There is a new political dynamism animating all facets of the India-United States partnership. From the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in May 2014, his government has made ostensible efforts to put India’s most important bilateral relationship on a higher plane—in strategic collaboration, economic and defense cooperation, sustainable development, and civilian nuclear partnership. As both India and the United States cope with the realities of a rising and assertive China, there is an alignment of strategic interests and objectives. Modi’s fourth visit to the United States within a span of two years was a testament to that, aimed at consolidating and furthering the progress made so far, while ensuring sustained, broad-based bipartisan support irrespective of the next U.S. administration.
While Modi’s formal engagements in Washington began with a somber wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and paying his respects to Kalpana Chawla—a gesture highlighting shared values between the two democracies—substantial outcomes achieved during the visit focused on security and defense cooperation. Defense cooperation is one of the most promising aspects of Indo-U.S. ties, and it received yet another fillip with the United States recognizing India as a “major defense partner”, which essentially means that India will be able to buy more advanced and sensitive technologies from the United States, and also benefit from streamlined and quicker clearance for U.S. technology, something solely enjoyed by America’s closest allies. Both countries called for expanding collaboration under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), and announced the finalization of the text of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). However, there are still some domestic hurdles left to cross—India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) would need to formally approve the agreement before New Delhi and Washington can sign on the dotted line. Once the LEMOA is concluded, both countries would be able to access each other’s facilities for fueling, birthing, and related logistical activities, and it would enhance India’s ability to respond to contingencies in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).
This important step of identifying India as a major defense partner is complimented by India’s entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an exclusive anti-proliferation club that restricts trade in sensitive defense technologies. India’s entry into the MTCR is a significant development as it would enable India to gradually become an arms exporter—a long desired goal of the Indian strategic establishment—and also bolster India’s defense preparedness. The Obama administration’s reiteration of support for India’s application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), as well as the Australia Group and Wassenaar Arrangement, will shape the contour and tenor of the NSG plenary to decide on India’s membership later this month. While NSG membership will allow India to trade in and export nuclear-related technology, a recent New York Times editorial created some sparks, advocating that President Obama should push India to “adhere to the standards on nuclear proliferation to which other nuclear weapons states adhere.” The debate in Washington got livelier when South Asia expert Alyssa Ayres weighed in, stating that India has undertaken “obligations more extensive than the technical requirements of a ‘nuclear weapons state’ under the NPT definition,” while not being a signatory.
There was finally some concrete, forward movement on the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation, which has mushroomed over the last decade, shepherded by the United States to bring India into the nuclear mainstream. The civilian nuclear agreement had a defining moment, with Modi and Obama announcing that “preparatory work” has commenced for six reactors to be built by Westinghouse in India.
A closer examination of the joint statement, interestingly titled “Enduring Global Partners in the 21st Century,” reveals the thrust towards bilaterally managing the global commons—maritime, air, space, and cyber—with strict adherence to international rules and laws. Furthermore, New Delhi and Washington’s resolve to look at each other as “priority partners” in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region (IOR) reflects their growing concerns over the unfolding events in the Indo-Pacific in the absence of a security architecture.
With an eye to China and its increasing aggression in territorial claims, Modi in his address to the joint session of the United States Congress highlighted that the United States and India can make a difference by promoting “cooperation not dominance” in the region, through inclusive regional mechanisms. As the two ramp up cooperation in maritime Asia, by institutionalizing the bilateral Maritime Security Dialogue, it would be interesting to see how they are able to responsibly share the security burden in the Indo-Pacific. One notable departure from the previous 2015 joint statement includes a lack of mention of the South China Sea. Though this may be because both New Delhi and Washington did not wish to antagonize China before the Malabar Exercise, which is ongoing in Japanese waters east of Okinawa.
Both leaders also called for expanding economic prosperity, took a strong stand on growing violence and terrorism across the globe, and discussed ways to address climate change and ensure sustainable development. One sensitive issue that has generated significant negative attention in the United States has been rising religious intolerance in India. Indian strategist Dr. C. Raja Mohan writes that Modi is “acutely conscious” of this, and hence underscored Indian democracy and his “commitment to constitutionalism” in his speech to the U.S. Congress.
While Prime Minister Modi’s speech about shared democratic values and history generated a lot of enthusiasm and goodwill about India among American policymakers, at the heart of this partnership are geopolitical calculations. Have India and the United States taken their bilateral partnership to a higher orbit? The answer is yes, but there is ample room for more, especially in in the counterterrorism domain where cooperation has been conspicuously low. Both countries are still in the process of fleshing out a strategy which furthers their national interests but within the purview of international rules and laws, while also promoting peace and stability. The policies of the next U.S. administration will invariably shape the course of this partnership. However, without a doubt, India-United States relations will grow commensurate with the leadership role both countries play in ensuring Asian and global stability.