Satu Limaye, East-West Center
Cleo Paskal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Michael Rubin, American Enterprise Institute
Akhil Ramesh, Pacific Forum
Rob York, Pacific Forum
On June 8, 2023, Pacific Forum hosted a webinar that discussed the future of US-India bilateral relations. Expert panelists shared their insights and predictions regarding the history, opportunities, and future of the partnership. The session was moderated by Rob York and featured Satu Limaye (East-West Center, Washington, DC), Cleo Paskal (Foundation for Defense of Democracies), and Michael Rubin (American Enterprise Institute). The following are key findings from the session.
Realities of the US-India Relationship
The US-India relationship is both strategically important yet simultaneously hard to maintain. Though this relationship can often be strained by pre-existing tension around nuclearization, other bilateral relationships, and policy differences, the US-India relationship is crucial for both nations’ strategic advancement in the Indo-Pacific region, especially when it comes to hedging against Chinese influence in the Pacific.
As India’s presence on the global stage grows stronger, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a concerted effort in building bilateral relations with countries in the Pacific and Africa. These diplomatic efforts, paired with India’s hosting of the G20 and its presence at the G7, indicate India is increasing its influence in regions often overlooked in US foreign policy. The US welcomes these efforts: as the two largest democracies in the world, the US and India share similar political norms and governing principles, which makes the two suitable for collaborating on democracy promotion worldwide.
Opportunities and Constraints for Bilateral Cooperation
Relations between the US and India have progressed on a steady upward trajectory in a number of key strategic areas, including commerce, defense, and people-to-people. Both countries are committed to cooperation in critical emerging technologies and mineral security, as well as multilateral security partnerships such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) and AUKUS. The US and India share core values, particularly those of faith, family, and freedom, and these shared values lay the foundation for common ground upon which to continue building bilateral relations.
The US and India share a future of cooperation throughout different regions of the world. In the Pacific Islands, both offer advantages that the other cannot. The US has a deep historical relationship with the Pacific Islands, while India shares family structures and economic issues similar to those in Pacific Island countries. Modi’s 12-step action plan to strengthen partnerships in the Pacific Islands includes the provision of prosthetic limbs to amputees, addressing Pacific Islander issues in a way that the US has not, and that China cannot. As India grows warier of Chinese influence based on experiences in Sri Lanka and Seychelles, the US and India are expected to collaborate on approaches in the Pacific and develop bottom-up defense strategies that bolster human security while combating on-the-ground political warfare.
The US can also learn from India’s economic presence in Africa. India has a significant presence along the African coast made possible by trade and diaspora movement throughout the region. This connection makes India a valuable partner for increasing US influence on the African continent. Since the fall of Francophone influence in Africa, there is a possibility for increased US presence, especially as China continues to expand its infrastructure and economic initiatives. As Africa is engulfed by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia actively seek out alternatives to balance against and neutralize Chinese influence and reliance, giving the US increased opportunities to work with India to cement its economic presence in the continent.
India’s fast-growing population is also a positive indicator of a future economic partnership with the US. While India has been hesitant to join agreements such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, both countries recognize incentives for collaboration and are working to resolve regulatory issues within existing agreements. The increased importance of supply chains, manufacturing, and technology facilitates new degrees of labor mobility and necessitates advanced skill training. The significance of economic stability in maintaining sustainable and enduring societies presents the opportunity for a symbiotic US-India relationship that expands the benefits of wealth and development.
However, the US and India also face fundamental differences which stand to constrain relations in the future. The US policy of primacy, which includes docking on allies and integrating them into the US defense posture, differs vastly from India’s desire for autonomy and preference for multipolarity. As India becomes more present on the global stage, the clash of interests will become increasingly apparent.
Additionally, India’s relations with the US are frequently characterized by its proximity to countries such as China, Russia, and Pakistan. However, its divergence toward China and Russia is not lethal to India’s relations with the US: the partnership can still move forward but will remain within less sensitive capacities. The State Department similarly links India and Pakistan frequently but should avoid using India-Pakistan relations to define the US-India partnership. Relations with India should, first and foremost, be about India.
Bridge-building and Next Steps for the US-India Relationship
In the future of the US-India relationship, the US should right-size its expectations of its partner nations and avoid being solely dependent on the support of one country. When it comes to hedging against China, the US should abandon the assumption that India will automatically play a key role in US competition. In order to sustain the US-India relationship, the US needs to make a conscious effort towards assuaging India’s anxieties about territorial disputes with China, supporting India’s security concerns, and strengthening its economic relations with India regarding supply chains, labor mobility, and technological development. It would be in the US’ best interests to address such issues during Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming state visit on June 22.
The US needs to create equal standards for its partners and competitors to strengthen the norm of democracy. As a leading democracy, the US must place norms of democracy, human rights, and rule of law at the forefront of strategic competition. In the US’ use of naming and shaming tactics when calling out its partners—such as India—for violation of human rights, this same standard must also be applied to its strategic competitors to ensure the stability of relations with its partner countries.
India’s unique position in the world means that it holds crucial strategic value in Central Asia, post-regime change Iran, Africa, and the Indian Ocean basin. For the US, building a stronger connection with India will only aid in realizing US foreign policy goals worldwide. The US-India relationship is one filled with potential, and through active engagement and dedication, this relationship will yield reciprocated benefits for both parties.
This document was prepared by Alice Qin and Hanah Park. For more information, please contact Robert York ([email protected]), Director of Regional Affairs at Pacific Forum. These preliminary findings provide a general summary of the discussion. This is not a consensus document. The views expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants. The speakers have approved this summation of their presentation.