A visit most consequential

The author is Harsh Vardhan Shringla the Chief Coordinator of G20 India. He was the former Foreign Secretary of India and Ambassador to USA

Guest Writer

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-23 June visit to the United States has been variously described as “historic” and “watershed.” Critics may question their use before the completion of the visit, but the adjectives neatly capture the essence of the PM’s four-day state visit, seen as one of the most high profile ones by an international leader to the US in 2023.

The visit is unique on several counts – starting with the fact that this is the PM’s eighth visit to the US. This, in itself, is testament to the importance accorded to India-US relations by the government; it demonstrates the personal investment -- in time and effort— made by the PM to nurture this relationship, described by the US as one of the “most consequential” ones. The visit is also unprecedented as the Prime Minister will be one of those leaders accorded the rare privilege of addressing a joint sitting of the US Congress twice. He is certainly the first Indian PM to do so. That he was invited by US leaders from both the Republican and Democratic Parties only underlines the strong bipartisan support for deeper India-US ties.

Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House on 22 June is expected to cover a range of issues. With many crucial breakthrough deliverables likely in defence and technology, one can safely predict that the visit will be high on strategic content. Besides the bilateral aspects, discussions during the meeting with President Biden are likely to span the Indo-Pacific and geo-political challenges like the Ukraine conflict. Rounding off the visit will be the engagements with US businesses and the Indian community in the United States.

That it is not only India that has high expectations from the visit is clear from the statements emanating from key members of the Biden administration. Speaking at the Washington based Hudson Institute think tank earlier this month, Kurt Campbell, National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific said that he hoped that PM Modi’s visit “basically consecrates the US-India relationship as the most important bilateral relationship for the United States on the global stage. And that we effectively make it into sort of escape velocity.”

That the US itself wants to upscale ties with India further is proof that Washington is betting big on us -- and with good reason. Since 2014, India-US ties have acquired a far greater momentum. The evolution of the relationship has followed the realization in India that the US is India’s partner of choice as Asia’s second largest economy readies to become the third largest economy in the world by the end of this decade and looks to become a developed economy by 2047.

Ties have shed the “hesitations of history” as the PM himself put it – in his speech to the joint sitting of the US Congress in 2016. And proof of this was when then US President Barack Obama was invited as the chief guest of India’s Republic Day parade in 2015 – the first time ever a US president graced such an occasion.

Now, the two countries are “natural partners” -- in forums like the QUAD, in the G20 and many others. Democratic values and respect for the rule of law are common threads underpinning the relationship. There is regular consultation and exchange of views between officials of the two sides on key global and regional issues; conversations between the US Secretary of State and India’s External Affairs Minister are more common as are calls between the US president and the PM– illustrative of frequent exchanges of views and opinions. On the bilateral side, there are more than 50 different dialogues between the two countries – one of key among them being the “2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial Dialogue.”  There is greater convergence in views – from building bilateral ties to the challenges facing the world -- between the US and India today than ever before.

There are of course differences – on geo-political matters and some issues relating to India’s neighbourhood. But the many dialogues at different levels, ministerial and official, have worked and are working to manage the differences and ensure they don’t become irritants. The willingness to listen and to engage, to look at the bigger picture has steadied the relationship to one of trust between the two countries.

In his meeting with US President Biden in May 2022, PM Modi noted that “the India-US Strategic Partnership is truly a Partnership of Trust. Our shared values, and our common interests in many areas, including security, have strengthened the bonds of this trust. Our people-to-people relations and close economic ties also make our partnership unique.”

Adding ballast to the ties is the strong bilateral trade. In 2021, bilateral trade in goods crossed US$ 160 billion and the U.S became the largest foreign investor into India. FDI Inflows from the US into India increased from US$ 3.4 billion in 2020 to US$ 13.82 billion in 2021-22. In 2022, 18% of total FDI equity inflows to India came from the US (US$10.54 billion). The investments are two-way process – with Indian companies growing their presence in the US.   There are more than 200 Indian companies across the US, creating jobs and enhancing the competitiveness of the US economy particularly in IT and digital services. The top six industries that Indian companies have invested in, in the US, are IT and software services, business services, pharmaceuticals, metals, industrial equipment and communications.

Energy has been a new focus area of cooperation. At present, India imports more than 7.3% of its crude oil requirement from the US. India is the fourth largest international market for US crude oil and the fifth largest for US Liquefied Natural Gas. The US is also well placed to meet India’s market demand as it looks to transition to a gas-based economy. Under the India-US Climate and Clean Energy Partnership 2030, both countries are focusing on mobilizing finance and speeding clean energy deployment. Clean Hydrogen, R&D collaboration in solar cell manufacturing and storage are important areas where two countries are working jointly.

The evolved India-US relationship is supported by many pillars – defence and security being one of the key ones. The signing of the key foundational agreements and the US designating India as a "Major Defence Partner" in 2016 has paved the way for sharing of critical military equipment and technology.

“As the world's two largest democracies, India and the United States play a unique role in preserving the rules-based international order that keeps us all secure,” remarked US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin during his visit to New Delhi earlier this month. “Today, the U.S.-India partnership is a cornerstone of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and our deepening bonds show how technological innovation and growing military cooperation between two great powers can be a force for global good,” he said. That the US views India as a vital partner in the Indo-Pacific where it has traditional allies shows that the “hesitations of history” have been overcome from the US side as well.

An important factor that has helped the relationship attain its heights has been the Indian diaspora. Last counted, there were about 4.2 million Indian Americans or people of Indian origin residing in the US. The dynamic Indian-American community is one of the most successful immigrant communities in the US with a high rate of success in areas like business, high tech industries and politics. Many of them are part of the current administration and members of the US Congress. They have acted as a catalyst in cementing closer ties between India and the US.

Every year, a large number of young Indians – students – choose the US as their destination for higher education, playing their part in sustaining the broader India-US relationship. And these numbers are showing a rise, year on year. Most Indian students in the US are pursuing graduate programs. Indian students contributed approximately US $ 7.70 billion to the US economy in the year 2020. At present, there are over 200,000 Indian students in the US, mostly in STEM areas. They provide a steady stream of talent, contributing to cutting-edge research and technology development.

The strong bilateral relationship has had other spin-offs. The Quad is a good example.  Together with Japan and Australia, India and the US have formed the Quad to act as a force for global good. Since its inception in 2017, the agenda of the Quad has grown rapidly with collaborations on critical and emerging technologies; telecommunications; green shipping practices and corridors; green hydrogen; collective efforts on sustainable infrastructure and transparent connectivity, maritime domain awareness. The group’s meetings have now been elevated to the Leaders’ level with five Summit level meetings happening in the last two years (March & September-2021, March 2022, May 2022 and May 2023). The Quad is united by a common agenda and vision for delivering peace, stability and prosperity in the region. It has reiterated its resolve to address contemporary priorities in the region such as combating COVID pandemic, climate change, infrastructure and connectivity, supply chain resilience, critical and emerging technologies etc.

Having accomplished so much and relations evolving to encompass multiple realms, the logical question is what is the future trajectory of ties going to look like? What is the next level?

With AI, emerging technologies and innovation being the current buzzwords, the question is: can India and the US join hands in these areas for common good? The answer is undoubtedly and resoundingly -- yes. Why -- because the US has the technology and resources and India has the ability and the talent pool to step forward and meet the US requirement for partnership.

A case in point is the iCET (initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology) partnership. It was launched in January this year and has already yielded results. During US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s preparatory visit to New Delhi, India and the US announced a roadmap to drive cooperation in seven critical areas, including AI and semiconductors. That the US is looking at India as a partner in this area shows Washington is acting on its “friend shoring” concept. It also indicates that the US sees India as a trustworthy and responsible partner for developing such critical technologies.

Some of the new areas that provide room to catapult strategic ties to the next level include the space sector. This is an area that is relatively unexplored but has immense transformative potential. India has recently allowed private sector participation in the space sector that was previously dominated by government entities. This was aimed at spurring innovation. US companies could explore possibilities of collaboration with the Indian partners to boost innovation beneficial for both economies.

Indian companies have successfully leveraged US capital to become successful UNICORNS. At present India is home to the third largest pool of UNICORNS in the world. US companies also are increasingly investing in R&D in India. This can be scaled up with greater emphasis on joint research and development of new technologies.

Defence is too important an area not to be mentioned here. It is one of the mainstays of the strategic partnership. India and the US have had several discussions on the next step in the defence partnership going beyond the present buyer-seller construct. India has constantly stressed on enhancing this partnership to include joint collaborations on the manufacture and R&D of defence equipment.  During his visit to India this month, the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that “new steps” had been taken to strengthen the defence partnership. “We established an ambitious new roadmap for defense industrial cooperation which will fast-track high-priority co-development and co-production projects and build closer ties between our defense industries. We look forward to advancing some of those projects during the upcoming visit between our leaders later this month,” he said.

India and the US also agreed to initiate negotiations for a ‘Security of Supply’ (SoS) arrangement and a ‘Reciprocal Defence Procurement’ (RDP) agreement which will promote long-term supply chain stability during Austin’s visit. Discussions between the two countries have been going on over the procurement of about 20 MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft System from the US firm General Atomics, in a deal worth almost $ 2 billion. Talks for follow on purchases of more Apaches and Chinooks have also been taking place – all pointing to the increased synergies between the two countries in this crucial area.

In the words of Ely Ratner, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, who accompanied Austin on his India visit, “A stronger India that can defend its own interests, defend its sovereignty, is good for the United States. A stronger India that can contribute to regional security out of U.S. co-production, co-development with India — there is an aspiration to see India as an exporter of security in the region. That's good for the United States.”

The US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), that has contributed significantly to enhance US-India business ties, is arranging for top US corporates and professionals to meet the PM at the Kennedy Centre during the visit.  An announcement of the launch of the India-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X), a new initiative to advance cutting-edge technology cooperation is also expected at the US Chamber.  It is aimed at complementing existing government-to-government collaborations by promoting innovative partnerships between US and Indian companies, investors, start-up accelerators and academic research institutions.

Healthcare is already an area where India and the US are collaborating. Today, India has risen as a research and development hub for life-saving drugs and vaccines. Proving its mettle during the deadly waves of the Covid-19, India is fast becoming the global medical tourism hub. It is also hailed as the “Pharmacy of the World”, owing to its high and efficient production of “global standard medicine” at affordable costs. This could be scaled up with US involvement to the next level with the focus on robotics which combined with AI-based assistive technologies, could find use for geriatric care and other medical applications.

Indian and US companies could work together on 5G, Artificial Intelligence, block chain, cyber security to build the next generation products for use in the US and Indian markets and elsewhere.

As India looks to fulfill its climate commitments, joint collaboration in setting up small modular reactors would be useful. The US has pioneered the technology to repurpose coal-fired plants into clean energy generators by replacing the fossil plant’s coal boiler with the SMR’s nuclear powered steam supply system. Given India’s reliance on coal, this is technology that India could well use.

India could also do with US help in technology and finance for clean sources of fuel as it embarks on a definite transition plan to reduce emissions. The plan involves an increased proportion of renewable energy coming from hydrogen and ethanol with huge opportunities for EV and battery storage. This is an area ripe for collaboration given that India is such a huge market. The above areas are but a few that India and the US can look to partner each other as we move into towards the middle of the 21st century.

After decades of estrangement during the Cold War, the two countries have built a solid edifice on which the bilateral relationship rests today. The challenges and threats that confront us today have only made both countries more determined to strengthen the partnership for a better tomorrow. Relations have acquired that critical mass which will safeguard against any breakdown. And with trust quotient high between the two governments and the people of the two countries, India-US ties are poised to scale greater heights in the future.

Prime Minister Modi’s state visit to the US will go down the annals of history as an ‘unparalleled’ one - a ‘visit like none other’ because it will be a celebration of the heights to which the bilateral partnership has evolved in recent years. While the administrations on both sides gear up for the visit, 1.48 billion Indians await this ‘action packed’ trip with great excitement and anticipation.

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