and prepare for further high-level diplomacy, especially with Biden scheduled to travel to India for the G20 summit in September.

Read | PM Modi, at rare press conference with Joe Biden, hails ‘new chapter’ of India-US ties. 10 points

The planning and outcomes

While planning for the State visit, the idea was to create an event with a series of activities and engagements that were “no less than historic” and would take the bilateral relationship between India and US to the next level, Campbell told HT.

Asked about the expectations during the planning stage and the eventual outcome, Campbell said, “There was a desire to anchor the relationship in, first of all, just the personal relationship between the two leaders, but then to make clear that our foundation included strong and new partnerships around technology, working together on innovative approaches to defence that would endeavour to provide India with cutting edge capabilities that would fulfill their ambitions to develop more indigenous capabilities, and then to highlight every element of the people to people part of our relationship.” This means more educational opportunities, improving the process for visas, and acknowledging the strength and depth of the diaspora relations, he added.

Campbell said that the US was “quite pleased” with what was a “remarkably detailed and specific set of deliverables”.

“We thought that the joint statement was ambitious, and will continue to be very consequential. So yes, I think we were very pleased. And, I think more importantly, we saw our Indian interlocutors, as we said farewell to them on Saturday, were impressed, and, in many respects, touched and moved by how much we put into the visit.”

Campbell said that this really started at the top with the personal relationship between Biden and Modi on full ‘display”.

“Their ability to talk about every issue in great depth and sincerity really struck me as the game-changer in our bilateral relationship.”

The personal dynamic

Explaining the personal dynamic between the leaders and offering a flavour of the conversations, a senior administration official said that Biden and Modi share some personal characteristics.

“One is that they are both extremely good listeners and they are quite personally courteous and attentive. And so that just basic reality yields a very warm ability for both of them to interact. They are both deeply experienced. They both are leaders that know where they want to take their countries. I think, just like President Biden is very focused on workers and the middle class, PM Modi really is constantly thinking about the ability to improve the livelihoods of the Indian people,” the official pointed out.

Those involved in the visit also claimed that the “unusually good chemistry” was reflected in the range of the conversations that the two leaders had.

“They are able to talk about job training, education, technology, regional security, China, every issue, with a degree of both confidence, but also a desire to learn about what the other leader says and beliefs.”

GE model for the future

With the GE jet engine deal being seen as a key breakthrough during the visit, the official credited Sullivan and Doval as the “key architects” of the agreement.

When asked about the significance of the decision from the American perspective, the administration official said that Sullivan had realised that if the US was to make a “really, absolutely defining decision” to provide India with the capability to co-produce the “most sophisticated and best jet engine on the market,” it would send a “powerful signal” to India about what was possible. This was then enabled by the initiative on critical and emerging technologies (iCET), back and forth meetings between various Indian and American authorities, and with key GE executives to “clear away impediments”.

Asked about Modi’s comments that the visit marked India and the US moving away from the traditional “buyer-seller” relationship and the possibilities opened up by GE, the official said, “I think this will be the model going forward, and I think we recognise how much India wants to be able to co-produce and move towards indigenous efforts. So I think you will see more cooperation in aerospace, in innovative fields like hypersonics. My belief is that this will again, as the PM indicated, be a way for us to move away from the traditional buyer seller arrangement,” the senior official said.

Signal to private sector

Given the presence of top private sector chief executives at the “tech handshake” event attended by Biden and Modi, as well as the range of private sector announcements that were a part of the joint statement, HT asked senior administration officials if the US system was sending a signal to US capital to invest in India in sensitive domains.

“I think that’s exactly the signal that we’re sending…I think the signal is that we are encouraging companies to consider India for manufacturing for research and development, basically for every element of technology exploration. And I think that call is being heeded. While PM Modi was in the US, our best judgment is that he met with over a 100 leading CEOs from every part of manufacturing, technology to finance and investment,” the official responded.

The administration believes that the message is getting out, and it is clearly being recognised that this is “India’s time”.

Asked whether there was a wider buy-in of both bureaucracies, or whether the process was only top-led, the American official — who has worked with both the leadership but also the wider systems in both countries for years — said that what he found was different this time was the “broad-based support” in both governments.

“There weren’t the same inhibitions and roadblocks that I have experienced in the past. And so I think in many respects, there really is a kind of escape velocity that is being established. And the support for the relationship extends now to broader reaches of both of our bureaucracies,” he added.

The China factor and looking ahead

The official said, in response to a question about the salience of the shared anxieties over China’s actions, that China was indeed a subject of discussion but not the sole focus.

“The India-US relationship has a dynamic of its own and is animated by a number of factors, and China is simply one of them. The president and PM Modi have had discussions all along about the Indo-Pacific, about trends and challenges, and some of those indeed involve China,” he said.

Explaining the convergence, the official said that both Biden and Modi were “pragmatic”.

“They believe it’s important to have a stable, steady relationship with China, but it’s also important to engage directly with China from a position of strength. And I think that’s the kind of animating approach that both leaders take when they discuss China.”

Looking forward to the next steps in the relationship, the US administration believes that an important first step after a summit of this nature is to make sure that there is “follow up” and delivery on promises. Two, the official said, it was important to maintain the ambition.

“We are still at the relative beginning of a long journey, a journey, which, I believe, in the bilateral context is the most important bilateral journey that the US is on.”

And the third step is to prepare for more high-level diplomacy with both Biden and Modi extensively speaking about their respective “hopes and expectations” from the summit in September.

“We are buoyed by what we thought was an extraordinarily successful visit and we are not going to rest on our laurels. We are going to continue to engage, to take the necessary steps to lift this critical relationship up,” the official said.

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