‘The Future is AI – America and India,’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed during his address to a packed American Congress – the US equivalent of Parliament. It was a simple line that neatly summed up his highly successful first State Visit to the United States as India’s Prime Minister.
This was a transformational visit that signalled many significant changes to the world at large. India is now a key US strategic partner, even as it maintains an independent foreign policy of its own. Modi also reached out to the Indian American diaspora at an event in Washington DC before concluding his tour, announcing that H1B visas can now be renewed in the US itself, making life much easier for Indian Americans. This is in addition to new American consulates in Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, further boosting people to people ties.
Indian prime ministerial visits to the US are often packed with good optics, but tangible deliverables that can be celebrated by the diaspora are rare. However, by that metric of substantial policy announcements and outcomes, Modi’s visit delivered beyond expectations. It was very driven by future technology cooperation involving the two great democratic powers. India and the US agreed to collaborate on semiconductor manufacturing, with American semiconductor giant Micron to establish a semiconductor assembly and testing site worth $2.75bn in Gujarat state. Micron will provide £800mn dollars of funding with the Indian state and local governments providing the remainder This is an important step forward for Indian manufacturing, as it moves up the manufacturing value chain.
There is a long way to go, but there is now a credible case to be made that India can begin to replace China as the world’s factory. The modern world cannot function without semiconductors, which help to power and manage our smartphones, laptops, tablets and other critical devices. This was not the only exciting possibility – Modi met Elon Musk of Tesla, who said ‘I’m a fan of PM Modi’. Tesla manufacturing a new generation of electric cars in India would really put India on the global map for manufacturing, besides providing skilled jobs for many Indians.
Another positive development that the diaspora can celebrate is India-US collaboration in space. The so-called final frontier is one that India has just begun to explore in greater depth, reflecting the growing confidence of a fast-developing technological power. Washington and New Delhi have signed the Artemis Accords for space exploration. This will materialise in the form of Indian astronauts being sent to the International Space Station in 2024, in a joint Indian American mission. Of course, India has its own mission, with its Project Gaganyaan, to send astronauts to space the same year led by the Indian Space Research Organisations Collaboration in advanced space technology will make India stronger, while securing US interests as both countries share things such as satellite surveillance data and helping to make both countries more secure.
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Defence is a major cornerstone of the burgeoning Indian American relationship. While there is a visible push by the United States to sell advanced weapons systems to India, it is clear that unlike in previous decades India is actually receptive to buying American weapons. This reflects a rare political consensus in India that purchasing American weapons is a good way to quickly increase the combat power of the Indian military, while buying time for India to indigenise its arms design and manufacturing capabilities. For example, the deal between Washington and Delhi for all three branches of the Indian military (air force, army and navy) to purchase 31 MQ-9B Guardian drones which is expected to be signed shortly will enable India to keep a 24/7 watch on its long land borders with China as well as activity in the Indian Ocean.
The ominous rise of China was not mentioned publicly during the festivities of the visit, however it was surely a major factor in the background. Concerns abound on the aggressive behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party on both India’s land borders and the island nation of Taiwan. India is the only large Asian country that is capable of tying down large numbers of Chinese troops on land, thereby reducing the threat to other countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which also have disputes with China (and to whom India is also selling weapons). The Pentagon, which was probably a strong supporter of India reaching out to Modi, is well aware of this.
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This was not the only prominent defence deal to come to the fore. India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with General Electric of the United States for the manufacture of jet engines in India, with up to 80 per cent technology transfer to India. For India, which has been struggling to build its own jet engines for decades, this is a big win. This deal, once it is legally authorised by the US Congress, will make India a new manufacturing hub for engines and could contribute to helping India build its own jet engine in a decade or two.
Counter-terrorism also found a mention in the India-US joint statement, which called upon Pakistan to take immediate action to ensure that no territory under its control is used for launching terrorist attacks. While this reflects the tone and tenor of previous US government condemnations of Pakistan’s state sponsorship of terrorism, this felt different on many levels.
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It came from the White House in a joint statement that followed talks between Modi and President Biden. It will also be followed by the sale and transfer of armed drone technology by the US to India, which will enable India to conduct its own counter-terrorist strikes in the near future. The US tilt towards India now includes advanced military technology that is bound to have a psychological and material impact on terrorists and their sponsors in the Indian Subcontinent.
There can be no doubt that the relationship between the world’s largest democracy and its oldest will have a huge impact in the economic, security and cultural spheres. The time for both countries to shed old apprehensions and look to a brighter future has come. Caution is warranted, given the self-interested nature of the US, and its capability to stab allies in the back, but India and the US have more interests in common for the foreseeable future.
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Jeevan Vipinachandran is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.