Navigating the high seas: the ebb and flow of India-US relations in the Modi era

By Maria Irene
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi // File Photo

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set for another crucial visit to the United States this week, marking an important milestone in the bilateral relationship between the two nations. Over the past decade, under Modi’s leadership, this relationship has seen significant developments, transformations, and occasional challenges, each of which has shaped the geopolitical and strategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific region.

PM Modi’s first visit to the US in 2014, shortly after his election, symbolised a rekindling of the Indo-US relationship. The visa ban that was previously imposed on him after the 2002 Gujarat riots was revoked, and Modi delivered a sold-out speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This visit marked the beginning of a new era in India-US relations with the signing of an agreement between the Export-Import Bank and an Indian energy agency.

Under Modi’s leadership, the defence ties between India and the US have strengthened significantly. In 2018, Modi was hosted at the White House, during which India was elevated to the status of a major defence partner of the US, giving India access to high-level US defence technology. This development was a significant achievement since the deal had been under negotiation for over a decade under the previous Congress-led UPA regimes.

The year 2018 also saw the first 2+2 dialogue between India and the US in New Delhi. A crucial agreement known as The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) was signed, granting India access to real-time information and advanced communication technology used in US defence equipment.

Under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, India and the US have strengthened defence ties and signed strategic agreements, shaping the Indo-Pacific region

Despite a brief setback in 2019 when the US stripped India of its ‘preferential status’, which was countered by India imposing tariffs on 28 US products, the ‘Howdy Modi’ visit in 2020 and the subsequent ‘Namaste Trump’ visit to Ahmedabad served to smooth over any rough edges in the relationship.

Further strengthening defence ties, the third 2+2 dialogue in 2020 led to the signing of the BECA Agreement (The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement), enabling the sharing of sensitive geospatial data for use in Indian drones and missiles. This agreement symbolised a deeper strategic commitment between the two nations, particularly against China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.

Interestingly, the relationship between India and the US is not limited to defence and strategic issues. It extends to technology, a critical area of contemporary international relations. Over the last few years, the US has moved to limit China’s technological rise, and it’s believed that India could serve as a crucial partner in this context.

The upcoming visit of Prime Minister Modi to the US is expected to further the conversation on these issues. However, the visit and the broader relationship occur within a complex geopolitical context, with the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region being influenced by factors such as the technological competition with China and the recalibration of India’s expectations by the US.

The upcoming visit of Prime Minister Modi to the US is expected to deepen ties in areas like technology and geopolitics

The recent successful state visit of Prime Minister Modi to Australia, another significant player in the Indo-Pacific region, further underscores the geopolitical importance of these engagements. As a result, the Indian-Australian community will be watching the developments of the US visit closely, as they could have implications for Australia’s role in the region and its relationships with both India and the US.

The India-US bilateral relationship under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi has seen a substantial reconfiguration. The relationship, which has expanded and deepened in defence and technology sectors, is crucial to the geopolitical dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region. The upcoming visit is expected to continue this trajectory and foster deeper ties between the two democracies.

The relationship between India and the U.S. has been evolving over the years. From the initial stages of relationship-building in 2014 to recent times, these ties have been marked by important milestones and strategic agreements.

The evolving relationship between India and the US has implications for the Indo-Pacific region and Australia’s role within it

Some of these include:

In 2014, after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, the U.S. visa ban on him (which had been imposed after the Gujarat riots of 2002) was cancelled, marking a new phase in the relationship.

In 2016, the defence ties between the two countries were strengthened, with India being elevated to a major defence partner of the U.S., which allowed it to have access to high-level U.S. defence technology.

In 2018, the two countries held their first 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi and signed The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which gave India access to real-time information and advanced communication technology used in U.S. defence equipment.

Despite minor trade conflicts in 2019, ties were smoothed over with the “Howdy Modi” visit and “Namaste Trump” visit, which were significant events in the bilateral relationship.

In 2022, India and the U.S. held their third 2+2 dialogue where they signed the BECA Agreement (The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement), allowing the sharing of sensitive geospatial data for use in Indian drones and missiles.

For a detailed understanding of the Indo-U.S. relationship over the years, here are some books that you might find insightful:

  • A Matter Of Trust: India-US Relations from Truman to Trump by Meenakshi Ahamed: This book provides a well-researched and scholarly perspective on the issues that have defined U.S.-India relations, highlighting the impactful influence of individual idiosyncrasies.
  • India-US Relations in the Age of Uncertainty: An Uneasy Courtship by B.M. Jain

It’s also worth noting that the U.S.’s strategy towards India has been linked to its broader geopolitical interests, particularly with regards to China. There has been a longstanding expectation that India could serve as a partner as the U.S. jostles with China for power in the Indo-Pacific region. However, some experts argue that Washington’s expectations of New Delhi may need to be re-calibrated.

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