A clearer roadmap is now available but some issues, which can create future hurdles, still linger
Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in New York on June 21, on his first-ever state visit to the United States. After celebrating International Yoga Day at the United Nations, nine years after its declaration, he proceeded to Washington for a carefully choreographed visit. Select members of the Indian diaspora jammed the White House lawns, expectedly chanting “Modi… Modi”.
Separating the hoopla, there are substantive parts of the visit. The Prime Minister finally answered a media question at the White House when a Wall Street Journal correspondent asked both the host and the guest whether India’s democratic slippage had been discussed? President Joe Biden replied diplomatically, to satisfy his own party members agitated over the issue as well as to avoid offending his Indian guest. Mr Modi simply denied any threat to India’s democratic system and repeated his old argument that India was the “mother of all democracies”. Former US President Barack Obama, in Athens, considered the cradle of democracy, complicated matters in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Asked about Mr Modi’s commitment to a liberal democratic system, he pointed out the danger of majoritarianism as it can even affect India’s unity and integrity. It is difficult to imagine that Mr Obama, usually very careful about his public statements, would not have run it by President Biden. Were Mr Biden and Mr Obama playing the good-cop bad-cop routine?
Notably, during the joint press interaction, President Biden refused to back down from his statement calling Chinese President Xi Jinping a “dictator”. He seemed to be restoring a harder line after the softer stance adopted by secretary of state Antony Blinken during his recent Beijing visit. It may also have been intended to put at rest any Indian fears about being blindsided by US-China detente. That set the scene for the rest of the visit.
The joint statement is fairly comprehensive. It opens by reiterating that India and the United States are “among the closest partners in the world”. And that this is a partnership of democracies “looking into the 21st century with hope, ambition and confidence”. It affirms a “new level of trust”. And that the future is grounded in “respect for human rights, shared principles of democracy, freedom and the rule of law”. More than once it is spelt out that India-US cooperation will serve the “global good”, working through a range of multilateral and regional groupings, particularly the Quad – comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US. There have been discussions to draw even the Philippines into it, and eventually even Indonesia. Vietnam would bring new strength but it fails to qualify, not being a democracy.
The joint statement, unlike most such documents that convey more a vision than a work plan, is both broad as well as specific. There are four thematic headings -- Charting a Technology Partnership for the Future; Powering a Next Generation Defence Partnership; Catalysing the Clean Energy Transition; and Deepening Strategic Convergence. Under each category specific ideas are articulated or actual investments listed.
The technology partnership for the future comes under the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET). In space, an Indian astronaut is to be trained to be at the International Space Station by 2024. Looking back this is not new, as Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma flew aboard the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz T-11 in 1984 and became India’s first astronaut. However, it reflects the changed orientation of the Indian approach, now accepting American help.
The technology partnership encompasses India’s induction into the semiconductor supply chain and training of 60,000 Indian engineers via the virtual fabrication platform of Lam Research. Cooperation. It also covers the telecommunications sector and aims to create 6G networks. They would also work closely on quantum computing. To facilitate this, the US will work with Congress to lower barriers to enable export of HPC technology and source codes. Both would collaborate to create “trustworthy and responsible AI”.
The defence sector cooperation also received a boost. The US and India have had on paper the Major Defence Partnership for some time, but progress so far has only been tardy. Now a big jump is projected. Liaison officers will be posted in each other’s military organisations. This is likely to worry the Russians about the security of their technologies. The transfer of Synthetic Aperture Radar, which produces higher resolution images, and the purchase of General Atomic’s MQ 9-B HALE high-altitude Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) would enhance India’s defence capabilities exponentially. The UAV is to be assembled in India.
President Barack Obama had cajoled India to join the Paris accord. Now the US will take cooperation in this field to a higher level. This will cover production of and research into green hydrogen, solar panel manufacture in the US by an Indian company and work on critical mineral supply chains. Another Indian company, Epsilon, is set to invest $650 million in a US electric vehicle battery components unit. Nuclear energy collaboration has been lagging despite the US having exerted great efforts to get the nuclear deal with India cleared by the US Congress. There is now revived interest in getting six Westinghouse reactors installed at Kovvada.
The final part of the joint statement comes to foreign policy issues. “Deep concern” is expressed about the Ukraine war, without condemning Russia. Post-war reconstruction is mooted. Criticism of Russia, as indeed China, comes via laments about threats to a rules-based international order. Terrorism, the Afghanistan situation, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme, I2U2 (a new group of Israel, India, UAE and US), and the Quad (which India chairs in 2024) were salient issues discussed by the two sides.
The visit brought to a climax the work put in by successive governments since the Indian nuclear tests in May 1998, when bilateral relations fell to a low point. A clearer roadmap is now available but some issues, which can create future hurdles, still linger.
One is the path that the Ukraine war may take. An early ceasefire will be helpful, while an escalation will test India-US relations. Two, there are crucial elections coming up in both nations, and their outcome could well create new scenarios. The personalisation of foreign policy has a risk of a successor government stalling even positive past decisions. Three, private assurances if any that may have beengiven by either side on Russian oil, the Ukraine war and human rights.
Four, the trajectory of US-China relations can affect the dynamism of bilateral engagement. Finally, a new leadership in either nation can recalibrate national priorities. But in a pre-election year, the Opposition will only see the glass half-empty, while the government claims that it is overflowing.