India And The US: A Partnership Of Geopolitical Balance – Analysis


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the USA at the end of June provided an opportunity for the two countries to strengthen their relations at a time of growing geopolitical tensions.

On the one hand, there are the usual US tensions with Russia and China over the Ukraine crisis, the Taiwan issue and the US-China trade war. On the other hand, there are tensions between India and China. This was Modi’s fifth visit to the US since serving as prime minister since 2014, but his first with the diplomatic status of a state visit. “State visit” is the label used in the US to denote a visit by a foreign statesman of the highest rank. Modi is only the third statesman to receive this honor during Biden’s tenure.

For the distinguished guest, the US army fired honor platoons, an orchestra played and an honor guard lined up, and later a gala dinner followed at the White House. Without a doubt, the visit represents a significant diplomatic recognition for Modi, especially considering that he was once denied a visa to the US due to his “controversial” role in the religious riots in Gujarat in 2002. Addressing the US Congress, the Indian leader sent a very important message that the two nations want to cooperate. He addressed the message not only to politicians but also to businessmen.

Both leaders emphasized that technology will be the cornerstone of the US-India partnership. In addition to his appearance in Congress, Modi held a meeting with Biden in the Oval Office, attended a gala dinner at the White House, visited the State Department, addressed a group of young entrepreneurs at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, etc.

Historical context

These moves cannot be observed without insight into the historical context. In the past, Americans have often said that Pakistan is an American ally but not a friend, while India is an American friend but not an ally. During the Cold War, the world’s oldest and largest democracy were not on very good terms. America’s preference for anti-communist regimes led Washington to establish warm relations with Muslim Pakistan, where Islamists were in power.

At the same time, India, as one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement and a secular state, cultivated good relations with the Soviet Union, which economic model followed. Nonalignment was not well received in the US, where President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, declared that “neutrality between good and evil is itself evil.”

The end of the Cold War, the reorientation of India’s foreign policy and the integration of India into the world economy led to an improvement in relations. However, India’s nuclear bomb testing in 1998 brought economic sanctions from the US and the West. President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in 2000 marked a major turning point, and the George W. Bush administration continued the momentum by signing a defense agreement with India in 2005 and an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation in 2008. The positive trend in the development of relations has largely continued under Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Progress of Indian economy

After the collapse of the USSR, in the 1990s, the Indian economy began to open up to foreign trade and investment. Trade liberalization included dramatic reductions in tariff rates, removal of licensing controls and allowing the rupee exchange rate to fluctuate. Although India did not initially have the means to rapidly increase exports, the technological revolution combined with the liberalization of the economy produced tangible results.

The most significant changes have come in the past decade as the Modi government grappled with the problems. The most important change is that India has become important in the IT sector, and is currently prominent in technology, the pharmaceutical industry, the steel industry, etc. American companies have pumped in significant investments in recent years. India recently overtook China as the most populous country in the world (1.4 billion people) and has a very young population. India’s economic growth has recently surpassed China’s, and India is now the world’s 5th largest economy and could become the 3rd largest by the end of the decade.

Perspectives of ordinary people

A Gallup survey of international relations shows that Americans perceive India as their 6th favorite nation in the world. In 2015, 71% of Americans had a positive view of India, and 70% in 2023. In other years, the percentages hovered around 70%.

According to a Morning Consult survey conducted in August 2021 after the fall of the pro-US government in Afghanistan, 79% of Indians viewed the US favorably, compared to 10% who viewed it negatively. This is the highest percentage in 15 large states.

This March, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey to find out how Americans view India. While more than half of the total number of respondents expressed a positive opinion, views were divided on Modi. About 40% said they had never heard of the Indian Prime Minister. But of those who have heard of him, 37% expressed little or no confidence in his global leadership, and only 21% expressed approval.

American criticism of Modi’s India

For the past two decades, India has always had bipartisan support in Washington, despite mistrustful relations during the Cold War. Democrats and Republicans glorify India’s status as a liberal democracy and emphasize shared values.

That has changed recently. Ahead of Modi’s visit, more than 70 Democratic lawmakers signed a letter to President Biden, asking him to question Modi on “independent, credible reports” about the collapse of political space and the rise of religious intolerance in India. “We do not support any Indian leader or political party,” they added in the letter, “that is the decision of the people of India – but we support important principles that should be a key part of American foreign policy.” Meanwhile, several Democrats publicly protested the decision to invite Modi to the US Congress and said they would boycott his speech. Some MPs actually chose not to attend Modi’s speech.

And former President Obama sided with the critics. In an interview with CNN, published just as Modi arrived in Washington, Obama said: “If the president meets with Prime Minister Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning.”

State visits usually include a press conference attended by the US president and his guest. Some journalists attacked the Indian Prime Minister for the state of democracy in his country, to which Modi replied that there is no question of discrimination in India on the basis of caste or religion because his government follows a constitution that was drafted on the fundamental values of democracy.

Economic challenges

Although the US is India’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade exceeding $128 billion last year, significant barriers to trade exist on both sides. One of the challenges is that the two countries disagree on some key international economic issues.

For example, India’s Minister of Energy and Renewable Energy, Raj Kumar Singh, criticized the Biden administration’s climate initiative because it disadvantages developing countries that cannot subsidize their own transition to green energy. India has also dropped the trade pillar of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the main trade initiative of the Biden administration.

Most analysts believe that economic cooperation should bring greater results than lucrative US military exports. There are several ways for the US to improve trade relations with India. They include removing tariffs on steel and aluminum that were imposed for national security reasons during the Trump administration and restoring the preferential status for India that Trump removed.

The influence of Indian Americans

The most important factor contributing to the strengthening of US-India ties is the growing number of Americans of Indian origin: more than four million. Indian Americans are wealthier than average, with the highest average income of any ethnic group in the US, including whites.

Indians are also becoming an increasingly influential group of voters. The highlighted role of Indians in collecting funds for political campaigns, as well as Indian representatives in the US Congress – the so-called Samosa Club. The US has had two governors and seven members of Congress of Indian origin. The mother of US Vice President Kamala Harris is Indian, and the former US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, is the daughter of Indian parents from Punjab.

Although their political views differ (some support the Republicans and some the Democrats), many Americans of Indian descent are increasingly influential in terms of American policy towards India. The continuous influx of more than 150,000 Indian students to the US each year contributes to the strengthening of Indian influence. In addition to injecting nearly $8 billion into the American education system and related services, Indian students are constantly bringing new ideas and perspectives. In the long run, Indian-Americans can help shape American policy toward India in a similar way that Jewish-Americans are doing toward Israel.

New times – Threat of China

The strengthening of relations between New Delhi and Washington has been fueled by China’s assertive foreign policy under the leadership of Xi Jinping. China has become America’s main rival in the fight for world dominance.

The Americans clearly detect China as their primary adversary (not Russia, much less the EU) and are actively seeking regional allies to contain its growing global influence. Biden hopes India will serve as a counterweight to Beijing’s growing global economic power. India has traditionally been non-aligned on geopolitical issues, but China’s long-standing territorial aspirations towards its Himalayan territory and the June 2020 death of 20 Indian soldiers by the Chinese military have alarmed Indian policymakers.

While India maintains its independent stance, the recent G7 summit in Hiroshima effectively entailed the second-ever QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) summit between Biden, Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Fumi Kishida and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. During the gathering, the four leaders reaffirmed their commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.

The message to China is clear. Although India claims that it is not an ally of the US but a partner, it does not hesitate to seek help from the US and other Western powers to defend and defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity against Beijing or anyone else.

A new phase in US-India relations

Except for relations with China, the USA and India have a lot in common: democracy, commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship. As Henry Kissinger once noted, the two countries have “no conflict of interest in the traditional and fundamental sense.” After the US military withdraws from Afghanistan in 2021, Pakistan has become a less important US ally and this provides room for improving India-US ties.

The cordial relations between Biden and Modi symbolically represent a new phase in the relations between the two countries. Although India has had a non-aligned status for decades, Russia’s increasingly strong turn towards China could encourage India to move closer to the US, especially as American multinational corporations seek to shift their factories out of China. US Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen visited India as recently as last year as part of efforts to redirect global supply chains away from China. India is a potential country where American investors could go. The jet engine and chip deals agreed during Modi’s visit to the US are a continuation of fruitful economic cooperation.

India is in favor of good relations with the USA but does not want to be an American ally

Many observers take Modi’s visit to the US in June as evidence that an American-Indian alliance is forming against China. However, such expectations are exaggerated. As India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar made clear, a formal alliance is not on the table.

Although Indians no longer talk about non-alignment, they are not interested in classical political alliances. Indians regularly attend QUAD meetings, and the Indian army occasionally holds joint military exercises with the US army, the country is a member of the I2U2 Group, and there is an increasingly strong economic cooperation with the US. However, India is far from being treated as an US ally (vassal) in the style of Japan or South Korea. Why? Because India maintains warm diplomatic, military and economic relations with Russia. New Delhi still imports more than half of its weapons from Russia, is a major buyer of Russian oil (along with China) and often votes against Western initiatives at the UN. New Delhi still refuses to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Modi was persistent in this in the US as well.

In addition to all that, India is an important member of BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and has a highly developed trade with China, Iran, Cuba and cooperates with the whole world.

Multipolarity above all

India’s top priorities are to maintain access to Russian weapons, oil, gas and other resources and to avoid further pushing Russia into the arms of China. Recent declarations of “shared values” by the two largest democracies sound nice, but they do not constitute an alliance either.

The point of Indo-US relations is not to isolate Russia or anyone else but to maintain a balance of power with China. This means maintaining the global balance between the US and China, but also maintaining the balance between China and India in Asia and beyond. India’s importance is growing. Earlier this year, India overtook China in terms of population as China experiences demographic stagnation. India’s GDP is growing around 6% this year, faster than China’s.

If the current rate of growth of the Indian economy continues, it could be the same size as the economy of the Eurozone countries by the middle of the 21st century. Thanks to its huge population, growing workforce, development of the educational system, culture of entrepreneurship, influence of the diaspora, nuclear weapons and other benefits of soft power (yoga, Bollywood), India will be a significant factor in the geopolitical balance of power in the future. Above all else, New Delhi remains committed to the principles of a multipolar world.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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