Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington, one of only three state visits hosted by US President Joe Biden, casts a spotlight on a strategic partnership that has been more than two decades in the making, but has now taken on a new significance.
In the course of the last year, India has displaced the UK to become the fifth largest economy globally and replaced China as the most populous nation. In 2022, India was the fourth largest military spender in the world.
Combined with its position as the world’s largest democracy, a leader in technology and science, and a youthful nation, India makes for a compelling and attractive partner.
US–India connections are already strong: 4 million Indians reside in the US – a rapidly growing demographic and a wealthy one, with incomes double that of the median American household.
The US is also India’s largest trade partner, with trade between the countries exceeding $191 billion in 2022.
Modi’s trip will raise awareness in the US and help bolster the domestic underpinnings of the partnership, one that has previously been forged by elites – polls reveal that the US public remain largely unaware of India’s leader.
But the Biden administration’s focus on India is driven above all by its determination to manage China’s rise. As China has become more assertive, the US has doubled down on its partnership with India.
This is less a change of policy than a matter of degree. Republican and Democratic presidents stretching back to the Clinton administration have sought to forge a stronger relationship with India.
India failed to support the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a subsequent resolution calling for Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council, or US-led sanctions against Russia.
The visit underscores the fact that Biden’s embrace of democracy and human rights is tempered by a heavy dose of pragmatism. 75 Democratic members of Congress signed a letter in advance of Modi’s state visit demanding that the US president raise human rights concerns with the Indian prime minister.
But Biden’s embrace of Modi is unambiguous. Modi’s US visit was timed to follow, and rather grandly, on the heels of US diplomacy in Asia, including high-level visits to South Korea, Japan, and finally Secretary Blinken’s trip to Beijing.
A steady supply of bipartisanship
Until now, the US-India relationship has flown under the radar. It continues to be largely free of the constraint of polarization in the US.
Post-Cold War presidents, Democrat and Republican, have actively forged a closer connection with India.
A keen awareness of India’s regional significance, the economic opportunity afforded by India’s market opening in 1991, and a growing focus on balancing China’s rise has underpinned a steady supply of bipartisanship, beginning with President Clinton’s visit to India in 2000.
President George W. Bush transformed the relationship by negotiating the US-India civil-nuclear deal, which gave India open access to nuclear trade and de facto recognition as a state with nuclear weapons.
President Obama, by the end of his presidency, embraced the US-India relationship as an essential part of a pivot to Asia. And President Trump’s anti-China bashing was matched by his move to forge a highly visible personal connection to Modi.
One eye on China
As the US and India forge ahead with their strategic partnership, both have one eye on China’s regional rise and its global ambitions.
India seeks to balance China’s assertiveness closer to home, especially along the two nations’ shared 2100 mile-long contested border.
Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine did not dissuade the US from releasing its Indo-Pacific Strategy, designed to manage China, in which India featured heavily.
As the war in Ukraine raged, the US released its National Defense Strategy which labelled China as the overall ‘pacing challenge’ for the US and its most ‘consequential strategic competitor for the coming decades’.
Material benefits and rewards
The strategic relationship also reaps material benefits. Modi’s visit concluded with announcements for deepening defence, technology, and space cooperation. India would also join the Mineral Security Partnership. An Indian Ocean Dialogue, designed to promote regional coordination across the region, was launched.
An agreement for General Electric to co-produce fighter jet engines designed by the US in India stood out – especially given India’s status as a partner, not an ally, of the US.
It also builds on the January announcement of the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, designed to deepen cooperation on technology and defence between these two states but also their universities and businesses.