Outlook India

America Backs India’s Global Ambitions

The G20 summit in India, the first to be held by a South Asian country, and the anticipated meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joseph Biden reflect India’s desire for a place at the global high table and a United States–India partnership that has reached new heights.

Research Fellow, India and South Asia
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi alongside US President Joe Biden in the White House on June 23, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images)

As India welcomes 43 delegations to the G-20 summit in New Delhi, the country finds itself at the centre of a unique geopolitical moment. The international community views India as a global power in the making, and the US, in particular, sees India as indispensable to ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The G-20 grouping has been around for over two decades and its annual meetings have historically been routine affairs. Yet now, the US-China peer competition has increased the prominence, and leverage, of the Global South – the former nonaligned and developing world - and organisations that comprise them, like the G-20.  

India has sought to leverage the SCO and G-20 Presidencies, as well as the BRICS summit, to enhance its global clout and champion the voice of the Global South. The addition of six new members to the BRICS grouping, the reportedly successful proposal to grant the African Union permanent membership to the G-20 and the invitation to 7 Global South countries as observers to the G-20 Summit are India’s way of positioning itself as an ideal bridge between the Global North and South.

India’s primary deliverable at the G-20 is symbolic – India’s G20 Presidency is the perfect opportunity to showcase the country’s arrival on the world stage. The added benefit of a meeting with President Biden, three months after his visit to the US, simply reaffirms American backing of India’s global ambitions.

Over the course of its presidency, India has also focused on certain issues that highlight its priorities, such as expanding climate finance, facilitating tech transformation and digital public infrastructure (DPI), and supporting women-led development.

In a win for India, the G-20 Digital Ministers officially recognised DPI as “an accelerator of the SDGs,” or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and released a DPI Playbook with resources for countries to build their own systems. While concerns about DPI remain, especially on the privacy front, India knows that it appeals to developing countries who are seeking tech transformation in their own societies. The US also prefers an Indian technology spreading to the Global South instead of a Chinese one.

There was also an agreement on a Global Initiative on Digital Health that would support countries’ digital health transformation efforts, as well as an agreement on voluntary principles for a “sustainable and resilient ocean-based economy.”

Progress, nevertheless, has been uneven. The agreements passed focused on uncontroversial areas like DPI and health while consensus was difficult on subjects like climate change and food security. None of the main G-20 discussion tracks have been able to come to joint statements, primarily because of global geopolitics, namely differences over the war in Ukraine.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict also came in the way of a unified communique at the G-20 in Indonesia in 2022, and this time around, with both Presidents Xi and Putin skipping the Delhi G-20 summit, it appears unlikely that any communique will be issued. However, the countries now seem to be close to agreements on several deliverables, including a G-20 Financial Inclusion Action Plan 2024-26 that recognizes India’s DPI efforts, a comprehensive roadmap for crypto asset regulation, a framework for multilateral development bank reform (which President Biden has made central to his agenda), debt relief for low-income countries (though China may not be in these discussions), and a framework for country-specific climate transition plans.

While President Xi’s decision to skip the G-20 in India sends the message that China does not support India’s rise, the Biden administration has come out in full support of India’s G20 leadership, viewing it as an opportunity to bolster ties with India and enhance outreach to the Global South.

Only three months after the official state visit of Prime Minister Modi to the US, the two leaders will meet in New Delhi on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. During the June summit, India and the US signed several agreements tied to the US-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET), including on defense technology transfer for GE’s F414 fighter jet engine, the sale of MQ-9B drones, critical minerals cooperation, and joint research on advanced telecommunications networks.

Following on from that visit, the US Congress officially approved the jet engine deal, which may be finalised during the Modi-Biden meeting. In August, the US-India Renewable Energy Technologies Action Platform (RETAP) was formally launched to expand clean energy collaboration, especially in areas including green hydrogen, wind power, and energy storage.

Additionally, the USNS Salvor became the first US ship to visit the Larsen & Toubro shipyard in Chennai after the US Navy’s Master Ship Repair Agreement with them, which the US hopes will be the first of several agreements to help India become an Indo-Pacific naval logistics hub.

On the commercial front, AMD announced plans to invest $400 million in India over five years, including for the company’s soon-to-be largest design center, and Foxconn declared that it would invest $600 million into phone manufacturing and semiconductor equipment facilities.

Other potential deliverables during the upcoming Modi-Biden summit could be in areas like civil nuclear cooperation, jet engine tech transfer, the establishment of a drone maintenance facility in India, and a potential launch date for the new H-1B visa renewal program. In the lead-up to the meeting, India has also followed through on its June agreement with the US to lift tariffs on several American products, including chickpeas and lentils, that were imposed as retaliatory duties after US tariff increases in 2019.

There have been mild setbacks in the economic sector though, which remains the weakest link in the India-US partnership. India’s announcement of rules requiring licenses for laptop and tablet imports drew an outcry from US tech companies and led US Trade Representative Katherine Tai to raise concerns about India’s protectionist regulations.

India’s ideal world order is a multipolar one where India is one of the poles. For India, participation in groupings like BRICS, SCO, and G-20 shows India’s diplomatic leverage. While the US and its partners view India as a counterweight to China, the growing Russia-China bonhomie creates long-term challenges for India that will need a hardnosed realist response. For now, the pomp and show at the G-20 summit herald that India and its views cannot be ignored.

Read in Outlook India.