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Historic Feats and Enduring Debates: U.S.-India Relations in 2023

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Historic Feats and Enduring Debates: U.S.-India Relations in 2023

The groundwork laid through the engagements in 2023 should provide a solid foundation to build on in 2024 and beyond regardless of election results in both countries.

Historic Feats and Enduring Debates: U.S.-India Relations in 2023
Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

2023 has been a banner year in the U.S.-India relationship. Two-leader level summits, ground-breaking agreements on defense co-production, a new technological partnership, and coordination on global challenges underscore the growing alignment between both sides in recent years and an investment in the long-term trajectory of the relationship. Yet, lingering debates over misaligned strategic expectations and values versus interests as the basis of ties continue to create friction and may be a test for the relationship as both countries head into elections in 2024.

The Highlights

The inauguration of the U.S.-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) in January set the tone for 2023, marked by substantial progress in the defense, diplomatic, economic, and technology domains. iCET discussions signaled a U.S. desire to finally open up avenues for sharing cutting-edge technology with India, a long-held desire in Delhi but one previously denied by Washington due to a broader policy of closely guarding such technologies and doubts about Indian commitment to the relationship. Driven by the need to create a network of capable allies and partners in the face of competition with China, the Biden administration has been laying the foundation for strategic technology collaboration with India, fostering innovation in space, cyber, biotechnology, advanced materials, and rare earth processing technology. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States in June 2023 further solidified this burgeoning partnership. Symbolic gestures, such as a joint congressional address by Modi and a state dinner hosted by President Joe Biden, underscored the increasing recognition of India as a top strategic and economic partner for Washington. Crucial agreements emerged, including Micron Technology’s substantial investment in a chip assembly and test plant in Gujarat, collaborative efforts on a joint space mission in 2024, and the launch of the India-U.S. Defense Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X). Prominently, the memorandum of understanding between General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited to jointly produce fighter jet engines represented a pivotal moment, poised to propel India’s domestic fighter jet manufacturing capabilities. Giving India access to critical American technologies rarely shared with non-allies was also seen as an effort by the United States to allow Delhi to slowly move away from dependence on Russian military supplies.

The G-20 summit in New Delhi in September 2023 provided another opportunity for Modi and Biden to showcase solidarity multilaterally as well as assess the progress of bilateral initiatives. For instance, they co-hosted leaders to expedite investments in high-quality infrastructure projects and economic corridors through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGI). A key highlight was the announcement of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, with participation from key global players. However, the Israel-Hamas conflict which erupted in October has generated uncertainty regarding the corridor’s progress in the near future.

The India-U.S. 2+2 ministerial joint statement in November may not have introduced eye-popping deliverables as compared to the June summit, but the now routine nature of U.S.-India high-level cooperation is noteworthy. The clear throughline in many of the 2+2 announcements was the China challengethe explicit linking of the Stryker armored vehicle co-production deal to enhancing Indian capability on the border with China is an example. This agreement signifies maturity in the U.S.-India co-production and co-development partnership since combat vehicle cooperation was first suggested by the U.S. under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in 2016, though that effort failed to reach fruition. Enhanced U.S.-India military interoperability, evidenced by new liaison officer positions and India’s full membership in the Combined Maritime Forces in Bahrain, further strengthens their strategic alignment.

The Divergences

While shared concern about the China threat is one of the biggest factors drawing the U.S. and India closer, divergences persist. Recent developments suggest a growing appetite in the Indian system for stronger signaling to China on Taiwan. However, Delhi’s not joining in on Quad statements calling out Chinese coercion of Taiwan or uncertainty about India supporting a U.S.-led coalition in a Taiwan contingency, even if limited to allowing its facilities for refueling and maintenance of U.S. warships headed to the conflict zone, still rankles U.S. decisionmakers and may cause frustration over time. 

Additionally, as Washington and Delhi surge ahead with strategic collaboration, the question of how they will navigate India’s legacy partnership with Russia looms large. This question is especially relevant as the United States and India consider greater advanced weapons development in the context of India’s still substantial dependence on Russian arms and platforms despite diversification and U.S. concerns about inadvertent exposure of its technology to Russian eyes. While the Biden administration has been largely understanding of India’s neutral stance in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent endorsement of Modi’s policies as the main guarantor of Russia is likely to raise eyebrows in the U.S. Congress and create complications for Biden, especially ahead of the 2024 elections.

The recent filing of charges by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York implicating an Indian government official in an alleged assassination plot directed against Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a U.S. citizen, has reintroduced the values versus interests debate in the U.S.-India relationship. Delhi has responded to the allegations by setting up an inquiry committee and Modi himself has promised an investigation into the matter, which showcases a proactive approach by Delhi to address Washington’s concerns.  Meanwhile, the Indian government has repeatedly raised alarm this year regarding vandalism of Indian missions in the United States by Sikh separatists.

Nevertheless, the allegation may lead to a reassessment of trust levels between the United States and India and color future diplomatic interactions if and when they occur. If not addressed adequately or if more such allegations emerge, this episode could impact U.S.-India intelligence-sharing and potentially influence how Washington perceives India’s ability to engage in reliable and consistent international cooperation. For now, however, strategic cooperation continues despite these allegations — Washington just announced a U.S.-India-ROK informal technology trilateral and sent one of its largest contingents to an Indian-government sponsored technology dialogue, suggesting both sides are clear-eyed and pragmatic about the China challenge. 

A Bright Future Ahead?

As we gaze toward the future, the momentum in U.S.-India relations can be sustained through pragmatic approaches that institutionalize defense collaboration, prioritize economic and people-to-people integration, and address emerging challenges. China’s plans for strategic dominance are likely to persist, necessitating increased alignment between Washington and Delhi. This alignment on the China threat will act as a ballast, further propelling defense ties.

The groundwork laid through the engagements in 2023 should provide a solid foundation to build on in 2024 and beyond regardless of election results in both countries. However, this can occur if the two sides navigate short to medium-term challenges successfully. Washington will likely seek a speedy investigation into and an appropriate conclusion of the Pannun matter. On Delhi’s part, it will likely be watching the U.S.-China dialogue closely, which got some life on the sidelines of the APEC summit last month, and seek assurances from Washington that this will not fundamentally alter the trajectory of U.S.-China competition and U.S. commitment to bolstering allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. 

A key ingredient that may help weather any storm in the relationship could be the Indian diaspora spread across the United States. With its talent, innovation, and cultural diversity, the diaspora’s continued efforts could serve as a bridge between the two nations, helping foster connections that extend beyond diplomatic corridors.