'US has learnt to live with India's strategic autonomy': Ambassador Surendra Kumar

Modi has brought about a paradigm shift in India-US relations


Who would have thought that Narendra Damodardas Modi, who was refused a US visa for 10 years, will hit it off so well with three American presidents with totally different personalities. Barack Obama must have never met a guest who came to a White House dinner, but did not eat; Modi was fasting during the Navratras. Donald Trump had to play second fiddle to the Indian prime minister at the “Howdy, Modi!” event in Houston. At the G7 summit in Hiroshima last month, Joe Biden joked that he might have to seek Modi’s autograph, given his popularity.

Modi has brought about a paradigm shift in India-US relations. For the Obama administration, partnership with Delhi was the most “defining relationship” of the 21st century. Trump changed the nomenclature of Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific and energised the Quad (India, US, Japan and Australia), making India a crucial strategic partner.

The flurry of visits by senior members of the Biden administration―the commerce and defence secretaries and the national security adviser were in India recently―signals that the president wants Modi’s state visit to be a huge success. Eric Garcetti, the US ambassador to India, stressed the significance of the visit: “There are few relationships in the world that are more vital to the US and India.... India and the US are indispensable partners.”

As bilateral ties grow steadily, Modi’s principal secretary P.K. Mishra held discussions with Biden’s chief of staff Jeff Zients, commerce secretary Gina Raimondo and USAID administrator Samantha Power. Foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra held separate meetings with assistant secretary of State Victoria Nuland and under secretary for industry, Alan Estevez. And National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called India a vibrant democracy, which has come as music to Indian ears after the state department’s critical report about religious freedom in India. Evidently, both sides want to concentrate on the positives and make Modi’s visit most productive.

There exists bipartisan consensus in India and the US on strong bilateral ties; the change of guard in Washington and Delhi does not rock the relationship. Modi, meanwhile, has realised that to fulfill his ambitious domestic development agenda and to make India a $10 trillion economy, the country needs more trade, investment and technology, including AI, from the US. A strong, strategic partnership with the US also opens up many doors; India’s expanding profile in the Quad and the Indo-Pacific and closer ties with US allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia vindicate it.

Following China’s aggression in Galwan and the continuing terrorist menace from Pakistan, India has realised the significance of close defence and security cooperation with the US, although short of a formal alliance. Overcoming “the hesitation of history”, India signed several key defence agreements with the US, enhancing interoperability of military communications. The US has accorded India major defence partner status and also the strategic trade authorisation status (STA 1). Export of American military hardware worth over $22 billion in the last decade underlines the burgeoning defence ties.

The US perceives India, the most populous democracy in the world and a formidable military and economic power, as a bulwark against an aggressive and assertive China. Moreover, key concerns like climate change, pandemic and terrorism cannot be addressed without India.

Not condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and buying Russian oil in unprecedented quantities despite pressure from the US and its allies show India’s strategic autonomy. The US has learnt to live with that. And, no US president can ignore four million rich and influential Americans of Indian origin.

The author is a retired ambassador and founding president of the Indo-American Friendship Association.