Updated: Nov 11
By Krishna Bellamkonda
In June this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on a four-day state visit to the United States. This was marked by a grand state dinner and an address to the US Congress. Catching global attention, these events symbolise a mutual policy shift of the world’s largest democracies, which may define this century. This shift is often attributed to the concern related to China. However, I present some contrary evidence and argue that this relationship has a deeper undercurrent.
Yet, before deeming this policy shift as a pivotal moment in world history, there are some fundamental questions we must first address. Firstly, does the current short-term geopolitical landscape necessitate such convergence of policies, and if so, are these policies constrained in their scope and extent to address these geopolitical demands? Secondly, how can India's long-standing policy of non-alignment harmonise with the U.S.'s need for a relationship based on deep trust and substantial cooperation?
The India-US Relationship Through Different Lenses
Figure 1: Categorization of countries into different blocs (data from UN General Assembly)
The map above (Figure 1) utilises data from the UN General Assembly and categorises countries into blocs through a machine learning algorithm. A brief examination of this seems to support the hypothesis that the mutual policy shift is simply a matter of convenience. For countries that have historically maintained strained relations, a brisk and significant positive shift seems far-fetched. However, labelling it serendipitous would not do justice to the ten years of dedicated efforts to bolster relations from both the Indian and American sides. Key moments include two high-level visits. The visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US in 2014, followed by President Barack Obama's visit to India in 2015, laid a robust foundation for the relationship. All recent developments have been built upon this decade-long confidence-building process. The shared status of being the two largest democracies in the world also contributes significantly to maintaining mutual trust.
The scope of this partnership has broadened significantly to encompass various sectors, including defence, counterterrorism, internal security, trade, and space collaboration. The evidence supporting this expansion is substantial; bilateral trade between the two nations has reached a historic peak, totalling $191.8 billion and marking an impressive 113% increase over the past decade. Notably, the United States has now become India's largest trading partner, underscoring the clear and tangible benefits this partnership has yielded.
Figure 2: Compatibility Chart between the US and India in the United Nations General Assembly
Despite maintaining a functional relationship, the question of aligning worldviews persists. The pie chart above illustrates the historical voting patterns of the United States and India in the United Nations General Assembly on various issues, which reveals their differing perspectives. It prompts consideration of whether these differences should be seen as a deal-breaker. In an increasingly multipolar world, the paradigm of issue-based cooperation has supplanted traditional notions of blocs and alliances, emphasising the importance of discovering common ground rather than adhering to entrenched and preconceived coalitions. I argue that this relationship has become a template for a global North-South partnership which allows for mutual prosperity.
One distinguishing feature of this relationship is the level of maturity it exhibits. Remarkably, historical disparities, such as the US's alignment with Pakistan in the 1971 war of Bangladesh’s independence and India's strong ties with Russia, have not impeded the development of a comprehensive partnership. This evolution underscores the dynamic nature of current international relations, where nations adapt and re-evaluate their priorities in response to changing times and geopolitical landscapes. This stark contrast between American policies in the 1970s and the present can be seen as an explicit acknowledgment of the shifting global dynamics and a testament to the resilience and adaptability of both nations in fostering a robust and forward-looking strategic partnership.
However, it is undeniable that China is a significant factor in the equation. India's strained relations with China, coupled with the escalating US-China rivalry, have injected a sense of urgency into the partnership. Addressing security concerns in the Indo-Pacific, the coalition of democracies known as QUAD takes on particular importance.
Nonetheless, it's essential to note that the scope of this coalition extends beyond security matters, encompassing a coordinated action plan addressing climate change, green energy initiatives, and collaborative ventures in critical technology. The eastward shift in US foreign policy and India's reciprocal response have indeed propelled a safer Indo-Pacific and more. However, managing this relationship and navigating its critical differences comes with formidable challenges and demands close and vigilant attention from both nations.