India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden will have their first in-person bilateral meeting since the latter took oath in January, adding another framed picture to the gallery of iconic meetings between leaders of the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracy.
Prime Minister Modi now becomes the first Indian Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi to meet three consecutive sitting American Presidents, reinforcing the truly bilateral nature of the partnership between Washington and New Delhi.
Indo-US Ties Are Independent of Parties
In my previous assessment, I outlined why Indo-US ties are party agnostic and how the days of bellicosity of the Nixon and Kissinger and President Bill Clinton’s first term with Robin Raphel, the first Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, are relics of the Cold War era.
2021 marks a seminal year for India since it is celebrating thirty years of economic reforms. The last three decades have also reset the special friendship between Washington and Delhi. Not only did India move away from a perceived bonhomie with Moscow, but as the Indian economy liberalised, it opened up to American investments. Since then, India has moved from being a country seeking aid to one that engages directly with the United States on trade.
In the last three decades alone, India-US relations have gone from strength to strength under different administrations across both parties. Convivial ties developed between Clinton and Vajpayee (a Democrat and a BJP Prime Minister), Bush and Vajpayee (a Republican and a BJP Prime Minister), Bush and Dr. Manmohan Singh (a Republican and a Congress Prime Minister), Obama and Dr. Singh (a Democrat and a Congress Prime Minister), Obama and Modi (a Democrat and a BJP Prime Minister), Trump and Modi (a Republican and BJP Prime Minister), and circling back to where it started, a Democrat and a BJP representative with Biden and Modi. This shows that every party permutation and combination has been tested and the bilateral partnership remains robust and resilient.
A Different Agenda for Modi
There is a first for everything, including for the world’s oldest democracy that plays host to the inaugural Quad in-person Summit. President Biden has prioritised the Quad, hosting Prime Minister Modi along with Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Suga for the inaugural in-person Quad summit.
Prime Minister Modi makes his seventh visit to the United States since taking office, meeting President Biden for the first time in his new avatar as POTUS. For Modi, the agenda for this trip is quite different from his previous visits — there won’t be large rallies at Madison Square Garden or showpiece events in Houston, which incidentally saw its second-year anniversary. This is a tight-do-must-do-need-to-meet, power-packed 72 hours in Washington and New York.
The agenda includes meetings with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japanese (soon to be outgoing) Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, U.S. Vice President, Kamala Harris, and a slew of business leaders from Adobe, Blackstone, General Atomics, Qualcomm, and First Solar, followed by a bilateral meeting with Joe Biden, then the inaugural Quad Summit and then to New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
India, which is not a treaty ally of the U.S and not part of a security pact, has long preferred to deal with countries on a bilateral basis, prioritising a strong sense of strategic autonomy. This visit, however, for Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be about strengthening bilateral ties through a strong sense of multilateralism, as concluded with meetings with his respective Quad counterparts.
Quad Can Focus on Economy & Healthcare
For too long, the global geopolitics of water and America’s littoral focus have been largely seen through the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, given the events of World War II and rebuilding Europe across the Atlantic. However, since President Obama’s pivot to Asia, the Indo-Pacific region (and subsequently the Indian Ocean) has gained significant importance, considering Beijing’s bellicosity.
The recent trilateral pact, the Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) Indo-Pacific grouping last week, was the elephant in the room as some suspected that it had diminished the impact of the Quad.
On the contrary, AUKUS has reprioritised the Quad’s focus, with its overarching emphasis as defence partnership, including the sale of nuclear submarines to Australia and bringing the U.K. closer to the Indo-Pacific. The Quad can now focus on its economic and health incentives.
For long, the Quad has had to emphasise that it is not a military alliance or an Asian version of NATO; AUKUS helps bifurcate the Indo-Pacific pacts. Through the Quad, India and Modi will be able to espouse their vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific — Modi himself articulated this in 2015 with the acronym SAGAR, which stands for Security and Growth for All in the Region. Apart from joint-military exercises in these waters to secure a free and open Indo-Pacific, there are few critical areas where the Quad can leverage its expertise.
Vaccines, Climate Change, Tech
Vaccine diplomacy — as both India and the U.S had been ravaged by the pandemic — can help with exports, especially as India can provide affordable, good-quality vaccines and drugs through the Quad Vaccine Experts Group. Secondly, rebuilding and creating new, resilient supply chains that were ravaged during the pandemic is important. Boosting trade, a key priority of Modi’s agenda as India seeks $100 billion investments annually to hit an ambitious target of growing into a $5 trillion economy, is also a priority. Investments in infrastructure and critical technology such as 5G, cybersecurity and AI in the emerging market world, are key priorities of the Quad.
Lastly, India as a signatory to the Paris Climate Change Accords is a key partner in the Quad Climate Working Group, and Washington and New Delhi have agreed to work towards green energy and cutting back emissions. Recently, US climate envoy John Kerry emphasised Washington and Delhi’s priorities towards sustainability.
This visit is where Prime Minister Modi works to highlight the strong partnership that Washington and New Delhi share in defence, security and trade ties, shared values in
democratic freedoms, and, most importantly, the role of the Indian diaspora in writing their own American dream.
(Akshobh Giridharadas is based out of Washington DC, and writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. He is a two-time TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and a graduate from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. He tweets @Akshobh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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