This week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to Washington for a state visit that includes an address to the U.S. Congress. Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden are expected to discuss a wide range of topics that span technology, China, and Russia’s war in Ukraine. For the second Pivotal States event, a new series that examines alternative U.S. foreign policy approaches to the world’s key nations, American Statecraft Program director Christopher S. Chivvis was joined by Carnegie Endowment senior fellow Ashley J. Tellis and Center for a New American Security senior fellow Lisa Curtis to discuss the state visit and its implications for U.S.-India relations.

This Q & A was adapted from a transcript of the event and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chris Chivvis: I like to start these discussions by thinking about U.S. interests. . . . Ashley, you wrote about “America’s Bad Bet on India.” What do you think?

Ashley Tellis: I would argue that the U.S. has three core interests in India, and they’re each of equal importance. The first is to see India thrive as a vibrant, liberal democracy, and that’s important because of the exemplary implications of India as a democratic success for the kind of global order that the United States has invested in for a very long time.

Christopher S. Chivvis
Christopher S. Chivvis is the director of the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment.
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The second interest is to see India’s power grow and, as a result of that growth in power, the deepening of the bilateral partnership. And I think that objective is important because it conduces toward strengthening the multipolar order in Asia, which the U.S. judges to be very important for its own strategic interests, especially vis-a-vis China.

The third interest is in deepened economic ties across the board, so that each country becomes the motor of prosperity for the other.

I think India’s interests primarily lie in rising as a great power in its own right, and it sees the United States as a very important ally in that quest. I see those intersections between Indian interests and American interests as offering quite fruitful opportunities for cooperation for the next several years.

Chris Chivvis: Lisa, how do you see the degree of divergence and convergence between America’s and India’s interests?

Lisa Curtis: I would go back thirty years, in the early ’90s, when India embarked on its economic reforms. I think that is what got U.S. attention—the opening of the Indian market, the economic opportunities. The fact that India was a democracy played a significant role in what I would call the U.S. pivot toward India.

These foundational interests have only grown and intensified in the past fifteen years, as we’ve seen China enhance its military capabilities and its global economic footprint, as well as become more assertive with its foreign policy ambitions. I would say that the Biden administration believes that a strong U.S.-India partnership is essential to achieving its Indo-Pacific goals—maintaining a free, open, prosperous, resilient Indo-Pacific region has become even more important in the last few years. And I think it’s because of this that this administration has been willing to overlook some of India’s more unhelpful policies toward Russia.

Chris Chivvis: Here in the United States, we see India very much through the lens of China and the Indo-Pacific, but is that also the case in India? If not, what’s the implication for how we ought to approach India?

Ashley Tellis: So I think there is a convergence in terms of objectives. Both the United States and India share the objective of not having an Asia that is dominated by China, or an Indo-Pacific region that is subject to Chinese coercion and assertiveness. But the instruments that both sides emphasize are not always identical.

The United States is a hegemonic power in Asia. It has obligations to treaty allies that it has to uphold whether or not India will support it in that activity. So that is one area where there is a potential for divergence. The second is that India is located uncomfortably close to China and does not have the latitude to pursue what I would think of as a pugnacious foreign policy toward China—which the United States can because the United States is farther away from China than India is. And third, the relative balances of power favor the United States. The U.S., for all of China’s rise, is still the more powerful country, and it has many more instruments with which to confront China than India does. India is the weaker country relative to China, so India has to be a lot more nuanced and a lot more subtle in the way that it addresses the China challenge compared to the United States.

In other words, we have the luxury of distance, we have the luxury of capacities, and we have the luxury of just overwhelming power. On all three counts, India is quite different from us. The tools that India would use to balance China would of necessity be a lot more subtle than the tools that the U.S. would use, even though the objective of making certain that China cannot overwhelm the Indo-Pacific remains in common for both countries.

Chris Chivvis: You’ve made it clear that there is a role for India to play in the future of U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, but what are the illusions that could potentially lead us astray?

Ashley Tellis: My concern is that we should not have exaggerated expectations. No matter how deep our partnership gets, there will be some thresholds that I think India is unlikely to cross. And to me, the biggest threshold is military participation in coalition operations that may be necessary against China in the event of a contingency, like a war in Taiwan or the South China Sea. I think that is a bridge that India will likely not cross unless it is threatened directly by China itself. So to that degree, no matter how close our relationship becomes, it will not be a relationship of the sort that breeds the expectations that we currently have, say, with Australia. And I think that is a point that is worth appreciating—that India is going to be different, and it should not cause us any problems as long as we recognize that that is the limit of the relationship.

Chris Chivvis: You wrote about a year ago that India should choose whether it was going to lean strongly toward Moscow or Washington. A year later, that still hasn’t happened. Have the circumstances changed, or is it just a matter of time?

Lisa Curtis: India should choose the West—that is its best bet in terms of protecting its own future national security interests. And I said that for a couple of reasons. One is that what Russia has done in Europe undermines the entire concept of territorial sovereignty throughout the world, including in Asia. And that doesn’t help in terms of what China may contemplate in the future. So if we ever see a situation where China further encroaches into Indian territory, on their disputed border, or even conducts an invasion, India will want international support for the concept of territorial sovereignty and protecting your own territory, and it might not get that support since it is not stepping up and really defending Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.

The other point is because we are seeing this Russia-China enhanced relationship and the no-limits partnership that was announced just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It really demonstrates that India may not be able to always count on Russia and its support.

India is undermining its strategic options by thinking it can continue to rely on Russia. It wants to try to keep a wedge between Russia and China because it doesn’t want to contemplate the idea of Russia and China both arrayed against it. Then you throw Pakistan in there and things look really dire from the Indian perspective.

I understand what India is doing and why it’s doing it. I just don’t think it makes sense over the long term.

Chris Chivvis: How much should India’s relationship with Russia matter in the U.S.-India relationship?

Lisa Curtis: I think the one thing that we don’t talk about much is the example that India is setting for other Indo-Pacific nations. It’s been able to have its cake and eat it too. Yet, we’re going to see probably a very successful state-level visit by Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi, with new initiatives announced including possibly the coproduction of jet engine technology. I think we have to acknowledge that there is a cost to U.S. overall strategy when you have this kind of divergent stance by such an important and influential player.

Ashley Tellis: I think this administration appears to have absorbed the costs of India’s choices. And whether we like it or not, they have in effect decided that the importance of maintaining this Asian multipolarity is so important that no matter how discomforting India’s choices on Ukraine are, these are choices that we will simply live with.

Chris Chivvis: Can you talk more about the extent to which you think cooperation on technology can provide an economic ballast?

Lisa Curtis: I think the technology issues have become so critically important, as we see China making advancements and hear about China’s advancements with AI. The other issue here is the applications of this emerging technology to defense systems, which is catalyzing greater cooperation between the U.S. and India to see how the two sides can work together and how they’re looking at the issues of development and deployment of these technology standards. That’s what we’re seeing with the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) that was announced a year ago. There were very productive meetings between the two countries’ national security advisers in January.

In seeing how much China is advancing, the U.S. now understands the importance of really cooperating closely with India and trying to take advantage of the strengths on both sides in terms of research, skills training, manpower, and engineering capabilities. And there are so many ways that the two sides can benefit from this increased technology cooperation—not to mention the progress that has been made on semiconductors. This has been a real area of focus for India and the United States, and I see that only growing as we move into the future.

Ashley Tellis: I think iCET offers a new window to doing things that we have not explored before, especially in the area of start-ups, which is entirely new terrain. My big concern is less the iCET program or even government initiatives.

I would like to see the two economies essentially open up to each other much more so that these alliances across national borders arise organically without governments having to constantly midwife the effort. When we look at technical collaboration with our allies like Japan or Germany or the Netherlands, you don’t see the United States government having to step in in order to forge what are commercial alliances. That seems to be a unique feature of the U.S.-India relationship, and I think there is something unnatural about it. I want to see a day come by where business entities in both countries will make deals across national borders without governments even knowing.

The fact that government has to inject itself at every step of the way, to my mind, is indicative of the immaturity of our economic engagement rather than any sort of success that we’ve achieved so far. Our achievements so far have been largely at the level of process. Now we just have to hope that these process-related innovations will yield actual successes.

Lisa Curtis: I’m really happy that the iCET dialogue is being carried out by the respective national security councils. Particularly in India, where so many ministries are dealing with these issues, you really need that centralization that I think the national security councils can provide. They give that top-down direction to the ministries and bring the dialogues together so that you don’t have these stovepipes. I think that’s what we have seen in the past, and I think that’s how iCET will be different than some of the other technology dialogues that we’ve had.

Chris Chivvis: You both have served in the White House at different times during your careers. If you were to sit down again next week with President Biden and talk about U.S.-India of relations, what would be at the top of your list?

Lisa Curtis: I think I would advise that the U.S. invest heavily in the India relationship: pull out all stops with regard to technology-sharing, partnering with India in the Indo-Pacific, investing in the Quad.

I was in the Trump administration when the Quad was revived—I’m very proud that that has happened. And the Biden administration has taken the Quad to the next level, and certainly continues to invest in the Quad relationship. The point is that Indian and the U.S. interests on managing the challenge of a rising China are really quite similar, and there’s a lot to be gained by partnering with India in dealing with this challenge.

Maybe there’s a small risk that the U.S. makes all this investment and India doesn’t feel any compulsion to support the U.S. or its allies and does not contribute to this idea of a networked security architecture. But I think the probability of that happening is very, very low. I think the more likely scenario is that India will contribute to a free, open, resilient region, particularly in the diplomatic, political, and economic space, maybe a little less so militarily. Having India’s overall influence in this region is extremely important and really serves U.S. national security interests.

I also would advise that the president raise the issue of human rights with Prime Minister Modi behind closed doors. Certainly, there is concern about the treatment of religious minorities, particularly during the second term of the Modi government. It’s something that’s happening very subtly, this movement away from the values of a secular, multireligious, multiethnic democracy. But I think it’s worth the president quietly discussing some of these issues with Modi. It doesn’t merit any sort of public condemnation of India and certainly not with some of the challenges we’ve seen in our own democracy of late.

Ashley Tellis: Publicly, we want to do everything we can to signal to India that we value the partnership, that that partnership is extremely important for our core national interests and hopefully India’s core national interests as well. And that partnership has many dimensions and takes many forms. I think the administration will do just that, in symbols and in substance. Then whatever the discordant notes are, those have to be handled with a certain delicacy behind closed doors. And I think the administration will do that as well. And that, to my mind, is the best you can do in the circumstances.

I will also say that I suspect the president will go out of his way to be personally reassuring toward the prime minister because I think he values the personal relationship with Modi, and he will find ways of emphasizing that relationship. And in the past, the relationships between leaders has had very high payoffs for both sides. I expect that this visit will be a continuation of that.

View the whole event in the player below, or watch it on YouTube.

Previously in Pivotal States: The consequences of Türkiye’s election