A pathway for deeper US-India ties has been laid
A shared sense of challenges, deepening people-to-people and commercial links, and diminishing relevance of obstacles have led to more meaningful India-US ties
The India-US relationship is one that continues to elicit surprise, which is itself surprising given the steady improvement for almost a quarter century under multiple leaderships in both countries. Beyond the pomp and ceremony, the outcomes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington represent cooperation across the wide breadth of the relationship, from strategic relations to economic engagement, technology cooperation to people-to-people links. The two leaders’ joint statement included some lofty language – “no corner of human enterprise is untouched by the partnership between our two great countries, which spans the seas to the stars” — but it is not all that exaggerated.
More significantly, rather than loose promises, the two countries laid out tangible cooperation in many of these areas, often involving private entities in the two nations. These include specific investments by companies in each other’s countries, the establishment of research scholarships, professorships, and funds, major deals between private companies, and joint initiatives involving expert government agencies within the two bureaucracies. Taken together, these agreements have the potential to embed significant cooperation between the two countries for some years.
On defence and security, the two countries have made a concerted attempt at identifying specific ways in which India can maintain a competitive edge in an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific. This is not altruistic on Washington’s part: The US benefits both through commercial contracts and by having a capable balancing partner in the Indo-Pacific and in world affairs. One breakthrough involves the production and transfer of technology to India for jet engines, a valuable and lucrative business that could become an important catalyst for Indian industrial policy and the aerospace sector more broadly. After all, India is likely to be one of the fastest-growing civil aviation markets over the next decade. Other defence requirements – from long-range artillery to unmanned systems – have been identified as primed for further cooperation. Furthermore, agreements and initial discussions for ship repair, liaison officers, and procurement represent steps to put defence cooperation into practice.
On trade and economic issues, the two countries are in broad agreement about the limitations of a post-Cold War trade order that inordinately benefited China and concentrated manufacturing supply chains. Barring aerospace and semiconductors, China now competes with or has overtaken the US and its allies in most manufacturing endeavours, with its dominance of electric vehicle battery supply chains being but the latest development. The coronavirus pandemic and Ukraine war have underscored the importance of diversified and resilient supply chains – particularly in critical commodities and manufactured goods. Attempts at securing major investments in both countries, linking financial entities and start-ups, and fostering business relations represent an attempt by both India and the US to strengthen resilience in the face of potential economic warfare or other disruptions. Moreover, the two sides agreed to resolve some thorny differences on trade in the multilateral sphere, which had, in the recent past, adversely coloured their relationship.
On technology, there is considerable convergence on some basic principles, despite the US and India having very different technological capabilities and needs. This is translating into cooperation on semiconductors, 5G and 6G telecommunications, space, Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, high-performance computing, as well as medical and atomic research. Setting standards and acquiring capabilities in these domains will have long-term consequences, given the widespread applicability of some of these critical and emerging technologies.
Additionally, a suite of clean energy technologies is also being ramped up, with particular interest in nascent green hydrogen and carbon capture as well as more established solar and wind generation and battery storage. Space cooperation is likely to see a fundamental shift with India signing the Artemis Accords, enabling not just agreement on principles, but opening up room for scientific collaboration and information-sharing as well as manned spaceflight.
Finally, a great differentiator is the people-to-people connection between India and the US. First- and second-generation Indian Americans constitute an outsized and growing proportion of US corporate board rooms, scientific laboratories, university classrooms, and government offices. Many Indian Americans have strong links to India, facilitating investment, research, and cultural links, and additional efforts are being made to increase education about India among Americans writ large through scholarships and professorships.
There are obvious challenges, including political differences and linguistic and geographical disparities, as well as bureaucratic hindrances. The opening of further consulates in both countries aims to overcome that. The US already has its third largest diplomatic footprint in India – after Mexico and China – and it is set to grow further.
There have been similar moments in the past. But a shared sense of global challenges, deepening people-to-people and commercial links, and the diminishing relevance of prior obstacles such as Pakistan have paved the way for more meaningful India-US relations. The fact is that the US cannot preserve its technological and economic edge without a wide-ranging partnership with India. Equally, and in a variety of ways that include but not limited to investment, technology, security, and market access, India’s rise benefits tremendously from a constructive partnership with the US and its allies.
Dhruva Jaishankar is executive director, ORF America. The views expressed are personal