An Indian analyst “Ashley J. Tellis” challenged the widely held belief that India would support the US in a potential conflict with China. He provided compelling evidence to debunk this notion in a recent article “America’s Bad Bet on India”. All successive US presidents have fostered ties with India with the aim to use India as a counterweight to China’s growing military and economic might.
The strategic bonhomie is evident from defense cooperation, increasing trade ties, and US recognition of India as a ‘Major Defense Partner’. Moreover, India’s access to and procurement of cutting-edge technology, maritime surveillance against China’s naval activity, and joint exercises like Malabar and Cope India demonstrate the close cooperation between the two nations.
India and China the two Asian powers locked horns at Ladakh in May 2020. A clash at Galwan Valley resulted in the death of 20 Indian and 4 Chinese Soldiers. It seriously damaged their bilateral relations. Resultantly, both sides reinforced their positions with tens of thousands of troops and equipment, and by building the necessary infrastructure to cope with emerging threats at LAC. This conflict eroded ties and heightened political hostility between the two Asian neighbors.
As a result, India used China’s threat as an excuse to avail the US support to fill technological gaps, deepen defense cooperation, and modernize its military & critical infrastructure. The perceived threat posed by China has fostered a sense of unity between the US and India. However, it is important to note that India’s strategic autonomy approach means that it is unlikely to take direct actions against China despite the appearance of alignment with the US. The gist of the above discussion is that India won’t fight on behalf of the US and will shy away from providing material support to the US.
India under Modi no longer seeks to align itself with any specific bloc to reap maximum benefits. It is visible from its engagement in multilateral institutions like G-20, BRICS, and SCO. Its active participation in China and Russian-dominated forums like SCO with an anti-West character despite having strong ties with the West demonstrated India’s concept of strategic autonomy. Apart from that, it routinely participates in trilateral meetings with both Russia and China and despite flare-ups at LAC kept communication channels open with China.
It was evident from the recently held talks between Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart General Li Shangfu on the sidelines of the SCO. Both sides held their respective positions and the divergence between India and China on border issues was on full display. They did not exchange a handshake ahead of the meeting and after the meeting, both sides issued divergent statements. India’s defense ministry in a statement said that violation of existing agreements has eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations and China’s defense minister emphasized the need to place the border issue in an appropriate position within bilateral relations. In addition to that, he reiterated that the situation on the China-India border is generally stable. The divergence in their statements shows that a clear resolution is currently elusive.
Additionally, there is another dimension to look at India’s reluctance to align with the US is its concerns about the Russia-China close partnership. India is wary of the growing partnership between the two powers and does not want to see Russia as a Chinese client state. It fears that such a situation will erode its capacity to defend its self both diplomatically and militarily. Historically, India has been a significant buyer of Russian technology & military equipment.
Foreign Policy Choices And Strategic Autonomy
Chinese and Russian close cooperation will erode India’s efforts to diversify foreign sources of military technologies and multilateral cooperation. That is why India is hesitant to sever ties with Russia. The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine revealed this approach that India won’t compromise on its ties with Russia. Despite immense pressure from the US and European countries India refrained from condemning Russia. Moreover, India’s reluctance to fully align with the US stems from the concern that such a move could strengthen cooperation between Russia, China, and Pakistan. Which India fears and seeks to prevent. This apprehension hinders New Delhi to completely embrace alignment with the US.
The purpose of Ashley Tellis piece is to convey a message that India is focused on building its military capabilities independently and aims to be able to unilaterally address any potential conflict with China when the time is right. India seeks the US side’s support to bridge the technological gaps that can assist India in this pursuit. Additionally, any visible alignment between the US and India should be viewed as issue-based alignment rather than a comprehensive alignment.
Apart from that, India has specific concerns that a strong partnership between China & Russia may limit Moscow’s ability to exert pressure on China to ease its pressure on India at LAC. Second, India relies on the Russian side for defense equipment, if the China-Russia partnership deepens, Russia might opt to delay the supply of advanced weaponry. Lastly, as the US becomes increasingly impatient with Russia’s actions against Ukraine, there could be mounting pressure on India as a fellow democracy to take a more decisive stance. It may act as a blow to India’s foreign policy choices and strategic autonomy.