India-US relations: Set for a strategic upgrade

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden (PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden (PTI)


Washington’s grand reception of Prime Minister Narendra Modi despite some unease within highlights the clarity of America’s focus on the geo-strategic value of a deeper relationship

Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a rousing reception last week at the White House from US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, and later from lawmakers too, when the PM addressed a joint session of the US Congress—a rare honour for a visiting leader from overseas. Modi’s speech on Capitol Hill got standing ovations and was applauded numerous times. The visit had the world glued for clues of how a deepening US-India engagement will influence a global order being reshaped in a century that may soon have more Asian characteristics than American. Biden has framed today’s global challenge as one of democracy versus autocracy. In ignoring, at least publicly, 75 fellow Democrats who called on him to raise India’s human rights record with Modi, the US leader made it clear that Washington had a long-term prism for a “strategic partnership" which is set for an upshift that could tilt outcomes in our mutual interest. Away, that is, from China’s, whose autocracy got a pointed mention from Biden on the eve of Modi’s visit and explains why ‘democracy’ was its theme music.

Both leaders being up for re-election in 2024 gave it the stamp of a favourable political calculus, too. Even former President Barack Obama’s reference in a TV interview to minority rights in India was packaged as friendly advice on national unity. For an emergent India to act as what US strategists call a “swing state" in the Indo-Pacific, friction had to be kept minimal and the regional balance of arms adjusted accordingly. Notably, while China is a common threat, New Delhi’s ties with Russia did not get in the way. Indian purchases of Russian oil mitigated the Ukraine war’s economic impact, after all, while our defiant deal with Moscow for S-400 anti-missile firepower in the face of US sanctions may have upped the ante in a global market for weaponry where India is the biggest buyer. Even as hostilities in Europe revived America’s Cold Warrior frame of reference, a “no limits" clasp between Russia and China lent urgency to securing the Indo-Pacific, where tension has mounted over Beijing’s designs on Taiwan. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s stout resistance to Russia—now facing a mercenary crisis—could be decoded as a wonder of US backing in an age of warfare aided by live data. It is no big wonder India and America are now in a close embrace. That hesitations belong to history has been obvious for quite a while.

Commerce is entwined in the relationship not just for its own gains, but also for a mutually consonant geo-strategic agenda to be served. India’s economic rise would be in America’s interest just as much as US leadership of technology enablers and global affairs would be in ours. For the partnership to endure and gain, this reality must not be lost in noise over India’s neutrality on the world stage and refusal to be bound by a Nato-like bloc—best taken as a signal of sovereignty. Durable ties draw strength from principles, as both countries have underlined. Yet, while early stirrings of Cold War II may be upon us, globally, US support for free trade and open markets has wobbled in a way that does not bode well, going by what unfolded in the first half of the previous century. Sure, India would welcome a smoother path for exports to the US, with bilateral trade disputes speedily resolved, not to speak of business gains from fraught Sino-US ties. All the same, both must eschew zero-sum formulations that leave the world worse off or endanger peace.

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