June 20, 2023
IntelBrief: Modi State Visit Symbolizes Expanding U.S.-India Partnership
The U.S. government’s high-profile welcome for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi reflects its elevated expectations of enlisting India – which has always prided itself on being a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and an aversion to participating in geopolitical “blocs” – into a web of partnerships seen as containing the growing strategic capabilities and influence of China. Modi’s visit to the United States, scheduled for June 20-23, will include a state dinner, which is usually reserved for close allies. The dinner will mark only the third such event during U.S. President Biden’s term to date. Modi will also address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. U.S. officials perceive India as receptive to aligning against Beijing partly because of its historic rivalry with China, with whom it has had several clashes along their long border, including one as recently as December. India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”), a U.S.-led forum that includes Japan, and Australia to promote security in the Indo-Pacific region. To demonstrate the value of a closer partnership with the United States, press reports indicate that U.S. officials have shared intelligence with New Delhi about China’s military buildup along the India-China border. However, New Delhi has always sought to engage and find common ground with Beijing and has thus far steered well clear of appearing to join a binding U.S.-led “alliance” against China. It is unlikely that even the lavish Washington reception for Modi will alter his stance dramatically.
Similarly, U.S. officials are likely to encourage Modi to break sharply with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although Modi has criticized the invasion of Ukraine in meetings with Putin, India has frustrated Western partners over its perceived neutrality regarding the war in Ukraine in international fora. In February, India joined a minority of states who abstained from a UN General Assembly vote condemning the invasion and did not join the United States and allies in the Security Council reactions. Modi’s government has been careful not to jeopardize the flow of discounted oil or arms and military spare parts by openly attacking Putin, instead stressing the value of multilateral and international peace initiatives to try to end the war. Russia remains India’s main arms supplier, and India is taking advantage of Western sanctions on Moscow to buy large volumes of Russian oil at deep discounts to world prices, greatly benefiting India’s energy import-dependent economy.
Nonetheless, the poor performance of Russian military equipment in Ukraine and Russia’s need to direct the arms it can produce toward its ongoing war effort provides an opening for the United States to persuade India to transition its arsenal to U.S. weaponry. The United States has sold helicopters, heavy-lift transport aircraft, and maritime surveillance aircraft to India in recent years. Bilateral defense cooperation is expected to advance during the Modi trip with the anticipated signing of a long-discussed $3 billion deal for the United States to sell 31 MQ-9 “Reaper” armed drones to New Delhi. The two countries are also expected to finalize an agreement to manufacture the GE-414 engine in India to power the country’s indigenously produced combat aircraft. Many analysts, however, remain skeptical that India could realistically wean itself off of Russian military provisions in the short term and question its desire to do so even in the longer term, given its longstanding defense and diplomatic relationship with Moscow.
Additional inducements for New Delhi to deepen defense relations with Washington include the continuing threats from neighboring Pakistan, which fields U.S.-supplied military equipment, and the Taliban government of Afghanistan, which has hosted Islamist movements hostile to Hindu-dominated India. Possessing weaponry that is interoperable with U.S. equipment benefits any future U.S.-Indian counter-terrorism cooperation, though New Delhi likely fears the signals such interoperability could send to powers like Russia and China, with whom it may wish to maintain delicate relationships. Still, experts expect discussion of South Asian security issues to be limited during the Modi visit: Pakistan is enmeshed in political turmoil, and the Taliban remains relatively isolated in Afghanistan since its return to power in August 2021.
Another key goal for U.S. political and corporate leaders during the Modi visit is to advance the two countries’ growing high-technology partnership. Several major U.S. technology companies, including Apple, are expanding their manufacturing operations in India to insulate their production capacity from the volatile U.S.-China relationship. However, a host of factors – including the pervasive exclusion of women from the workforce and the relatively small size of India’s industrial/manufacturing sector - make India unlikely to unseat China as the world’s manufacturing powerhouse anytime soon.
According to a U.S. National Security Council factsheet released in January 2023, the United States has formulated an “initiative on critical and emerging technology” with India to cooperate on artificial intelligence, quantum computing technology, advanced wireless systems, semiconductor supply chains, space systems, and other technologies. However, India’s history of protectionism and its slow-moving bureaucracy has hindered U.S. private sector deals with India in the past and slowed India’s development of the manufacturing infrastructure required to rival China's. Experts anticipate that U.S. officials will also raise with Modi and his team India’s contribution to the global effort to reduce carbon emissions, given concerns over the country’s reliance on coal-powered energy.
Human rights advocates, media, and other civil society organizations have prodded U.S. officials to place human rights and governance issues at the center of the bilateral agenda during Modi’s trip, but it appears likely that U.S. officials will be downplaying these issues in the interests of advancing the security partnership. The high-level welcome – despite the Modi government’s aggressive posture towards political opponents, the media, and increasing inter-community tensions – has fueled criticisms of Biden’s apparently open-armed welcome. Anticipating that Modi’s checkered human rights and governance record, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) treatment of Muslims, will receive little attention, some groups are planning protests during his U.S. visit. For his part, Modi will seek to soften his image and mute criticism during his trip by leading celebrations of the India-inspired International Day of Yoga at the United Nations headquarters in New York before proceeding to Washington. Whether and how Indian and U.S. leaders address human rights, civil liberties, and governance issues during their meetings – perhaps more so than their discussions of defense, security, and economic relations – might shape the public perception of the prospects for a broader U.S.-India partnership in coming years.