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US-India at 75: A new relationship for a new global dynamic

The US and India celebrated 75 years of diplomatic relations this year. Over the course of the 75, the relationship has had its fair share of ups and downs with only the last two decades witnessing a steady upward momentum. 

Nevertheless, 2022 made it abundantly clear that there are several Cold-War era differences that could dampen the enthusiasm in Washington and New Delhi. Both governments should prevent these differences from hijacking the relationship. Alternatively, they should ride the momentum built over the last two decades to expand the sustained good relations from Hawaii to the Himalayas using three pillars — defense, trade and diaspora.  

The U.S. and India never had a comprehensive defense partnership. This was not so much a product of divergences in values, but of interests. During the Nixon era, America’s interest in opening up to China and cozying up to Pakistan made defense ties with India infelicitous. America’s awakening to the threat of China under the Trump administration reinforced the need to recalibrate the U.S.-India relationship, in particular, positioning it as an Indo-Pacific partner over a South Asian Cold-War era adversary.  

Interestingly, on this subject, the Biden administration has not changed course from the previous administration. The National Defense Strategy released in late October highlights the multi-domain threat posed by China and has included the Australia-United Kingdom-United States partnership AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific Quad as mechanisms to address that challenge. Notably, the document outlines the U.S. government’s interest in supporting India’s capabilities to address Chinese aggression — a significant departure from previous iterations of the congressionally-mandated review document.  

Similarly, the National Security Strategy released by the White House eminently features India’s role, both in the bilateral relationship and through groupings such as the Quad. These are not just words in strategies. They’ve been acted upon through military and naval exercises, both at the India-China border between the two armies and in the Indo-Pacific with the navies participating in exercises such as Malabar and Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC). With the upcoming military exercise in Auli, India, a town 100 km away from China, the U.S.-India defense partnership is moving closer to an alliance.  

However, as the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy have highlighted, China presents a multi-domain challenge to the free world. Trade, as it intersects with national security, has a significant role to play in both expanding the U.S.-India relationship and in addressing China’s weaponization of interdependence. 

Rightly so, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in her recent trip to India, said “India’s membership in Indo-Pacific Economic Framework [IPEF], in efforts to make our supply chains more resilient through what I call friend-shoring, are tightening those ties,” The United States is pursuing “friend-shoring” to diversify away from countries such as China that present geopolitical and security risks to supply chains. “To do so, we are proactively deepening economic integration with trusted trading partners like India,” Yellen continued.  

A few of these measures have already come to fruition such as Apple moving a part of its iPhone manufacturing facility to India.  

Nonetheless, defense and trade are a work in progress. As former U.S. ambassador to India, Richard Verma put it, the Indian diaspora can be a potent force. In order to accelerate the trade and defense ties, the strongest pillar, the diaspora will have to act.  

Indian Americans, estimated at more than 4.6 million, have been growing in economic, political and cultural clout since they first started immigrating here in large numbers in the 1960s. While cleavages exist, as in any diasporic community, they’ve generally had a positive impact on U.S.-India relations, working to bring these two vibrant democracies closer together.  

Given their increasing prominence across all industries and sectors, they’re likely to play an even more significant role going forward. Notably, the Indian diaspora can help lessen misunderstandings about political, human rights and interreligious dynamics on the ground in India that are frequently used by some to attempt to disrupt and weaken the bilateral relationship. 

The diaspora also can and has been involved in educating policymakers about India’s role in geopolitics. For instance, many Indian American leaders and organizations recently advocated for clarity and accurate information about India’s relationship with Russia against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. 

Besides the recent uptick in oil trade, the India-Russia relationship has not witnessed any growth over the past decade. While Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar may characterize it as “exceptionally steady,” the word more appropriate is stagnant. The relationship was underpinned by defense trade and interestingly, Modi has actively pursued a policy of diversification in his eight years in office, shaking the very foundations of the relationship.

Nevertheless, going forward, the perennial challenge for the U.S.-India relationship could be the divergence in world views. India is envisioning a multipolar world order and the U.S. position on this is ambiguous at best.  

In mid-November Indonesian President Joko Widodo, commonly referred to as Jokowi, handed the G20 gavel to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since its founding 14 years ago, the G20 has played a role in bringing the developed West and the developing Global South together in one room to share their perspectives. Interestingly, this iteration led by Indonesia, in its communique had Modi’s famous words to Putin, “today’s era must not be of war,” clearly indicating India’s role in forming consensus.   

At 75, India finally sits at the high table, not as a Western power but as a leader in the Global South. Time will tell if the “Hawaii to Himalayas” relationship has room for that divergence and if the U.S. will take a more egalitarian approach to world affairs, humbling itself to engage the Global South on equal terms.      

Akhil Ramesh is a fellow at Pacific Forum and Samir Kalra is the managing director at Hindu American Foundation.

Tags Cold War India–United States relations Janet Yellen Narendra Modi National Defense Strategy National Security Strategy Politics of the United States The Quad

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