Modi Goes to Washington: The Biden Administration is Playing the Long Game
Later this month Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Washington on a much-coveted state visit that is shaping up to be a historic occasion. Washington’s warm welcome of Modi takes place, despite the two countries' major differences over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and in the context of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing and a slew of wins for the Biden administration in implementing its Indo-Pacific strategy.
Outside observers may question why the Biden Administration is extending the courtesy of a state-level visit to Modi, whose government has given succor to Moscow by abstaining from several United Nations resolutions condemning Russia, drastically increasing imports of Russian crude oil, and participating in Russian military exercises.
The answer lies in a calculated long-term strategy to ensure India remains part of a networked security architecture in the Indo-Pacific and maintains the confidence and capabilities to stand up to Chinese aggression.
Visit caps six months of Indo-Pacific progress
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, U.S. China watchers feared that United States’ attention and resources would be consumed in the European theater and that the Indo-Pacific region would get short-shrift once again. In fact, this may have been Beijing’s wish. However, the opposite happened. Even as the Biden Administration provided billions in military and financial assistance to the Ukrainians and strengthened its coalition with Europe, it also put plenty of darts on the board of its Indo-Pacific strategy.
In just the last six months, the U.S. Administration hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose government is taking tangible steps to increase Japan’s contribution to deterrence in the Indo-Pacific; announced a plan to provide Australia nuclear-powered submarines; concluded an agreement with the Philippines to gain U.S. access to four additional military sites in the country; announced the Washington Declaration with South Korea that calls for strengthening the integration of U.S. and Korean forces and enhancing consultations on nuclear and strategic planning; and expanded a Quad (U.S.-Australia-India-Japan) program to enhance maritime domain awareness through the provision of satellite-based radio frequency data that improves Indo-Pacific nations’ ability to police their own waters and counter Chinese gray-zone activity in the maritime domain.
A successful visit by Modi will be like the cherry on top of the Administration’s Indo-Pacific sundae. India forms a critical part of the administration’s plans to realize a region that is “open, interconnected, prosperous, secure and resilient.
U.S. Congressional Members’ invitation to Modi to address a joint sitting of the Senate and House of Representatives—a prestigious event reserved for leaders of America’s closest and most respected partners—is further demonstration that India’s support for Moscow has resulted in little to no costs to its ties with Washington.
Delivering on security ties
In addition to the pomp and circumstance surrounding the visit, it will be important for both sides to produce tangible deliverables.
The stage has been set for the Administration to announce its approval of General Electric’s proposal to transfer technology to India for the manufacture of jet engines. If the Administration moves in this direction, it would be a game-changer for India and its defense production capabilities. The only countries currently capable of producing their own jet engines include the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France.
The U.S. Congress will have a say on any final decision to transfer such technology to India, but a nod from President Biden would send a strong signal of the United States' trust and confidence in India as a future security partner.
There has also been speculation that India will finally sign off on a five-year-old deal to buy MQ-9B Predator armed drones from U.S. company General Atomics. India has been operating two MQ-9Bs since 2020, when it leased them from the United States at the height of India-China border tensions. The Trump administration approved the sale of armed drones to India in early 2018—the first time a non-NATO partner was granted approval for such technology. If Modi’s government gives a green light to the MQ-9B purchase, it would be the largest U.S.-India defense deal completed since India’s February 2020 $3 billion purchase of MH-60 Romeo and Apache attack helicopters. The MQ-9Bs will sharpen India’s defenses against China by allowing it to monitor Chinese troop movements along their disputed border and by improving its naval surveillance capabilities to track Chinese maritime activities in the Indian Ocean.
The two leaders also are expected to advance the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) that was launched over a year ago. In January, the U.S. and Indian National Security Advisors held the inaugural session of the dialogue in Washington, where they announced initiatives to expand cooperation on strategic technologies and defense industrial production. They committed to new partnerships and cooperation in AI, quantum computing, and advanced wireless communications—including deployment and adoption of Open RAN in India—and to connect defense start-up companies to catalyze defense innovation. Washington further committed to lowering barriers for U.S. exports to India of High Performance Computing technology and source code.
While Washington and New Delhi have long sought to cooperate on high technologies, China’s recent advancements on emerging technologies like AI and the potential for applying them to defense systems is adding fresh impetus to technology talks between Washington and New Delhi. Collaboration on defense innovation and co-production will bolster both countries’ ability to compete effectively with China and contribute to deterrence in the region.
The launch of iCET shows the United States and India are ready to deepen defense technology cooperation in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago. For instance, just two weeks ago, the two sides held the inaugural session of the U.S.-India Advanced Domains Defense Dialogue (AD3). U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to New Delhi in early June provides an opportunity to expand these discussions as well as to exchange notes on India-China border friction with his Indian counterpart. Though India and China have pulled back forces from several of the most contentious sites of the 2020 border crisis, both sides retain high numbers of troops along the frontier, and another crisis could erupt at any time. While the aim of China’s 2020 force buildup along the Line of Actual Control may have been aimed at intimidating India and convincing it to back away from its ties with the United States and Quad, it has had the opposite impact. The 2020 border crisis has contributed to a strengthening of U.S.-India defense and security cooperation and increased Indian receptivity to Quad engagement.
The strengthening of U.S.-India ties does not mean that Washington expects India to give up its treasured “strategic autonomy” or get involved militarily in a potential future conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Renowned U.S. Strategic Affairs expert Ashley Tellis, in a recent article written for Foreign Affairs magazine, rightly argued that the United States should not count on India to assist it militarily in the event of a Taiwan contingency. It is doubtful that the Biden team had any such expectations in the first place.
The main motivations for Washington to invest in India’s defense sector and agree to co-develop and coproduce advanced defense technology is both to wean India from its dependence on Russian military gear and so New Delhi has the confidence and capabilities to stand up to Chinese aggression against India.
Defying the odds and advancing ties
In the context of rising competition with China, the Biden administration’s approach of setting aside differences with India over Russia makes sense. China is the greater long-term threat to the United States. As stated in the October 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy, China is the “only competitor with both the intent and, increasingly, the capability to reshape the international order."
In due course Indian leaders may decide it is no longer in their national security interest to placate Moscow. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine weakens the global concept of territorial sovereignty, which India counts on to protect its own borders from encroachment by the Chinese. Russia’s action in Europe paves the way for China to push its own global agenda of using its enhanced military and economic heft to intimidate other states and employ coercion to achieve its goal of regional domination. In this way, India’s weak position on Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine could someday backfire on India, if it needs to rely on international support for countering Chinese aggression on its own borders.
But Washington is neither waiting on India to change its policies toward Russia nor conditioning its relationship with New Delhi on a future guarantee of military support in a potential future Taiwan crisis.
The Biden administration is making a calculated long-term investment in a country that shares its concerns about the future regional order, and which is destined to play an influential role in the region for years to come. All signs point to a historic visit this month by Modi that will also further validate the success of the Administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
(Exclusive to NatStrat)
Nihar R. Nayak