Narendra Modi’s trip to the White House may be the most important visit from an Indian leader since 2008 as Delhi weighs a deeper relationship with Washington.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States may be the most important since the countries signed a nuclear deal 15 years ago.
When then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington after the nuclear agreement in September 2008, he was extravagant in his praise for then-US President George W. Bush.
At a state dinner, he told Bush: “The people of India deeply love you. And all that you have done to bring our countries closer together is something that history will remember forever.”
The hype for this visit is even greater.
US President Joe Biden has described US-India ties as the “defining relationship” of the 21st century while his Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has termed Modi’s visit as historic. Modi and Biden face elections next year, so both sides expect their meeting to pay positive dividends domestically.
Not only is the Cold War period of estrangement between the so-called oldest and largest democracies well and truly over, but the two sides are unwilling to let past and current irritants impact on their relationship.
Neither India’s unwillingness to condemn Russia over the war in Ukraine, or the concerns of some in the US over religious freedom and minority rights in India, dampened preparations for the visit, described by officials as big on symbolism as well as potentially substantial agreements.
Modi is only the third leader in India’s history to be accorded a state visit, and, after this visit, the only one who will have addressed a joint session of the US Congress twice.
While there is strategic convergence on geo-political issues, it is understood Modi’s visit will focus on geo-economics. Washington and Delhi are deeply concerned about China’s rise, and its role in the Indo-Pacific and on the border with India.
But this visit is about translating common concern into a deeper and wider defence and technological relationship.
This will be reflected in several substantial agreements, including those that will allow India access to advanced technology while creating jobs in the US, strengthening Modi’s “Make in India” programme while giving a boost to American industry.
One “deal” negotiators from both sides have been working on, which could be announced during Modi’s visit, is an Indian order for maritime drones at a potential cost of USD$3 billion.
This comes on top of the deal between Air India (now owned by Indian company Tata) and US-based Boeing for 290 airplanes at nearly USD$45.9 billion that Biden says will create one million jobs across 44 states in the US.
The success of the state visit will largely hinge on the joint US-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET). In the lead-up to Modi’s Washington visit, the countries’ National Security Advisors have met twice.
The framework includes a series of programmes aimed at strengthening the innovation ecosystems in the US and India, as well as the possibility of collaboration on defence technology and jet engine production.
It also seeks to forge a resilient supply chain for semiconductors that could result in a design, manufacturing and fabrication ecosystem housed in India.
Cooperation on space-related issues and collaboration on the next generation of telecommunications also fall under the umbrella of the framework, which could cement a long-term bilateral partnership.
Rarely has India established such an overarching framework of cooperation with another country on critical and sensitive areas. Even with the Soviet Union, with which it had a special relationship, the collaboration was not as broad-based or deep across sectors.
While Delhi will keep flagging its “strategic autonomy” in foreign policy, the Modi visit to the US will also announce the limits it has set for its non-alignment. Where India sets those limits could define the next iteration of its international relations.
Professor Amitabh Mattoo is a Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and concurrently serves as Honorary Professor of International Relations at the Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne. He also serves as Chairman of the Governing Board of Miranda House, University of Delhi.