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Modi’s State Visit: Assessing the Complicated Strategic Relations of the United States and India

Modi’s State Visit: Assessing the Complicated Strategic Relations of the United States and India

  • Through continuing cooperation, the United States and India will continue to strengthen their partnership both in Asia and across the globe.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington, D.C., this week highlights the potential for India’s growth while reminding the world of the diplomatic policy issues for the United States and India.

Rough Beginnings

On June 22, 2023, the Biden administration will host Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a state dinner at the White House. Modi’s visit comes at an important time for both the United States and the Biden administration, as India remains one of the United States’ most active partners and allies.

While this partnership is expected to grow in the coming years, relations between the United States and India historically can be defined by mistrust and disagreement on various issues. During the Cold War era, India was one of many countries globally to adopt a policy of non-alignment, refusing to commit to supporting either the Soviet Union or the United States. As a result, the United States began to support Pakistan in South Asia, deepening the divide between the two nations until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, tensions continued to grow over the news of India’s successful nuclear program in 1998, which was developed in complete secrecy to the rest of the world. The United States deployed economic sanctions on India and remained adamant that the Indian nuclear tests violated global security and the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, which India had refused to support.

Improving Relations

Since the turn of the century, the relations between the two countries have improved due to shared strategic interests, primarily in the economic and security sectors. During the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, the United States worked closely with multiple Indian Prime Ministers to integrate India’s nuclear program safely onto the world stage, while also supporting India’s bid for a seat at the United Nations Security Council. Over the past few decades with the rise of globalization and the economic liberalization of the Indian economy, India has slowly transformed its economy from that of a developing nation to one with a thriving middle class and heavy international investments. According to the Department of State, the United States remains India’s largest trading partner, with trade between the two countries reaching close to $157 billion in 2021. Along with trade, many American companies view the Indian market as a high priority and have invested heavily in the Indian economy. This heavy investment and rapid growth of the Indian economy has led India to become the fifth largest economy in the world, passing the United Kingdom recently.

Any advancement in the relations between Pakistan and the United States may convince India to remain neutral or look elsewhere for strategic partnerships.

The United States and India have also become more cooperative in the defense sector. Both countries’ militaries routinely run joint exercises and India has also become an important client for foreign military sales. India and the United States are also members of multiple strategic security partnerships including the Quad agreement between India, the United States, Australia, and Japan, which is aimed at overall security in the Pacific. Other shared diplomatic relations include the G-20 partnership, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. In 2023, both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to New Delhi to meet with various officials in the Indian government, continuing to promote American interests in India.

A large part of the United States and India economic strategic partnership can be credited to the Indian diaspora community living in the United States. Indian Americans are one of the fastest-growing ethnic communities in the United States and currently make up 1.35% of the country’s population (approximately 4.5 million people). The Indian American community has found success in multiple sectors including health and medicine, technology, logistics, real estate, and many other sectors as well. The Indian American community has been a key form of support for India, both through economic and social means. With Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington, he is expected to address members of the Indian American community, where he has found widespread approval and support.

 Potential Challenges

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Although the India-United States strategic partnership seems to be heading in a positive direction, there are still aspects of the relationship that may cause hesitancy from both parties involved. India’s friendly relations with Russia remain an area of concern for the United States, as America and its NATO allies continue to pressure Vladamir Putin and Russia to end the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. India’s ties to Russia are primarily concerning because many of the strategic interests between the United States and India are also shared by Russia and India. These interests include defense and economic partnerships, along with cultural cooperation as well. If the United States views India as such a strategic partner, it will be in the best interest of Washington to continue to promote India as one of America’s most important allies.

For India, the United States and Pakistan relations have historically and continue to be an issue raised by the Indians during strategic dialogues. The United States has labeled Pakistan a major non-NATO ally and sees Pakistan as an important partner for strategic defense and security in South and Central Asia. As tensions continue to rise between Pakistan and India over many geopolitical issues, this may put the United States in a complicated situation in attempting to de-escalate any future potential conflict. Any advancement in the relations between Pakistan and the United States may also convince India to remain neutral or look elsewhere for strategic partnerships.

The United States has also been under pressure from various international organizations and agencies to hold India accountable for ongoing issues with human rights and democratic backsliding. Recent issues include women’s safety, religious freedoms, freedom of speech, and other forms of basic civil rights. Although India provides the United States with many strategic advantages, the United States must carefully approach human rights, which is a pillar of American foreign policy.

Looking ahead, the United States-India strategic partnership will be defined through ongoing cooperation primarily in continuing economic growth between the two countries. Other areas of policy in which the countries can work together include climate change, promoting shared democratic traditions and institutions, and limiting China’s sphere of influence throughout Asia and the rest of the world. The United States-India strategic partnership can also serve as a model of diplomacy between countries who have had complicated relations in the past, and eventually find common ground to become strategic partners. With Prime Minister Modi receiving an official state dinner, the United States is ready to take the next step in its growing partnership with India in the coming years.

Stavan Singh is a master’s student at the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C. He is studying international security, focusing on conflict resolution, democracy, transnational policies, and international organizations. Outside of school and work, he enjoys watching and playing sports, listening to music, traveling, and spending time with his dog Zeus.

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