The US needs a new paradigm for India: ‘Great Power Partnership’

The US-India partnership is unprecedented in its scope. It holds the promise to substantially augment both nations’ security interests and to shape the world to their mutual advantage. The coordination and collaboration between the world’s longest standing democracy and its largest democracy will have far-reaching regional and global implications. This strategic alignment requires sustained forethought and concerted action—as well as a new realist paradigm and lexicon. Prioritizing pragmatic and principled interests and values will lead to the formulation of a novel US-India strategic framework and vocabulary unshackled by past preconceptions.    

The era of great power competition calls for Great Power Partnerships. Size matters. As the United States engages in competitive or adversarial relationships with Asian and Eurasian powers China and Russia, it is prudent for it to seek a Great Power Partnership. Conversely, India is engaged in localized hostilities with its neighbors China and Pakistan, and finds its one-time friend Russia reduced to being a dependent of China. Realpolitik calls for the largest American and Asian nations, as democracies, to forge a Great Power Partnership to their mutual advantage. 

But the US-India partnership represents a strategic convergence between emerging allies driven by shared interests and values. Both countries realize that they are stronger together in deterring Beijing’s hegemonic designs, which are inimical to both US and Indian interests. India shares the longest disputed land border with China and confronts the hostile China-Pakistan axis along virtually its entire western, northern, and eastern land borders. Meanwhile, China’s major foreign policy goal is to displace the United States as the paramount power in the Indo-Pacific and upend the US-led rules-based international order.

The US-India convergence extends beyond deterring the Chinese Communist Party. It smooths India’s path to achieving its “rightful place” among the world’s leading nations. In turn, the United States has, in India, a partner of size to shape world affairs to their collective advantage. Traditional security assurances and treaty provisions underlie the United States’ closest alliances, including those with NATO nations, Israel, and Japan. India has strenuously shunned alliances over the last seven decades. But realism will compel the two nations to increasingly act in concordance, whether they choose to institutionalize their converging interests into a formal treaty or alliance with reciprocal commitments or not.

The two countries have rightly termed this “the most consequential relationship of the twenty-first century.” US and Indian leaders have also referred to it as a “comprehensive strategic partnership”—the same label the United States uses for Vietnam and Indonesia. India deserves a category of its own: Great Power Partnership.

Areas of collaboration

Both countries are in the midst of a consequential election year, with India’s six-week national vote beginning on April 19 and the United States voting this fall. But these essential ties run deeper than any one administration on either side, even though the continuity of Indian administrations has been critical.

Still, to make this new Great Power Partnership paradigm stick will require more than rhetoric. The two countries need to make rapid advances along four fronts.    

  1. Defense co-production. It is in both countries’ interest to help India become the premier naval force and logistics hub across the Indian Ocean, as well as the munitions factory and backstop for a free and open Indo-Pacific. US-India collaboration on co-producing jet engines and armored vehicles should expand to include autonomous weapons with the goal of making the United States and India the bulwarks of the democratic defense industrial value chain. 
  2. Space collaboration, development, and exploration. In India, the United States has an ambitious, capable, and complementary partner with technical competence coupled with a cost-effective model for space endeavors. India’s space program will gain greatly in ability and ambition from close collaboration with US public and private actors. India offers scale and affordability to amplify US space investments and share the benefits with the Global South.
  3. Development and governance of the digital economy driven by artificial intelligence (AI). The United States and India, as the world’s preeminent digital start-up nations, share an innovator’s perspective for digital governance. In contrast, a regulator’s perspective is more prevalent in Europe. It is in both countries’ interests to coordinate on shaping international AI digital governance that fosters responsible innovation and application.
  4. Winning the hearts and minds of the Global South. India and China offer diametrically opposing visions for the Global South. China wants to enlist emerging nations into a countervailing bloc against the existing rules-based international order. India wants to enhance Global South representation within the existing international order to better reflect demographic and economic realities. The US-India partnership advances both India’s stature among the Global South and US outreach to the region. It is essential for both US and Indian interests that the Global South embraces and strengthens the rules-based international order. India is well-positioned to lead this effort.     

Deepening the partnership

As democracies, the United States and India have a common interest in bolstering and modernizing the rules-based institutions that govern world affairs. Indeed, in the twenty-first century, the United States and India may shape a new international order as the United States and Europe did in the twentieth century. The largest American and Asian countries bear the responsibility to ensure that the twenty-first century international order equitably represents the Med-Atlantic, the Indo-Pacific, and the Global South—reinforcing their shared values of liberty and dignity for all.

The partnership between the United States and Europe is buttressed by cultural affinity and institutional solidarity through shared membership in NATO, the Group of Seven (G7), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and other groupings. The US-India partnership does not yet boast either cultural affinity or institutional solidarity at comparable levels, despite the rising force of the Indian diaspora in US society. In time, it can and should develop both.

India is projected to become the world’s third-largest economy by the end of the decade. The United States should lead the effort of inviting India to become a member of the G7 and the OECD. For their economic security, the United States and India should prioritize binding the Indo-Pacific nations to their collective economies more than that of China.

The United States and India have made great strides in coordination through multilateral institutional arrangements. These include the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (better known as the Quad). The frequency and scope of joint military exercises and intelligence sharing are also on the rise. US-India strategic dialogues on defense and economic coordination need to expand in depth and breadth to regularly engage functionaries in each respective administrative structure to facilitate greater interoperability and knowledge sharing.

The United States and India should also devote singular attention to advancing stronger institutional solidarity and people-to-people connections. Enhanced engagement between middle America and middle India holds the key. The United States is reinvigorating its domestic manufacturing across digital and industrial sectors while confronting a shortage of skilled technicians. India boasts a surfeit of graduates with technical skills looking for better employment. A US-India science and technology mobility agreement with prescreened skilled individuals from both nations would facilitate greater knowledge sharing and co-development between the two digital economies.

The US-India Great Power Partnership enjoys strong tailwinds, but its success is not inevitable. The relationship requires a considered understanding of the cultural, demographic, and political drivers at work in the two complex democracies. All too often, US-India discourse in bureaucratic circles and media outlets is prone to reflexive skepticism and mistrust. Both sides need a more reflective discernment of each other’s society and political system. In this area, the US and Indian business communities are leading the way with a strong sense of cooperation and comprehension.  Overcoming what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described as “hesitations of history,” a constructive Great Power Partnership could advance core US-India interests and values going forward. 

Kaush Arha is president of the Free & Open Indo-Pacific Forum and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue.

Samir Saran is the curator of the Raisina Dialogue and president of the Observer Research Foundation, India.     

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Image: An attendee wears U.S. and Indian flags on their chest as people gather on the South Lawn of the White House to watch an official State Arrival ceremony where U.S. President Joe Biden is welcoming India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a State Visit at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 22, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein