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US, India seek closer ties on Modi state visit

Janelle Dumalaon in Washington
June 21, 2023

Defense deals and technology transfers will be on the agenda when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Joe Biden in Washington. Still, there are significant gaps to bridge in the US-India alliance.

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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives a thumbs up signal.
Once India's prime minister couldn't even get a visa to go to the US, now he's getting the red carpet treatmentImage: Stinger VIA REUTERS

On his first state visit to the United States, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be welcomed at the White House on Thursday with a 21-gun salute witnessed by around 7,000 Indian-Americans who have been invited to the event. A meeting with President Joe Biden will follow, with defense and technology deals high on the agenda.

Modi will then address a joint session of Congress for the second time, one of only a handful of foreign leaders to be afforded such a privilege.

A state dinner hosted by Biden and his wife, and a luncheon hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris the following day are among other events scheduled for Modi's visit.

From 'persona non grata' to the red carpet 

That is a lot of fanfare for a leader who was once unable to obtain a visa for the US. In 2005, Modi was denied entry to the country over allegations he failed to stop deadly anti-Muslim riots by Hindus in the state of Gujarat in 2002, where he was chief minister. 

But this is 2023, and the situation has changed significantly. 

Modi is the leader of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and has been prime minister for nearly a decade. During that time, India's star has been rising on the world stage. It has a large and influential diaspora that includes the heads of global tech companies like Microsoft and Google parent, Alphabet. Its population — more than half of which are young people — has surpassed China's to become the largest in the world.

President Joe Biden (right) gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bali.
The US president met his Indian counterpart at the G20 conference in Bali last NovemberImage: Doug Mills/AFP

Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that India's status as a regional rival to an increasingly assertive China is bolstering its geopolitical importance and pushing New Delhi and Washington toward closer cooperation. Still, pragmatic compromises are baked into the calculations on both sides.

"This is realpolitik realism on the world stage. India is threatened by China, the US sees China as the single biggest security threat in the 21st century. That is the common cause that brings them together," said Irfan Nooruddin, a professor of Indian politics at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in the US. 

"Against that backdrop, you do have the awkward reality that India's democracy is not as robust as it has been in the past. There are real questions about its human rights record — its treatment of religious minorities, of the press and of civil society. Biden has made democracy versus non-democracy the organizing principle of his foreign policy. From this perspective, it would be much more convenient if India was a booming, flourishing democracy," Nooruddin told DW.

Others argue that while imperfect, India is at least still considered a democracy and makes for a much more open and transparent defense and economic partner than, say, China. 

"From a strategic, economic and values perspective, part of what has made India attractive is that it is a democracy," said Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Part of that, I think the US has recognized, is accepting who Indian voters elect and recognizing the limitations of what the US can do about India's internal affairs. Nonetheless, the state of India's democracy is something that the US does think about." 

Of defense deals and technology transfers 

Regardless of whether Biden pushes Modi on democratic backsliding, both sides have their eyes on various prizes. 

"Supply chain resilience has become a major talking point in the US, especially getting critical technologies out of China and to places that are more trusted. India needs more manufacturing and more economic activity in order to grow the economy, but also to provide more jobs to the millions of young people who are entering the workforce," said Nooruddin.

On defense, both countries are looking at a win-win situation, he added. "India gets better weapons [and] the US moves India away from Russian weaponry and to US weapons systems and economic partnerships."

Deals, including cooperation on semiconductor supply diversification and co-producing fighter jet engines, have been in the works in recent months. The fact that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan were both in India to prepare the way for such deals ahead of Modi's state visit speaks to the level of importance the US is affording India. 

Not quite aligned

Still, roadblocks remain. India has not joined international opposition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it has refused to sign onto international sanctions on Russia and abstained from United Nations votes condemning Moscow. 

"I think there's a lot of frustration in the US on Capitol Hill about the fact that India has not been a much better partner to the US where Ukraine is concerned," said Nooruddin.

Pant: India attempts 'to balance its ties with Russia and the West'

"The Indian government has learned a lesson over the last year-and-a-half, which is that frankly, it does not have to do a lot of what the US would like it to do where Ukraine is concerned. Because they understand that [the] US' China problem is to India's advantage. So, for right now they seem to think that they can have their cake and eat it too."

India, Nooruddin added, may well be able to reap the benefits of stronger ties with the US while at the same time maintaining its strategic autonomy. 

Madan of the Brookings Institution argues that while India would never give up its relationship with Russia, the US and India have tried to bridge their positions. 

"What you have seen is that the two sides have sought to manage that difference, both because they think it is strategically important to try not to let Russia serve as a veto on the burgeoning US-India strategic relationship, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, but also because I think the gap between them on Russia has narrowed somewhat over the last two years," said Madan, citing Modi's meeting with Zelenskyy at the G7 summit in Japan in May. 

But as in any other give-and-take dynamic, the more New Delhi wants from Washington in terms of superior military hardware or economic investment, the more it will have to align its interests with the US — and Biden is making a long-term bet that it will. That, in turn, could transform the partnership, creating a ripple effect that could influence the wider world. 

What closer US-India ties mean for the world

More US investment in India and the opening of its economy would have wide-ranging implications for world trade, too, as supply chains shift away from China and broaden to connect South Asia to the US — perhaps via the Middle East and Africa. But there is also an argument that intensified defense cooperation between New Delhi and Washington could cause further geopolitical tensions.

"On the downside, I think you could get a much more defensive and potentially much more insecure China that now sees not only the US as a persistent threat, but a much stronger India," said Nooruddin. "China begins to feel encircled by India on its western border and by the US through its partnerships in Korea and Japan on the southern end of the Pacific Ocean. An insecure, defensive China might be a scary thing for lots of countries around the world."

India builds tunnel in Himalayas to counter China threat

But, as Madan also pointed out, it was Chinese assertiveness that triggered the need for closer US-India ties in the first place. 

"If China didn't want to see a close US-India relationship, perhaps they should have been less assertive vis-a-vis India," said Madan. "Anybody who knows India knows that India prizes its independence and doesn't actually necessarily like to align. But it overcomes that hesitation when there is a bigger challenge."

That challenge will remain at the heart of what promises to be a multiyear effort of shoring up military and economic bonds between the US and India. And that — cementing an alliance that could have world-shaping consequences — will be front of mind when Modi arrives in Washington this week. 

Edited by: Jon Shelton