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The United States and India on Tuesday formally established a high-level initiative on defense and emerging technologies — what national security adviser Jake Sullivan called “a strategic bet” on the relationship between democratic partners.
The initiative on critical and emerging technologies, or iCET, follows on a commitment last May by President Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and will, among other things, promote joint production of defense equipment — including military jet engines, long-range artillery and armored infantry vehicles.
Sullivan met with his counterpart Ajit Doval at the White House on Tuesday to launch the initiative, which he said would serve both countries’ deeper strategic interests. The two aides are spearheading the initiative.
It comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its second year and as India seeks to lessen its decades-long dependence on Russian military equipment. Beijing’s regional provocation — including a rising tempo of Chinese economic and military coercion — also serves as a spur to increased partnership between New Delhi and Washington. Violent Chinese border clashes with India have escalated tensions between the two countries.
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Sullivan, in an interview with reporters, acknowledged the geopolitical dimension to the initiative. “The backdrop of geopolitical competition with China has been a feature of the U.S.-India relationship now for more than a decade,” Sullivan said. It has become a more acute feature of the relationship in the past few years, he said.
But, he said, “a big part of the story is fundamentally about a bet on high tech and an industrial innovation policy. That’s at the core of the president’s entire approach to his presidency. So the China-Russia factors are real, but so is the idea of building a deep democratic ecosystem with high technology.”
Much of the initiative so far consists of stated intentions to pursue cooperation in multiple areas, including semiconductors, 5G and 6G wireless infrastructure, and in commercial spaceflight, including lunar exploration.
Officials did announce one concrete step. GE Aerospace has applied for an export license for jet engine production and phased tech transfer in India, according to a senior administration official.
“This is going to be a transformational opportunity for multiple aircraft and has potential to be a real game changer, to the extent we really haven’t done this anywhere else,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Other projects the two governments are exploring include the M777 howitzer and Stryker armored fighting vehicle, the official said. The idea would be to help India develop an indigenous defense industry for its own defense and export, officials said.
There are hurdles, however, Sullivan said. Adjustments need to be made to U.S. tech release and transfer policies, and on the Indian side, changes are required in regulatory tax and customs policies.
“A lot of [American] business folks would say, ‘We’ve got to have confidence that you’re going to be a reliable buyer, that you have the money to pay for these things, and that the process is more transparent,” said a second administration official. “So there’s work to be done on both sides.”
Another element of the initiative is semiconductor supply chain diversification, a concern that has become more urgent with Chinese threats to Taiwan, which dominates the global supply of high-tech semiconductors. Part of the U.S. plan is to help India grow its legacy chip-making capabilities while continuing the flow of top engineers that study and work in the United States, Sullivan said.
Ambassador Atul Keshap, president of the U.S.-India Business Council, called iCET “a tremendous forum for our two democracies to coordinate on sustaining a free, open and secure global economy” at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event Monday.
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Technology has been “at the heart of the U.S.-India relationship” for decades, said Tanvi Madan, an India expert at the Brookings Institution. It was a major source of friction from the mid-1970s, when the United States imposed export controls after India conducted a test nuclear explosion, she said. But in more recent years, technology cooperation, including a seminal civil nuclear deal signed in 2006, has helped fuel closer U.S.-India ties, she said.
The initiative’s goal is to be “the next big milestone” in the relationship, Sullivan said.
It “has the potential to be a takeoff point,” Madan said.
But other observers urged caution, noting that the two fractious democracies haven’t always worked in lockstep. “It will take time for outcomes to realize their full potential,” said Rudra Chaudhuri, director of Carnegie India. “It will also require the private sector, the academy, think tanks, and thought leaders in both countries to work harder to accelerate emerging tech cooperation.”
India aspires to be a great power not allied with any one country, analysts said. But there is a convergence of interests with the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies, as China increasingly presses its advantage in the region.
Sullivan noted Japan’s recent commitment to greatly increase its defense budget and to develop counterstrike capabilities, and Australia’s agreement to acquire nuclear-powered submarines with the aid of the United States and Britain. “This [initiative] is another big foundational piece of an overall strategy to put the entire democratic world and the Indo-Pacific in a position of strength,” he said.
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