Indo-US ties have evolved over the years into a special relationship that goes beyond either transactional business ties or incidental strategic alignment. Indo-US bilateral relations have developed into a multifaceted cooperative network that now encompasses every aspect of human life and state interactions at the domestic, regional, and international levels. For India, the US has become its most important international partner in the former’s quest for growth and status. For the US, India offers an opportunity to reaffirm its standing as an economic powerhouse and global leader. India-US bilateral ties have not generally been seen as an "alliance," particularly as the world has moved on from a politics of alliances. However, the multilayered strategic relationship between two of the world’s largest democracies could redefine Asian and global politics.
India and the US have sought to strengthen their bilateral relations since the early twenty-first century. Ties initially developed under former Indian Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi set aside all previous barriers to fully embrace relations based on mutual interests and a collaborative spirit. Broadly speaking, there are five main elements that are likely to shape the future of this special partnership between India and the US.
First, economic ties between the two countries have grown to unprecedented levels as bilateral trade, business, and investment have flourished. The two countries are among the world’s largest economies and have a mutual interest in continuing their growth trajectories. India’s ambitions to achieve a 5-trillion USD economy cannot be realized without strong external economic partnerships with advanced economies. For its part, the US needs expanding markets like India in order to maintain its position as the world’s leading economy, particularly in the face of steep competition from China.
Second, Indo-US relations have developed a strong strategic component in the security and defense spheres over the years. Historically, this was a sticking point in bilateral ties since India depended on Soviet Union during much of the Cold War to fulfill its defense needs. India’s dependence on Russian-made weapons continued in the post-Cold War era as it began to recalibrate its foreign and defense policies. India’s nuclear weapon testing in 1998 and the signing of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement were both defining moments that transformed the nature of these ties and created new opportunities for defense cooperation. A robust defense trade has gradually developed, with India now looking to acquire more US-made weapons and technology for modernizing its defense systems and military. This was one of the key issues discussed during a recent Modi-Biden meeting as General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for manufacturing GE F414 engines in India.
Third, there is a significant momentum for an India-US technology partnership. The Modi-Biden joint statement indicated that technology would play a critical role in deepening the India-US partnership. This collaboration on emerging technologies has included the unveiling of the US-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) in January 2023 and the signing of an MoU on semiconductor supply chains. Furthermore, NASA and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) are developing a strategic framework for human spaceflight cooperation. The two countries also established the Indo-US Quantum Coordination Mechanism and committed to collaborating on cyberspace, information technology, and atomic science.
Fourth, the large Indian diaspora in the US has been important in launching a more comprehensive and durable partnership. Indians in the US have made their mark in different spheres, be it industry leadership, civil society, higher education, research, business, or politics. This fostered an atmosphere conducive to cultural and social interactions that transformed India’s image within US domestic politics. In other words, the upwardly-mobile Indian diaspora built a cultural and political bridge that has laid the foundation for strong bilateral ties. The diaspora has also played an important role in developing bipartisan political support in the US for strengthening ties with India. Since coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Modi has prioritized diaspora diplomacy as a soft power tool for overcoming foreign policy challenges with various countries.
Finally, the India-US geopolitical alignment in the Indo-Pacific is gradually expanding throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific as part of a rule-based international order has been central to Asian politics over the past six years. Meanwhile, the US and Europe have become increasingly concerned about the rise of a more assertive China. In 2007, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe initially proposed to work towards an East Asia free from Chinese hegemony. However, the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (in short Quad) among the US, Japan, India, and Australia under the Trump administration underscored the reality of a growing Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific. This threat has emerged as a key driver for the India-US partnership, despite New Delhi’s less-than-enthusiastic response to Washington’s calls for it to join the US-EU coalition against Russia after the latter’s invasion of Ukraine.
This also sheds light on how India-US relations are based upon mutual interests and strategic alignment rather than a traditional "alliance." Nevertheless, India and the US have strengthened their geopolitical alignment in the Indo-Pacific and have also expanded these efforts into the Middle East. Like-minded countries such as the UAE and Israel joined the US and India to form the I2U2 Group to work towards a transregional solution to geo-economic challenges facing the Middle East and the world.
At the end of his address to the US Congress, Prime Minister Modi stated that although Indians and Americans "come from different circumstances and history," they are "united by a common vision and by a common destiny." He underlined that when Indo-US "partnership progresses, economic resilience increases, innovation grows, science flourishes, knowledge advances, humanity benefits," and that the "seas and skies are safer, democracy will shine brighter, and the world will be a better place."
The partnership between India and the US has clearly moved beyond diplomatic courtesies to become a lasting special relationship grounded in mutual trust, shared interests, and a complex interdependence that is likely to further deepen as India and the US chart their collaborative future.