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A Transactional Relationship: US-India Partnership in Perspective


The recent visit of PM Modi to the United States comes in the wake of long-term engagement between India and the US and the deepening of ties between the two countries in the last few years. Beyond the rhetoric of democratic cooperation, the main takeaways from the visit lie in the affirmation of collective counter-terrorism strategy, cementing a collective position on key issues like Afghanistan and Indo-Pacific and cementing the future pathway for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad grouping. With no breakthrough on trade agreement and a merely rhetorical affirmation of common interests, the visit brings into focus the transactional and superficial nature of Indo-US relations. Specifically, when contrasted with the series of four framework agreements signed between the two countries as a part of their bilateral ‘2+2’ dialogue and the 2008 nuclear deal, the substantive outcomes that should have flowed from the India-US relationship appear comparatively diminished.

A Wider Global Agenda

PM Modi’s US visit spanned his address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), his first in-person summit meetings with President Joe Biden and Vice-President, Kamala Harris, the first in-person Quad summit, bilateral meetings with his Australian and Japanese counterparts, and meetings with US business leaders. The visit was significant as it provided a platform for India at the United Nations and with its bilateral partners, to clearly project India’s national interests and soft power. It was also important in that it highlighted India’s growing influence on the global stage, as the visit included bilateral meetings with the US President and Vice-President and with other leaders of the Quad. Pakistan’s Imran Khan, among various other country heads, has not even had a direct conversation with President Biden yet – not even a phone call, even though various other top officials of the US administration have engaged with their Pakistani counterparts. Thus, the US tilt towards India and a sharp break in US-Pakistan relations due to the conclusion of the US-led Afghanistan invasion, has set the stage for fresh impetus to be given to US-India ties.

Key issues in Mr. Modi’s visit mainly spanned developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism in India, and a collective agenda for the Indo-Pacific. These issues were expressed within a clear framework in Mr. Modi’s UNGA address. The speech – full of clarity and impact – saw Mr. Modi reclaiming democracy from the West, asserting that India is the mother of democracy which is strengthened by its diversity and that every sixth person in the world is an Indian so that when India grows, the world grows and transforms with it. This was significant, as, in the past diplomatic forums, Western countries have rarely missed an opportunity to preach to India about democracy, human rights and secularism. At a time, when the US’s misadventures in Afghanistan resulting in the legitimization of one of the world’s biggest Islamist terror groups, have turned the philosophy of ‘human rights’ on its head, India’s reclaiming of the ‘democracy’ rhetoric from the West becomes opportune.

Mr. Modi expanded this theme by touching upon the dangers facing humanity in the form of terrorism – indirectly touching upon its sponsorship by Pakistan – and called for maritime security, combating climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting India’s achievements in each of these areas. Specifically in the areas of climate change and COVID-19, India had much to showcase, having been on track to meet its Paris Climate Agreement commitments and with the pandemic well under control in India. Veiled references to China and Pakistan were evident in his remarks, especially in the context of changing regional developments portended by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

However, going beyond this diplomatic rhetoric, the concrete outcomes from PM Modi’s US visit were limited.

Quad, AUKUS and Realpolitik

This was clearly visible in the first in-person Quad summit that was held in the US. Given the changing regional scenario and the failure of multilateralism espoused by institutions like the United Nations, India sees Quad as a particularly useful short-term mini-lateral grouping. Compared to its inception in 2004 for coordination on disaster management, Quad has, since 2017, come a long way. Throughout all the areas of discussion in Quad, the founding principle of upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific continued to be its main thrust, although a direct reference to China and its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific was avoided. The key deliverables agreed to in the Summit include –

  • First, a key issue of the agenda was to discuss the developments in Afghanistan. The Quad members reaffirmed coordinating common diplomatic, economic and human rights policies on Afghanistan and deepening of counter-terrorism cooperation in Afghanistan, consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2593 (passed on August 30th 2021 under India’s Presidency) which called for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan and for the country to be not used as a base for terrorism.
  • Second, Indo-Pacific which has been a de-facto mainstay of the Quad grouping was discussed. This involved Quad members declaring support for the European Union’s Indo-Pacific strategy released in September 2021, and, at Japan’s behest, support for the recent announcement of the trilateral military pact between the US, Australia and the UK (AUKUS) which enables sharing of nuclear submarine technology with Australia.
  • Third, climate change has been a key part of every Quad meet. On climate change, the Quad leaders committed to updating their climate targets in line with more ambitious targets (including ‘intent’ to work towards mid-century Net Zero Emissions reduction targets) before the upcoming climate change conference in Glasgow later this year.
  • Fourth, vaccine supply has been an issue that Quad countries have consistently worked upon. While production of vaccine supply for Indo-Pacific is to take place in India, distribution and storage would be handled by Australia and Japan. India affirmed that it would begin supplying Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines by the end of October 2021. Quad aims is to produce at least 1 billion India-manufactured vaccines by the end of 2022. The Quad also welcomed India’s announcement that it would resume vaccine exports from November 2021, which it had briefly paused due to the raging second wave in the country.
  • Fifth, the Quad launched a new infrastructure partnership for the Indo-Pacific region – a partnership for assessment of infrastructure needs that would work in coordination with the Blue Dot Network. The Blue Dot Network is a private-sector-led initiative involving the US, Australia and Japan to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Finally, cooperation on critical and emerging technologies saw some headway being made at this summit, emerging as an important agenda for the Quad. Its working group was set up in March this year, focusing on areas such as technical standards, 5G diversification and deployment, technology supply chains, and advanced communications including Artificial Intelligence.

The aim is to develop common protocols and standards for technology deployment and becomes significant in the wake of politics over 5G trials in various countries revolving around the question of excluding China due to its technological surveillance. In India also, while China played a major role in 3G and 4G roll-out in the country, in 5G trials Chinese telecom firms would be excluded, as per Indian official indications. Among other things, India has put strict curbs over rising Chinese control over the Indian technology sector over the past one year. The aim to develop technology supply chains is also aimed at China, although not explicitly stated. A vital part of this is to develop semi-conductor supply chains, for which India is already in talks with Taiwan, given the latter’s role and lion’s share of global production.

These initiatives of the Quad indicate that the grouping covers a comprehensive agenda for the Indo-Pacific, going beyond maritime security. Indeed, security, strategy and defence arrangements are, for now, excluded from the Quad. The domain of maritime security is much more exclusive and includes bilateral and trilateral naval exercises (such as Malabar exercises) including non-Quad members and through mechanisms like the 2+2 bilateral tracks. Other trilateral security mechanisms like Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) trilateral is also a significant security arrangement in the Indo-Pacific that – from a Western perspective – can be seen to complement the Quad. The Quad also recognizes cooperation with Indo-Pacific forums like ASEAN as important in developing an Indo-Pacific vision.

From the agenda of Quad in the Leaders’ Summit, it is evident that the organization is just a cooperative platform, focused on developing alternative economic supply chains to China’s infrastructural projects. These supply chains would involve coronavirus vaccine as well as span other technological areas. However, much of this requires tangible technological cooperation in order to yield substantive results. Traditionally, Western countries, due to intellectual property rights restrictions, have been opposed to sharing technology with developing countries, including India. For any substantive cooperation on climate change and other critical technological areas, this politics needs to go.

Incipient efforts in this direction are visible in the recent agreement of India and the US – as a part of Industrial Security Annex signed under 2+2 in 2019 – to set up the Indo-US Industrial Security Joint Working Group. This will enable the two countries to align their policies and collaborate on the latest defence technologies. The agreement was reached during the Industrial Security Agreement summit held between the two sides recently in New Delhi, to develop protocols for exchanging classified information between the defence industries of both nations.

Some of the recent comprehensive bilateral agreements between India and US also include deals on C-130 planes worth 1.2 billion dollars, long-range P8I naval reconnaissance planes for about $1.5 billion, weapons for the special forces of the army, heavy-duty winter clothing, and, anti-missile and anti-aircraft NASAMS-2 or Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile System which is still being negotiated. These are business-as-usual deals and much of it only partially fulfills the Indian quest for technology transfer to facilitate indigenous defence products.

Moreover, most of these defence deals pale in front of the recently signed AUKUS trilateral deal – an Indo-Pacific strategy far more substantive than the Quad.

AUKUS and Quad

A significant part of the US’s Indo-Pacific pivot is now focused on the AUKUS deal. The trilateral security alliance between Australia, the US and the UK was signed recently and constitutes a major development with implications for the Indo-Pacific and for larger Western engagement with China. Under the deal, the US and the UK will supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. This has come at the temporary cost of antagonizing France with whom Australia cancelled the USD 90 billion conventional submarines project, raising criticism about the US’s betrayal of a NATO ally, a major Indo-Pacific power and a permanent member of the Security Council, besides being a fellow western democracy. The cancelled deal was also critical to maintaining France’s indigenous naval industry.

In India, it has been a reality check about the US’s decisions taken without keeping ‘allies’ in loop. This has further taken all idealism away from the Indo-US relationship and high expectations from Quad. Other than the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and India, no other country has nuclear-powered submarine technology. While the AUKUS deal is seen to complement Quad in ‘containing’ China by the western democracies, for India, it raises strategic apprehensions about the crowding of nuclear submarines in the Eastern Indian Ocean, thereby eroding India’s regional eminence in the area.

India’s ambition to develop nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) has not evoked any offer of help from the US, which claims to not share this top-class technology even with its ‘closest allies’. Instead, India has historically relied on Russia in procuring nuclear submarine technology. Presently, India, with Russian help, has one SSBN or submersible ship ballistic missile nuclear submarine, also called INS Arihant. India had also taken a Russian nuclear attack submarine – an SSN called INS Chakra – on lease for many years. For India to develop the kind of SSN technology that the US will share with Australia, much more advanced nuclear reactor technology is needed, for which India will need the help of another country – an issue that was discussed in PM Modi’s cabinet meeting. It is yet to be seen whether India will solicit France for sharing the nuclear submarine propulsion technology, which the US has clearly refused to do, despite Quad.

Charting an Independent Course

The AUKUS saga, coming right before the Quad summit, clearly shows that India needs to continue on the balanced path of charting a course independent of any alliances. The view that AUKUS complements Quad has limited relevance, as India does not share a similar confrontational relationship with China that the West does, with the latter’s antagonism stemming from cultural differences. Therefore, AUKUS complements Quad only from a US-dominated Western perspective, and is less useful from India’s point of view. For the Indo-US relationship to move beyond mere rhetoric, it has to deliver substantial results that are concretely helpful to India. The much-awaited trade agreement – which PM Modi was keen to touch upon in this visit – was not broached, as the Biden administration continues to dither on trade negotiations with India. Similarly, the transfer of technology in defence and the supply of advanced defence products like SSNs are far from being on the agenda. The Quad itself now appears to be little more than a toothless diplomatic forum.

After the way the US refused to help India during the second COVID-19 wave, the US debacle in Afghanistan and the AUKUS saga, India herself might be re-assessing her relationship with the US in a new light. The results are visible in India’s growing relations with Russia and Iran, taking her farther away from the US in regional politics. Henry Kissinger’s saying may hold well in present times that, “it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.”

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