The common values and close collaborations that bind these two great nations will only continue to blossom in the next US presidency. In this first instalment of a series of weekly evaluations on the ties that bind these two great nations we examine the dynamics that are bringing the two countries even closer.
When the world's oldest democracy heads for presidential elections amid a crippling pandemic, a trade war with China and global economic challenges, it's only natural for the world's largest democracy to be watching it very closely. After all, there are several common strands of values and close collaborations that bind US and India. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted recently, both countries not only “share a reverence for freedom, rule of law, and human rights that runs deep,” but also that India remains one of the few trusted, like-minded nations with which the United States collaborates on a full range of global issues. In addition, one of the most enduring and widely acknowledged foundations of this partnership is the spirit of hard work and entrepreneurship that Indians and Americans share.
From the days of December 1959, when President Dwight Eisenhower became the first serving US President to visit India, to President Donald Trump's latest state visit to India in late February this year, US-India relations have indeed come a full cycle, decisively jettisoning the mistrust and tension of the Cold War era for a warm embrace on the basis of mutual strengths. There have been several high points on the way well documented by history - such as the landmark India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, new areas of energy cooperation and the initiation of a framework for strategic dialogues. A “mangoes-for-motorcycles” deal in 2008 saw the first shipments of Indian mangoes arrive in the US after an 18-year ban on its import, while US-made Harley-Davidson motorcycles found their way onto Indian streets as a reciprocation.
While the scope of such massive bilateral relations often outlast individual initiatives, the bold strategic bet placed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump have elevated US-India ties to an era of unprecedented cooperation since 2016. The deep personal rapport between Trump and Modi has been a key catalyst for this transformation. But in many ways, this has been no ordinary bilateral relationship - the cooperation has gone beyond transactional diplomacy to include greater risk-taking and the willingness to “agree to disagree” between both partners. When Trump came calling to India this year just a few weeks before the coronavirus began to manifest as a full-blown pandemic in both countries, it once again served as a reaffirmation of the US as India's all-weather primary security partner.
Whether Trump returns to the White House following the November elections or whether Joe Biden finally gets to become the US President is therefore a key question that, on the face of it, is likely to define the shape of US-India relations in the decade ahead of us. However, the resilience of the relationship points otherwise. The desire to counter China's aggressive role in the Indo-Pacific is an area of increasing strategic convergence for the US and India, as is the expanded trade relationship between both. India's unequivocal support for the former has found swift reciprocation from the US in the form of vocal support for New Delhi as a leading global power and vital partner in ensuring peace, stability and growing prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. A four million-strong Indian-American diaspora is yet another enduring source of strength for the partnership, and whether it's a second term for Trump or a Biden presidency in 2021, the ultimate winner will be US-India relations. Here are the reasons why:
The 2+2 Ministerial Dialogues have been one of the most robust platforms of ironing out any bilateral issues between US and India. Most recently, in December 2019, the US hosted the second 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in Washington led by the US Secretaries of State and Defence and their Indian counterparts, where both sides reaffirmed India's status as a Major Defence Partner and deepened cooperation on maritime security.
While the 2+2 serves as the premier dialogue mechanism between India and the US, there are more than 30 bilateral dialogues and working groups reflecting the full scope of bilateral relations - from space and health cooperation to energy, technology, trade and cyber security. Among them, the US-India Counterterrorism Joint Working Group was established in 2000 and is among the oldest government-to-government dialogue platforms. The smooth functioning of such platforms will be a key fulcrum on which US-India will continue to flourish.
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When it comes to US and India, size does matter. Despite protectionist tendencies, both the US and India seek expanded trade relationship that is reciprocal and fair. In 2019, overall US-India bilateral trade in goods and services reached $149 billion, with US being India's largest trading partner. US energy exports are a key area of growth - in 2018, India purchased 48.2 million barrels of US crude oil, a significant increase from 9.6 million in 2017. Even though the pandemic has now hit the global student community hard, last year, Indian students enrolled at US colleges and universities contributed more than $8 billion to the US economy.
As recently as February, India signed a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) with the US for the acquisition of 24 MH-60R Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters, at an estimated cost of $2.6 billion. This includes the transfer of technology from Lockheed Martin to Indian contractors. In addition, there are deals for Apache Guardian attack helicopters, and separate defence agreements with Boeing for Chinook helicopters. As the Indo-Pacific region becomes more volatile, the deals reflect the growing strategic reliance on India on the part of US.
From being worth $200 million in 2000, India-US defence trade today stands at a staggering $20 billion. Key factors in this growth include the signing of three defence cooperation agreements between 2016 and 2019. Between 2008 and 2020, India ordered seven different major US military platforms, and the US is India's fourth-largest source of arms after Russia, Israel and France.
In January 2020, the US and Australia expanded their geographical definitions of the 'Indo-Pacific' to match those of India and Japan. This followed the upgraded India-Japan-US trilateral and India-Japan-US-Australia dialogues - with the resultant quadrilateral or QUAD being seen as a bulwark against Chinese hegemony. Coupled with the '2+2' India-US dialogue and the first India-US tri-service military exercise in 2019, the strategic impact of the QUAD will be felt strongly in a post-pandemic world order.
The G7-led 'Blue Dot Network' - focused on shared standards for global infrastructure development in response to China's Belt and Road Initiative - has become a new area of convergence with India's vision of the Indo-Pacific. Of course, there are areas of disagreement with the US over aspects of the Chinese challenge, and the US has been somewhat sceptical of India's strategy to engage China through a mix of cooperation and competition in their shared neighbourhood. But the trade, military and political dimension of the network has added a new momentum to US-India relations.
Since both India and the US cooperate closely at multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations, G-20, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the World Trade Organisation, both have found mutual support in demanding a complete overhaul of the archaic policies and groupings of some of them - such as the UN Security Council. The US warmly welcomed India to the UN Security Council in 2021 for a two-year term, and has been vocal in its support for a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member. In 2019, the United States joined India's Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure to expand cooperation on sustainable infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region.
These close collaborations and synergies in US-India relationship thus amply demonstrate the age-old dictum that in geopolitics, there are only permanent interests. No matter whether it's Trump or Biden who graces the Oval Office in January 2021, the ultimate winner is the ever-deepening bonhomie between the US and India.
Next Week: India-US Special Series - Navigating New Challenges: Key takeaways from the virtual leadership summit on economic and strategic collaboration between the two countries.