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India-US Technology Initiatives Launched with Eye on China

FILE - Researchers wearing bunny suits work inside the semiconductor fabrication lab at the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CENSe), situated at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), in Bangalore on June 30, 2018.
FILE - Researchers wearing bunny suits work inside the semiconductor fabrication lab at the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CENSe), situated at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), in Bangalore on June 30, 2018.

A technology and defense initiative by India and the United States aims at countering China and reducing New Delhi’s dependence on Russian weapons. Analysts say it also marks a significant push in tightening the U.S. and India’s strategic partnership.

Both countries will deepen cooperation in areas like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, 5G wireless networks and semiconductors — areas in which China has acquired a dominating position.

“This convergence comes at a time when technology is becoming a determinant in U.S.-China relations and in some ways the geopolitics of technology is shaping the global balance of power,” said Harsh Pant, the vice president of studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “This also represents America placing a huge bet on India’s emergence as a major player in the Indo-Pacific.”

Senior officials from both countries met in Washington earlier this month for the U.S.-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies, which was announced by U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last May on the sidelines of a Quad summit held in Tokyo.

Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, told reporters that the goal is for technological partnerships to be “the next big milestone” in the India-U.S. relationship.

Concerned about U.S. reliance on China for critical components such as semiconductors, Washington has taken steps to halt the sale of advanced semiconductor technology to Beijing and wants to shift the manufacture of such components to friendly countries.

India, whose relations with Beijing have plummeted since a deadly clash along their Himalayan border three years ago, also wants to boost local manufacturing in crucial sectors such as semiconductors which are at the heart of modern electronic devices.

“Geopolitics is a big driver of this new initiative,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. He says the agreement reflects how far the India-U.S. relationship has come over the last few decades. “In recent years they’ve built enough trust to be talking about technology transfers and intelligence-sharing—something that Washington tends to do only with its closest strategic partners.”

The agreement also aims to facilitate joint development of defense technologies and weapons production in India. New Delhi wants to coproduce weapons in India with foreign defense manufacturers rather than purchase them outright, but U.S. restrictions on transferring defense technology have stalled such efforts with American companies.

The initial focus will be on jet engines, artillery systems and armored infantry vehicles. During the February 1 meeting in Washington, American officials said that the government would look into expediting a review of an application by U.S. manufacturer General Electric to jointly build jet engines in India for Indian aircraft.

“The more India and the U.S. will work on cutting edge technologies, the less relevant Russia will become to India’s strategic calculations,” Pant said.

India’s partnership with Washington has been spurred by New Delhi’s growing worries about China as troops from both countries faceoff along their disputed Himalayan border for a third winter. However, India did not join in Western sanctions against Russia or outright condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, raising questions about the divergent position it took from the U.S.

India Remains Steadfast in Partnership with Russia
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Analysts in India pointed out that besides its longstanding policy of strategic autonomy, New Delhi’s choices were also constrained by its heavy dependence on Russia for weapons. Although India has diversified its defense purchases in recent years, more than two thirds of its military equipment is of Russian origin and critical to its security needs amid its standoff with China.

“Washington’s current policy is to play a long game and to try to persuade New Delhi that over the longer term, Moscow will be too cash-strapped and sanctioned to provide military supplies to India,” Kugelman said. “And that the U.S. will position itself to provide India with the types of military equipment that New Delhi has long secured from Russia.”

Shared Concerns Over China Pushed US, India to Cooperate Despite Differences Over Russia
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However, translating the potential of the defense and technology agreements on the ground remains to be tested because much will depend on how private companies in both countries move to firm up partnerships. While India has a highly skilled workforce, American companies have long complained of Indian regulations that have been an obstacle to manufacturing in the country. India on the other hand cites strict U.S. regulations on technology transfers as hampering those efforts.

But the agreement is seen as a positive signal of the two countries overcoming long-standing issues of trust.

“Despite India’s stand on Ukraine, despite some other problems, these have become marginal to the larger strategic vision that the two nations have. It is now guided by the Indo-Pacific, where they are increasingly on the same side,” Pant said.