Modi’s US Visit: Beyond Optics, the Substance is Not Much to Crow About

What is driving Biden’s courting of India now is not something that will bear fruit in 5-10 years, which is the time frame for items listed so grandiosely in the joint statement.

The architects of the joint statement of June 22, 2023 and of Prime Minister Modi’s address to the joint session of US Congress conveyed the message that India was not willing to deviate publicly from its path of friendship with Russia.

On China, there were blips visible in the labyrinths of the joint statement, despite India’s otherwise conciliatory approach. While significant arms transfers were agreed to, the repeated references in the joint statement to technology cooperation and transfer were more in the domain of optics than substance. The Biden administration agreed to work with Congress to loosen export controls on high performance computers. 

Modi suffered a setback in his attempts to calm US concerns over his government’s commitments to democracy and human rights. The Biden administration succeeded in breaching Modi’s eight year resistance to face a press conference, even if he took just two questions. While economic cooperation was writ large in the joint statement which stated that bilateral trade had nearly doubled since 2014, the Biden administration did not yield on the crucial issue of recognising India as a Trade Agreement Act designated country.

Furore over human rights

The US media was angry at the red carpet being rolled out for Modi. Alyssa Ayres’s article in TIME magazine accused Modi of breaking ‘with India’s past, most notably in his emphasis on India’s Hindu, rather than syncretic and secular, cultural heritage’. Knox Thames accused Modi of ‘scapegoating religious minorities’. While the New York Times accused Biden of downsizing democracy concerns, an article in the Washington Post opined that Modi’s India ‘increasingly resembled an autocracy in which religious minorities are under attack’. 

Also read: US Media’s Critical Coverage of Modi Visit Places Human Rights Front and Centre

Not just the entire US media, Democratic Party heavyweights too attacked Modi’s human rights record. Just before Modi landed in the US, a letter by over 70 Congressmen, all Democrats, urged Biden to discuss with Modi the need to protect human rights and democratic values in India.

As if this was not enough, President Obama, the only US president to attend a Republic Day parade in India, opened a massive broadside against Modi during the visit by saying: ‘If the president meets with PM Modi, then protection of Muslim minority in a Hindu majority India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility that India at some point starts pulling apart’.

Not only did Biden discuss the issue of human rights with Modi, he was constrained to admit somewhat sheepishly that he and Modi had ‘a good discussion about democratic values’.

This unrelenting onslaught was happening despite Modi speaking on democracy before the US Congress for almost 10 minutes in his 58 minute speech. The focus on democracy was not lost even when he spoke on climate change, saying ‘A spirit of democracy, inclusion and sustainability defines us’. He claimed that India was working to even ‘democratise supply chains’!

Modi’s failure to convince the US political class about his commitment to protecting human rights, especially of minorities, is important because he went to great lengths to convince them of this. The White House’s public response to the BJP-led Islamophobic trolling of an Indian American reporter for asking Modi a question about Muslims gives us an indication of what the Biden administration really thinks about the Modi government’s record.

First Lady Jill Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden at the White House. Photo: Twitter/@WhiteHouse.

Russia and China

On global geopolitics, Modi, despite theatrics, and there were many, chose the path of balance. Without mentioning Russia and China, he alluded to them  in the context of the war in Ukraine and in the context of developments in the Asia Pacific region. US Congressmen gave him a standing ovation when he called for ‘respect for sovereignty and integrity’ in the context of the war in Ukraine, and when he said ‘we share a vision of a free open and inclusive Indo-Pacific connected by secure seas’. On the Quad, Modi’s comment, ‘the Quad has emerged as a major force of good for the region’ was quite bland. In an hour-long speech, the total time devoted to Ukraine was about one minute and to the Indo-Pacific about two minutes.

On Ukraine, Modi was reiterating the exact position that ambassador T.S. Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative to UN, had taken on February 25, 2022 while abstaining on the UNSC’s ‘Adoption of Resolution on the situation in Ukraine’. His stand on the Indo-Pacific was exactly the position taken by defence minister Rajnath Singh on November 23, 2022 at the ‘9th ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting’ at Siem Reap, Cambodia. But just to set things straight as far as China was concerned, Modi added for good measure: ‘Our vision does not seek to contain or exclude but to build a cooperative region of peace and prosperity’.

There are, however, important cross-currents in the joint statement directed towards China, without naming it. The statement refers to: ‘substantial progress… and comprehensive defense partnership in which our militaries coordinate closely across all domains’; ‘strong military-to-military ties, mutual logistics support’; and ‘placement of Liaison Officers in each other’s military organizations’. The statement also refers – in language which could ring alarm bells in Beijing about India assisting the US Navy and US Air Force in a possible conflict with China – to ‘India’s emergence as a hub for maintenance and repair for forward deployed U.S. Navy assets and the conclusion of Master Ship Repair Agreement with Indian Shipyards’. It refers to bilateral Defense Industrial Roadmap to create logistics, repair and maintenance infrastructure for (US) aircraft and vessels in India. 

Defence and strategic ties

The joint statement was studded with promises/proposals for the GE414 engine; UAVs; support to India’s membership of the UNSC and to the NSG; training of 60,000 Indian by LAM; setting up semiconductor assembly (however modest) and test facility plus training of Indian engineers by Micron; cooperation in space and atomic energy especially the expected construction of six nuclear reactors by WEC; cooperation in AI; setting up of INDUS-X, and Strategic Clean Energy Partnership (SCEP); welcoming India into Mineral Security Partnership; and what appears to be an important agreement between the US Dept of Defense’s Space Force and Indian start ups. Even Pakistan’s involvement in cross border terrorism was condemned.  

Yet Modi did not speak a word of criticism against China or Russia. The Biden administration was keen to address that open omission. 

So on June 24, the White House spokesperson Rear Admiral (Retd) John Kirby, who has served as NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications, told a reporter who wanted to know about India’s stand on China possibly invading Taiwan, and whether anything was discussed: ‘That’s up to the Indian government and Prime Minister Modi to determine. As I said earlier clearly our mutual challenges with the PRC in the Indo-Pacific was a matter of discussion, a a the Indians have been very vocal about their concerns too with respect to what the PRC is doing, but I don’t have anything more specific in terms of the conversations specifically regarding Taiwan. All I can tell you on Taiwan, our policy has not changed.’

If Prime Minister Modi was not willing to say anything about China directly either before the US Congress or in the joint statement, the US White House spokesperson was willing to categorically say that not only was China discussed but that the Indians have been very vocal about their concerns about China.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, left, and China’s President Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan in 2019. Photograph: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters

The single thread running through the joint statement is intent not actual deliverables, except perhaps for the GE414 engines and the UAVs. There are also no timelines. There is no proposal for technology transfer in the sense of transfer of know-how, and this has nothing to do with any perceived difficulty of obtaining Congressional approval under Arms Export Control Act (AECA) or under the Export Administration Act (EAA). The US president is required to notify Congress through the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees about his intent to transfer. The transfer or otherwise is largely an executive decision because the president can veto moves by Congress to block arms and dual-use items exports. Congress can override the veto only with a 2/3 majority, which is rare. 

The semiconductor carrot

Semiconductor software and technology especially related to fabrication is virtually on the denial list in US export control laws. It is in many ways the foundation of America’s technological strength across all sectors of the technological spectrum. The fear that China may utilize the trained manpower in Taiwan to develop its semiconductor expertise is driving much of US policy towards shielding Taiwan from China, even as it is shifting fabrication of semiconductors to continental US.  

Despite the extensive list of cooperative ventures in the joint statement, some of the proposals mentioned – especially the setting up a semiconductor assembly and test  facility by Micron, which involves no transfer of technology and is quite modest as compared to the proposed semiconductor fabrication facility in Gujarat by Foxconn-Vedanta joint venture – are largely meant to titillate.

The Foxconn Vedanta venture, now in limbo, was estimated to cost Rs 1.54 lakh crores (~$20 bn), and was hailed by Modi in September 2022 as ‘an important step accelerating India’s semiconductor manufacturing ambitions’. It was supposed to create one lakh jobs. That may not happen, but it helped BJP win the Gujarat assembly elections in December 2022.

The simple fact is that the road to setting up a semiconductor fabrication unit in India passes through Washington. Companies in Taiwan engaged in semiconductor design and or fabrication depend on US origin technologies and software. Any tie up with an Indian company or government which involves use of US technology or software related to semiconductors requires re-export authorisation from US government. 

From conciliation to resistance through strategic cooperation

The most significant statement Modi made before the US Congress was: ‘Technology will determine the security, prosperity and leadership in the 21st century’.

India must invest heavily in technology and innovation. The path of technological self-reliance is costly and difficult. On October 13, 2022, the Bureau of Industry & Security in the US Department of Commerce unleashed the most ferocious technology denial regime on China by attacking its semiconductor infrastructure because it concluded on the basis of intelligence reports that “China is building a larger and increasingly capable nuclear missile force that is more survivable, more diverse and on higher alert than in the past, including nuclear missile systems designed to manage regional escalation and ensure an intercontinental second strike capability”.

In short China was viewed as threatening US military dominance. If China is afloat today as a great power it is because it has already indigenised a substantial part of high-end semiconductor technology which has become the foundation of modern technology. Control on US technology is very tight. Even ‘deemed exports’ are prohibited without licence. According to Section 734.2(b)(3), deemed export can take place through mere verbal communication between a US national (working in a facility engaged in development research or manufacture of any controlled commodity or technology listed in the US CCL i.e. dual-use list) with a non-US national. Penalties under 50 U.S.C. 4801-4852 can include up to 20 years imprisonment or a fine up to US$1 million per violation, or both. It is a great delusion for Indian analysts of Indo-US commerce in controlled commodities to expect technological transfer or technological cooperation, of any kind, from the US. This entire list of areas of cooperation mentioned in the joint statement has nothing to do with ‘technology transfer’.  

What is driving Biden’s courting of India now is not something that will bear fruit in 5-10 years, which is the time frame for items listed so grandiosely in the joint statement. The here and now is located in what is happening between Russia and China, Russia and India, China and India, and in the BRICS framework. The US effort is to wean away India from its present conciliatory approach towards China as soon as possible, and gradually secure a foothold for US forces on the sub-continent as contemplated in the Joint Statement. The attempt to gradually routinise this sort of cooperation as part of a natural progression of larger defence cooperation will not go unnoticed by the Chinese.

The pace and direction of such cooperation must be evaluated in the context of possible military confrontation between the US and China over Taiwan, and its likely spillover into the Indian subcontinent – especially if India provides logistic support to the US navy and air force as the Modi-Biden statement envisages.

Rahul Singh is a former civil servant who retired from the Ministry of Defence, Government of India.