Insights from Modi’s state visit

by Abdul Basit

In a world transitioning from uni-polarity to multi-polarity, geo-economics primacy is under stress. We now live in a world where multiple stakeholders are vying for prominence in their respective spheres. The rise of China and the resurgence of Russia is indicative of their aspirations for global influence, while countries like India are focused on attaining regional preeminence in the initial stages. Consequently, a complex network of alliances is being established based on differing ideological and interest-driven policy considerations. The end of the Cold War marked the emergence of the United States as the sole superpower, enjoying an unparalleled status for nearly two decades. However, this unchallenged status is now being called into question as China has revealed its aspirations for being a global power. The United States perceives India as a pivotal power in Asia and a strategic partner in its competition with China.

The United States endeavor to establish a relationship with India predicated on democratic values has proved to be ineffective and is now foreseen to be doomed. The credibility of India’s democratic status has come under scrutiny since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, marked by a notable increase in violence targeting minorities, the controversial revocation of citizenship for millions of Muslim residents, and the stifling of press freedom and opposition voices. Despite these concerns, the Biden administration persists in emphasising the existence of shared values with India, leading to criticism for the inconsistency between its advocacy for democracy and the ground realities of India’s actions.

The state visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States is a sign of the growing strategic partnership between the two countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The US-India equation is evolving from a point tense relationship into expanding cooperation over a variety of converging parameters. Modi’s state visit is an empirical substantiation of the very argument. The visit is also likely to be a boost for Modi’s political standing in India, as it demonstrates his close relationship with the United States. Moreover, the Biden administration also seriously takes into account the significance of Indian-American voters who play the decisive role primarily in the swing states. However, the visit has been met with mixed reactions from the Indian American community, with some groups organising protests against Modi’s human rights record. The visit is a reminder of the complex geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region, where the United States and India are both concerned about the rise of China. Nevertheless, the two nations possess robust shared material interests, particularly in countering China’s influence, which has bolstered their alliance.

The Biden administration has made it clear that it views India as a “major defense partner” and a “key pillar” of its Asia-Pacific strategy. The two countries have already taken steps to deepen their cooperation on issues such as defense, trade, and climate change. The visit was marked by a number of major announcements, including U.S. approval for General Electric to manufacture engines in India for its domestically produced fighter jets, India’s purchase of 31 armed MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones made by General Atomics worth $3 billion, and removal of U.S. obstacles that prevent smoother trade in defense and high technology. The visit also provided an opportunity for the two countries to discuss ways to cooperate on emerging technologies such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence, as well as to coordinate their responses to regional challenges such as the rise of China. The Pentagon’s provision of real-time military intelligence to India in December 2022, which enabled India to repel People’s Liberation Army forces during a border clash, represents a new stage in the United States and India’s collaboration in preparing for war with China. The December 2022 border clash was the most serious incident between the two countries in decades, and it highlighted the growing tensions in the region. The provision of real-time military intelligence by the United States to India is a clear signal that the United States is prepared to support India in the event of a conflict with China. India views the U.S. as an appealing source of advanced technology, education, and investment.

There are also some challenges to the U.S.-India relationship. For example, India has not yet condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and continues purchasing Russian weapons. This has led to some concerns in Washington that India is not fully committed to the US-led democratic order. Despite these challenges, Biden tried to use his state visit with Modi to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and to urge India to take a more active role in countering Chinese aggression. The two leaders also discussed a range of other issues, including trade, climate change, and regional security.

The state visit provided a significant opportunity for the US and India to strengthen their strategic partnership. However, it also poses a test of their willingness to collaborate on addressing 21 century challenges. India’s reliability as a trusted ally for the US-led coalition in military operations in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait is uncertain. The US may struggle to influence India’s foreign policy behavior, as demonstrated by its stance on the Ukraine conflict. Additionally, diverging interests on global issues create vulnerability in this nascent strategic alliance. While India seeks to reduce Western dominance in its policy frameworks, it simultaneously offers substantial leverage to advance US objectives in the region.

The Nixon administration successfully utilised the Sino-Soviet differences to enhance US Cold War advantage through deepening communist divisions, engaging Soviet forces along the Sino-Russian border, and gaining leverage over Moscow. However, the subsequent implications of this opening, such as extensive US investment in China’s economy and cooperation in multiple sectors, propelled China’s rise to the second-largest global economy. In retrospect, American policymakers should have recognised the potential divergence of US and Chinese interests as China’s power grew, adjusting expectations, narrowing official cooperation, and limiting certain types of trade. India, distinct from China, possesses an incomplete authoritarian shift, retaining elements of elections and domestic opposition. Nevertheless, India’s current leadership, characterised by ethno-nationalism and an increasingly undemocratic party, warrants a different treatment from the US. Unless the situation changes, the US should approach India akin to illiberal partners like Jordan and Vietnam, basing cooperation on shared interests rather than shared values.

he emerging alliance between the US and India is aimed at establishing a new balance of power in multipolar Asia. While India is not a conventional US ally and pursues its own interests, both countries share a common goal of upholding a free and open Asia-Pacific region. They are actively cooperating to achieve this objective. However, some view the arms sales agreement, particularly the authorisation for fighter jet production in India, as a potential catalyst for fueling an arms race. Considering the economic strain in the region, another arms race would be detrimental and highly toxic for the already exacerbating regional stability.

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