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How Modi changed the India–US relationship

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US Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar greet each other during a joint news conference in New Delhi, India, 12 April 2016. (Photo: AAP).

In Brief

In the first two years of the Modi government, India and the United States have taken calibrated efforts at the highest political level to transform bilateral relations. It was in this context that the visit of United States Defense Secretary Ash Carter to India on 10–13 April assumed huge significance.


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His visit symbolised the deepening defence ties between the two countries, with the Modi government agreeing in principle to sign three ground-breaking agreements.

The current era of US–India relations began after the Clinton administration’s containment policies failed to isolate India following its 1998 nuclear tests. India emerged from these sanctions a resurgent country under the leadership of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The United States then adopted a policy of accommodation towards India, with the two countries transforming their estranged relations into a strategic partnership.

When Modi came to power, he did not allow his personal differences with the United States to dictate bilateral ties. Instead, Modi decided to redirect efforts to sustain and deepen ties. This quickly became evident when Modi made a state visit to the United States in September 2014 on the invitation of President Obama. Subsequently, Obama became the first US president to be the chief guest at the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi in January 2015.

Defence cooperation has been a pillar of the two countries’ burgeoning relationship. There is a growing sentiment among US security officials and experts that, given its economic slowdown as well as security crises in the Asia Pacific, the Middle East and other regions, it is not possible for the United States alone to ensure peace and security. It needs to engage rising powers like India.

As the Modi government has accelerated the process of military modernisation, buoyed by increased foreign direct investment in the defence sector, Washington sees economic opportunities in deepening defence ties with New Delhi. The rise of China and its assertive posturing in the South China Sea is another reason for the United States to expand security and military relations with India.

India is concerned by China’s position on disputed territories and by the growing nexus between Beijing and Islamabad. New Delhi feels that the presence of the United States in South Asia would help maintain the balance of power in its favour. The Modi government also knows it cannot aggressively pursue military modernisation without access to advanced US weaponry and technology.

Modi’s ambitious ‘Make in India’ initiative would also not be successful without the active participation of the American defence industry, given its expertise in the field. Isolating Pakistan internationally for failing to adequately address terrorism also requires New Delhi to sustain security talks and military exercises with Washington.

Unlike the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the Modi government has shown a desire to work with the United States in ensuring freedom of navigation and flight throughout the region, including in the South China Sea. This shift in India’s stance is critical as it reflects the government’s determination to take a firm stance on China. This understanding has been reinforced by the Modi government’s special attention to developing triangular and quadrilateral coalitions with the United States, Japan and Australia as a part of its regional security strategy.

Both the United States and India have made significant progress on the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, an undertaking aimed at reducing the barriers to defence technology cooperation and trade. The countries are also holding talks on the supply of F-16 and F/A-18 fighter jets for the Indian Air Force. These defence deals would give a significant boost to the ‘Make in India’ program.

The Modi government has also pursued three crucial bilateral agreements — the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMA), the Communication and Information Security Memorandum (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). The previous UPA government opposed these three agreements as they argued that they would undermine India’s strategic autonomy and its policy of nonalignment. But in light of emerging security threats, the Modi government has agreed in principle to all three.

LEMA will allow both countries to access fuel and supplies from each other’s bases, making it easier to coordinate military activities. The agreement would help India in carrying out operations in the Indian Ocean and expanding its maritime reach in the Asia Pacific.

CISMOA will enable the countries to share confidential intelligence in both peacetime and war using advanced encryption technology. BECA would provide India with topographical and aeronautical data as well as products aiding navigation and targeting.

Some concerns have been raised about the possible downsides of signing these agreements. For instance, CISMOA would enable the United States to listen to highly confidential defence conversations within India. There are also fears that under LEMA the United States would pressure India into allotting portions of its land bases for exclusive military use.

It is for these reasons that India has only agreed to sign these agreements in principle. The Modi government has asked the United States to modify the agreements so that India’s security and sovereignty are not compromised. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has made it clear that LEMA does not mention the stationing of American troops on Indian soil. India’s apprehension implies that, while it seeks close defence ties with the United States, the Indian government does not want to unnecessarily draw itself into a tussle between the United States and China.

With the introduction of the US–India Defence Technology and Partnership Act this March and an expected visit by Modi to Washington to address a joint session of the US Congress, the future of the bilateral relationship looks bright. One hopes that this kind of engagement will continue, forging the way for a stronger India–US relationship.

Sumit Kumar is ICSSR Doctoral Fellow at the UGC Centre for Southern Asian Studies, Pondicherry University.

5 responses to “How Modi changed the India–US relationship”

  1. While it is understandable that the post is focused on India-USA relationship, its complete avoidance of mentioning or discussing India’s relationship with Russia indicates, nevertheless, a lack of one of the important perspectives, that is, one of the big components, particularly in the context of the deterioration in the relationship between Russia and the USA and India’s traditional good relationship with Russia.

    • While it is true that relations between Russia and the USA are under dark clouds, there is no tension or coldness between India and Russia, as such. This became evident from the visit of Indian Prime Minister to Russia in December last year. As far as the Russian factor in India-US relations is concerned, New Delhi and Washington are mature enough to not allow Russia or for that matter Pakistan, to dictate their bilateral ties. Had this been the case, India-US relations could not have improved, after the 1998 nuclear tests by New Delhi, when Russia stood with India.

  2. Everyone missing the point here in all the excitement. What does India need? Lots of Western arms to upgrade its crumbling and aging Russian hardware and India has money to pay for it. What does America have? Lots of new weapons to sell and it is looking for client with money to spend. Its all about arms and money. America doesnt transfer any technology to anyone, not even to Israel so not sure what Indians are getting all giddy for.

    • One would be wrong to assess relations between India the US only in terms of sell and purchase of arms. There are wide range of areas where the two countries have common interests. For instance, At a time when terrorism has emerged as one of biggest security threats to human civilization, and India and THE USA are on the high target of terrorists, the two countries need to seek and deepen cooperation in this area. Similarly, India and the US have shared interests in the fields of civil nuclear, space exploration, trad and commerce. While I can not make any comment about the US’ technology policy towards other countries, its policy towards India has over last some years significantly transformed, with New Delhi and Washington having established the India-US High Technology Cooperation Group. It of course does not mean that there is no area of differences between the two countries as far as transfer of high technology is concerned.

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