The Indian Prime Minister’s recent visit to the US and the United Nations gave him an opportunity to project himself to his domestic constituency as a global leader. Controlling the domestic media narrative has always been a vital component of the current approach to governance, and this visit was in that tradition. But ultimately, substance is what matters, not the surface. On the global front, India has major strategic interests in national security and in economic development. The US is potentially important for both.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with Australia, Japan and the US is a significant new collaboration. The motivation for this cooperation is, of course, the geopolitical challenge of China. The recent Quad summit, the first in person, marked an important step forward. Military security is an obvious frontline concern, especially for India’s three partners, because of their geographic positions and the US’s global strategic posture.
India has also cheered on the AUKUS military pact between the US, United Kingdom and Australia, while officially saying it is separate from the Quad. Indeed, on the security front, India’s locus of conflict with China is geographically and strategically very different than that of Japan, Australia and the UK, and it is fair to say that none of these countries matter. The US does, but its debacle in Afghanistan illustrates the limits of its competence in the region. Indeed, India’s piggybacking on the US Afghanistan strategy did not seem to do it much good.
I would argue that India should keep its eye on the economic development ball, and not let the strategic interests of the US divert it from achieving what it needs—rapid, sustainable economic growth. China is flexing its strategic muscles on the back of a stunning three decades of growth, increasing its chances of political success. This is noted without in the slightest degree approving of its political goals, domestic or international. Of course, one can also be a relative economic failure like Russia, and exert military power, but that is not a model to follow in any dimension.
On the economic front, of course, India and the US have tremendous potential for further alignment. The PM’s meetings with US business leaders in information technology, solar power, defence production, telecom and finance were hugely symbolic, as well as furthering strategic goals. Several of them illustrate possible synergies in economic strength and national security. It will be important to track how effective is the follow-up on the Indian side, to achieve tangible benefits.
It is useful to contrast these meetings with the recent decision by Ford Motor to stop producing cars in India. This illustrates that the US can be good as a source of money and cutting-edge technologies, but its business and political leaders and operatives are not always good at understanding and adapting to local conditions. At an abstract level, Afghanistan exemplifies some of the same US weaknesses as Ford. The strong implication is that India should really be looking to Asian economies—Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, in particular—for the kinds of investment and know-how it needs for its own economy in many sectors. This includes a range of consumer durables, capital equipment and infrastructure needs.
Finally, while India should not unduly limit itself to the US as a source of what it needs for economic development, nor allow the US to drive its geopolitical strategic stance, there is enormous scope for leveraging US strategic concerns to tap into its strengths where it matters the most. Specifically, the recent Quad summit included plans for new research collaborations and the development of ‘competitive technology ecosystems’. Japan and Australia are not irrelevant in this sphere, but they are minnows compared to the US. This is the proverbial sweet spot for India’s global strategy.
India’s goal must be to use this collaboration to build world-class research universities, and use them, in turn, to grow an innovation ecosystem. Training world-class faculty takes time, and so India will have to figure out how to attract them from everywhere, not limiting that effort to those of Indian origin. And, while the emphasis on science and technology inherent in this effort can avoid some of India’s current problems of cultural nationalism, ultimately, fostering creativity will require openness in many different ways. Allowing this openness will require self-confidence on the part of India’s leaders. That means something very different from the current approach of Russia or China, or that of the last US president.
Professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Cruz