THE forthcoming trip of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US and the just-concluded visit of Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi underscore the importance of the India-US ties. While PM Modi will be on his first state visit to the US with varied official commitments, including an address to the US Congress, Rahul has stated that his discussions in the US centred on job creation in India and meeting the Chinese challenge.
The engagement between India, the most populous country, and the US, which accounts for nearly 25 per cent of the global GDP and around 46 per cent of the GDP of the G7 countries, is seen as critical. Over the past two decades and a half, the Indo-US relations have acquired a multi-layered hue in terms of bilateral trade as well as government-to-government engagement on critical issues. The India-US interface now covers a vast ground, encapsulating fields such as health, education, intelligence, cybersecurity, space, energy, defence, counter-terrorism and agriculture. The credit for strengthening this relationship goes to successive Democratic and Republican administrations in the US, as also the then PMs Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, besides incumbent PM Narendra Modi.
Apart from the manifold increase in bilateral trade, a positive change in the India-US relations is reflected in many arenas, including in US universities or think tanks. India is increasingly part of the mainstream strategic graduate studies programme. In the past decade, a generation of American scholars has focused on India’s foreign policy, security and economic challenges. Much to the chagrin of China, the US government mainstreamed the lexicon of Indo-Pacific and this has brought India at the heart of the Asian strategy of the US. The results are before us. The US, India, Australia and Japan are part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad); in all four countries, there is public goodwill attached with the Quad, in contrast to other fora established recently in Asia. More importantly, as repeatedly pointed out by US Presidents, approximately four million Indian-Americans are the driving force to augment the India-US relationship. The role of some prominent Indian-Americans who arrived in the US in the 1970s was pivotal in the signing of the India-US nuclear deal. And the bulk of academic as well as professional presence of Indians in the US is now beyond the tier-1 cities. This is demonstrated in the greater visibility of India and its culture.
Apart from looking at the positives, there is a need to make progress in specific areas. First, China poses a joint challenge for different reasons to both countries and there are enough ways to smartly complement each other. The US seeks de-risking rather than de-coupling from China’s economy, as articulated recently by US National Security Adviser (NSA) Jake Sullivan. That means the US wants to ensure that supply lines are resilient for all scenarios and the chip technology meant for potential military use is guarded. The US is also keen that a portion of the blue-collar industrial jobs returns to America. In this context, capitalising on India’s surplus labour requires training in niche areas and investments in diverse areas of mutual benefit. This requires a bottom-up approach that targets India’s vast regional diversity and finds nodes of economic convergence with US geographical diversity.
Second, a more relaxed visa regime for Indians should enable ease of mobility to meet specific demands of an innovation-driven economy. A constant irritant for Indian nationals in the US, putting them at a disadvantage to others in acquiring permanent residency, is the stipulation of 7 per cent quota for each country. Most of these Indian employees have the H1B visa, a non-immigrant visa that allows US employers to employ foreign nationals in specialty occupations in the US for a specified period with several restrictions. This prevents back-and-forth movement of Indian-origin workforce between the US and India, which is common between western Europe and the US, as mobility is at the heart of new strands of the knowledge economy.
Third, while defence cooperation involves detailed investments and is a long-term project, the scale and quality of intelligence cooperation are important too. In defence, a vast corpus of mechanisms is already at play between the two countries. For instance, the inaugural US-India Advanced Domains Defence Dialogue and the US-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) have underlined the robustness of the bilateral relationship. The India-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem initiative will be initiated on June 21; it is aimed at complementing government-to-government collaboration. After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, intelligence-sharing between the two countries has grown exponentially. In international intelligence-sharing, a formulation called ‘Five Eyes’ exists among the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Considering the complexity of transnational security challenges and the increasing global footprint of Indian economy, the inclusion of India in the ‘Five Eyes’ arrangement will be a win-win situation. Sometime back, a US Congressional subcommittee had recommended India, Japan, Germany and South Korea as countries with whom ‘Five Eyes’ can enhance intelligence-sharing. There is still no institutionalised proposal of expanding the ‘Five Eyes’ mechanism, except a few joint statements issued on particular themes, which include India.
Irrespective of the party in power in the US and India, the relations between the two countries have gained momentum in the past three decades. The scale of a developing country (India) and a developed country (US) provides unlimited opportunities in various arenas of mutual benefit. Specific steps are the need of the hour to make them a catalytic force in the India-US engagement.
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