The Print

Modi-Biden Meeting Went beyond Pomp and Show to Build Trust. India and the US Must Keep the Promise Now

Technology, trade, trust—Joe Biden's US went out of its way to woo Narendra Modi's India during the prime minister's official state visit.

Research Fellow, India and South Asia
Joe Biden and Narendra Modi shake hands during a state dinner at the White House on June 22, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first official state visit to the US was one of pomp and spectacle that unfolded over three days in New York and Washington: from yoga at the United Nations and a ceremonial reception at the White House lawns to a joint address to the US Congress and an exclusive state dinner. While much media attention focused on the official state dinner held on 22 June, the previous evening saw PM Modi invited to an intimate dinner with the President, First Lady, and their family.

The extent of the US government’s efforts to woo India was evident in the superlatives used by administration officials to describe the visit as “historic”, highlighting it as “one of the most consequential partnerships” that “surpassed” all expectations.

From technology to trust in ties
Beyond the pomp and circumstance, the substantive aspects of the visit showed the US’ keenness to ensure that deliverables tied to the visit reflected not just American but Indian concerns as well. India boasts one of the largest workforces in the world, but skilling has long been a challenge.

Upon his arrival in Washington, PM Modi joined First Lady Jill Biden at the National Science Foundation to launch a skill development initiative. This initiative aims to promote vocational training and skill development through collaborations between American community colleges and Indian polytechnics.

Similarly, a long-standing Indian demand has been for technology and capital to bolster India’s indigenous industries, both civilian and defence. Following on from the January 2023 US-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET), the defence departments of both countries launched the ‘India-US Defense Acceleration Ecosystem’ (INDUS-X) on 21 June. INDUS-X seeks to facilitate cooperation between academics, researchers, private companies, and start-ups in the defence sector.

Two key defence deliverables were also announced during the visit. General Electric Aerospace signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), an Indian public sector enterprise, to co-produce fighter jet engines for the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s Light Combat Aircraft Mk2 programme. The US is usually reluctant to share high-end technology even with its closest security allies. In this case, it will be sharing that technology with India, a non-security partner.

The level of trust between the two military establishments is also evident in the announcement of trusted agreements between the US Navy and four Indian shipyards for servicing and major repairs. It was in August 2022 that a US Navy ship docked for repairs at an Indian shipyard, Larsen & Toubro’s in Chennai, for the first time.

While defence trade between India and the US has grown dramatically since 2008, there is still a long way to go. During Modi’s visit, India expressed its intent to purchase armed General Atomic Predator or MQ9B Sea Guardian drones, building upon its lease of three unarmed drones for use on the Line of Actual Control in 2020. India now wants to purchase 30 drones for use by all three of its armed services.

The American desire to steer India away from collaboration with Russia extends beyond the defence sector and encompasses space exploration as well. India signed the Artemis Accords, a non-binding multilateral arrangement between the US government and partner governments. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and NASA will work together to send an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station in 2024.

Amid the US’ focus on denying advanced technology to its peer competitor, China, and the Biden administration’s efforts to strengthen domestic semiconductor manufacturing, the US seeks to reinforce its chip supply chains. Likewise, the Modi government aims to boost chip manufacturing within India. Micron Technology Inc., the largest US memory-chipmaker, announced its plans to establish a chip assembly, testing, and packaging plant in Gujarat in collaboration with the Indian National Semiconductor Mission. Micron is set to invest $800 million while the Indian government will provide the remaining $2.75 billion. Additionally, Indian companies announced their intentions to invest over $2 billion in American states such as Colorado, South Carolina, and Ohio.

To build a successful partnership
Sceptics in the US, however, argue that for these investments to yield long-term benefits, India must change its paternalistic regulatory culture. While the recent joint statement indicates progress in resolving trade disputes, economic and commercial ties have historically been the prickliest areas between the two nations.

Bilateral trade currently stands at $190 billion, which is a far cry from the previously envisioned $500 billion target set during the Obama administration for 2020. India’s protectionist stance and scepticism towards free trade have led foreign companies to perceive an uneven playing field compared to favoured domestic champions.

Despite achieving numerous agreements, certain divergences between the two countries surfaced during the press conference. While neither President Biden nor PM Modi are known for their press conferences, a Q&A session with the press has long been customary during state visits.

The Biden administration is clearly aware of the concerns about India’s democratic backsliding, which is why the President emphasised the importance of democratic values such as press freedom, religious freedom, and human rights in every speech, with PM Modi by his side. He referred to these shared values as the “cornerstone of our two nations.”

During the press conference, President Biden referred to Russian aggression, while PM Modi mentioned the global food and fuel crisis stemming from the conflict. Additionally, while the American President spoke of challenges arising from aggression, the Indian Prime Minister referenced cross-border terrorism, specifically alluding to Pakistan. In his subsequent address to the US Congress, PM Modi emphasised India’s commitment to a free, open, and inclusive Indo Pacific but referred to the conflict in Ukraine as a European war.

The American establishment has been keen to underscore that the deepening partnership with India is not about “some future war and whether we’re fighting alongside each other in that war,” but instead that the two countries share interests and values that necessitate collaboration.

In his speeches, PM Modi repeatedly highlighted the shared people-to-people ties and the economic bonds, while emphasising the shared perspective on the Indo Pacific, avoiding any reference to China or Russia.

Eight years after expressing, as then-Vice President, that the US’ goal should be to become “India’s best friend”, President Joseph Biden welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House. The official state visit has yielded several deliverables alongside the grandeur and spectacle. If the two countries can successfully deliver on even a fraction of these commitments, the India-US relationship will truly end up being transformational.

Read in The Print.