At their first in-person bilateral meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi, since the former took office, in September 2021, President Biden stated that relations between the two democracies were destined to be “stronger, closer, and tighter”[i]. He highlighted that the common challenges faced by India and the United States (U.S.) are- Covid-19, climate change and ensuring stability in the Indo-Pacific. In a year that has tested nations and their citizens, the United States relations with India strengthened as they overcame shared challenges and identified new areas of mutual cooperation. Officials of the two governments have been meeting in person or virtually to take forward cooperation in key areas such as counter-terrorism, defence and the Indo-Pacific and the situation in Afghanistan. The engagements have been buttressed in 2021, through meetings between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi in Washington and on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Rome. India also welcomed high level U.S. officials like Secretary of State Blinken, Defence Secretary Austin, Climate Change Envoy Kerry and Deputy Secretary of State Sherman to name a few.
With U.S. focused on Asia and the Indo- Pacific, and addressing challenges that arise from a competitive China, one finds India at the centre of U.S. policies towards the region. India, in turn, has welcomed this increased engagement in areas of converging interests. Prime Minister Modi highlighted the five ‘T’s that would help expand the relations in the coming decade- Tradition (democratic values), Talent (people to people contact), Technology, Trade and Trusteeship.[ii] He further highlighted the expanding India-U.S. relations herald the beginning of a transformative period for the relations.
The paper highlights some of the important interactions between the two nations on bilateral relations, regional challenges and global issues.
Within the strategic partnership, defence forms a critical aspect, both from a security and economic perspective. The two nations established a 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in 2018 which is aimed at creating a mechanism under which the Defence and Foreign Minister can take decisive strategic decisions to achieve greater integration of defence, security and intelligence apparatus. Washington hosted the 2+2 Dialogue in November 2021 in which the two sides explored possibilities of collaboration in space, cyber security and emerging technologies. The two also reinforced their commitments to democratic values and working to ensure a peaceful Indo-Pacific.
To strengthening bilateral economic ties, the 12th Ministerial-level meeting of the India-United States Trade Policy Forum was held in New Delhi in November 2021. The meeting underlined the importance of integrating the two economies across sectors to harness the untapped potential of the relationship in such sectors as services, investments, intellectual property, creating resilient and secure supply chains etc.[iii] Apart from enhancing bilateral economic relations, the two sides also agreed to work collaboratively and constructively in relevant multilateral trade bodies including the WTO, the G20, and the OECD.
Among the regional issues, China has emerged as a significant challenge for both nations. India and the U.S. have bilateral relations with China that have elements of cooperation, competition and, conflict. Nonetheless, shared concerns about the dramatic rise of China and its expanding economic, political, and military engagements, from Europe and Africa to Asia and the Pacific, have led both to make changes in their regional outlooks.
Linked to the above is the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific. The region is now a significant geopolitical strategic focal point and India’s own approach towards the Indo-Pacific is shaped by the emerging security challenges in the Indian Ocean region. The U.S. is the dominant power and has significant military power while being part of various alliance pacts in the region. As India and the U.S. find convergences in their approach to ensure a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, they are increasingly collaborating with their partners such as Japan and Australia. Another partner is the ASEAN, whose centrality to the concept has been reiterated by both India and the U.S.
A third issue of importance is the situation in Afghanistan. While India differed from the U.S. on its withdrawal strategy, the two nations would like the situation in Afghanistan to stabilise. For India, stability in Afghanistan is critical for a number of reasons. As a country that has faced terror attacks, India is concerned that instability in Afghanistan could lead to increased terror activities aimed at India. A stable and peaceful Afghanistan would also be a potential economic partner for the future and India would like to continue to maintain the good relations it has built at the level of the common Afghan people.
The pandemic has necessitated a global and a cooperative approach to addressing the health crisis. As the pandemic has endured it has become clear that vaccination is the key to end the global crisis. However, it is not just the need for vaccines but also the need to ensure that it is available to all. India has supplied vaccines and medical equipment to nations across the world through its Vaccine Maitri initiative[iv]. As they continue to administer vaccines to their citizens, the two governments have pledged to lead the global efforts to end the pandemic. India is an important partner in the WHO-initiated COVAX programme[v] as also the Quad initiative to fight the pandemic.
Stemming from the need to rebuild economies, India and the U.S. along with their partners have also launched a new partnership for infrastructure development for developing countries, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. The initiative offers to deliver transparent, high-standards infrastructure development through technical assistance and other tools for sustainable development. The focus would be on development in sectors such as health infrastructure, water supply and sanitation, telecommunications and renewable power generation.
Renewable energy technology and climate change have emerged as an area of cooperation between India and the U.S. They launched a new high-level partnership, the “U.S.-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership,” which envisages bilateral cooperation on strong actions in the current decade to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Partnership will proceed along two main tracks: the Strategic Clean Energy Partnership and the Climate Action and Finance Mobilization Dialogue. The U.S. joined the International Solar Alliance, India’s initiative to help global energy transition through a solar- led approach. As was pointed out, Prime Minister Modi has spoken about technology as a pillar in the India-U.S. relations; India is looking at the U.S. for investment and technology in its renewable energy sector. The Prioritizing Clean Energy and Climate Cooperation with India Act of 2021 introduced by Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and which is under discussion in the Senate, is one such step that helps promoting joint research and development on clean energy technologies, encouraging U.S. private investment in the Indian clean energy market, and supporting initiatives to develop new renewable energy generation capacity in India.
India-U.S. strategic partnership is based on their shared interests on bilateral, regional and global issues. The above are but a few areas of convergences that have emerged and which have strengthened the relations in the past year. This is not to say that they have not had divergences; as was pointed out the two differed in their approach towards Afghanistan and they continue to have differences on the methods to achieve climate change mitigation goals. Nonetheless, a difference of opinion is an indication of the free interactions and dialogues that they hold.
As the two nations enter the new year, they would likely find themselves addressing some existing challenges such as a rising China, climate change while also exploring new areas of collaboration like collaborations on Covid-19 vaccine, sustainable infrastructure development. The across the board interactions in the past year have enhanced the partnership and will contribute to a closer understanding of each other’s requirements as they work together in the backdrop of the flux in geopolitics and international relations.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal.
[i] The White House, “Remarks by President Biden and Prime Minister Modi of the Republic of India Before Bilateral Meeting,” 24 September 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/09/24/remarks-by-president-biden-and-prime-minister-modi-of-the-republic-of-india-before-bilateral-meeting/, Accessed on 29 December 2021
[iii] Press Trust of India, Ministry of Commerce, Government of India “India – United States to take economic relationship to the next high level, India – US TPF gets a big boost, India – US TPF agrees to integrate the economies across sectors” 23 November 2021, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1774307, Accessed on 29 December 2021.
[iv] As of 24 December 2021, India had through grants provided 132.67 lakh doses and on commercial basis 550.358 lakh doses.
[v] Under the COVAX programme India has supplied 332.145 lakh doses