The Prime Minister of India is being hosted by the U.S. president, reinforcing and reaffirming the partnership between both states, especially regarding Indo-U.S. defense cooperation and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ maritime security. U.S. would at least expect India to help the U.S. implement its foreign policy goals in the region and help the U.S. counter China.
However, India’s record and history regarding its ambition in the region may be far different than what the U.S. perceives. As Ashley J. Tellis explains in “America’s Bad Bet on India,” India has tangible goals which it seeks to gain from this partnership with the U.S like modernization of its military capabilities Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISR), upgradation and development of niche military capabilities like long-range and long-endurance undersea drones and air-launched anti-ship missiles for action specific circumstances of area incursion and to deter Chinese maritime capabilities.
There are reasons India is unlikely to support the U.S. in containing China.
Trade and Geographical Location
China ranks as one of India’s top trading partners, with $136 billion of bilateral trade with $100 billion in favor of China. India also works with China on economic forums; it recently hosted the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, to which the Chinese Foreign Minister was also invited.
India is a member state of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) and hosts and participates in various forums and conferences; 14th BRICS meeting was held in China, where the Indian prime minister participated and also gave a joint statement. India’s ‘leading position’ in ensuring the security of the Asia-Pacific region would thus remain doubtful.
Another point to note is the geopolitical position of India with China as opposed to the U.S. India is an immediate neighbor of China, making them inescapable proximity to each other. This makes India unlikely to involve itself in a U.S. confrontation with China. On the other hand, the land border with China is of more relevance to India than, for example, the issue of Taiwan.
India recognizes itself as a separate pole in international politics, meaning it sees itself as a separate power against other imperium states in the international order. India has separate foreign policy goals, and they hope to balance China independently without any obligations as a global player in international politics.
Although India sees China as an adversary, it aims to avoid a confrontation resulting in irrecoverable damage. India will not compromise on the delicate balance of non-alliance by becoming brother-in-arms in case of U.S. security crises with China. For greater context, the U.S. calls QUAD the “alliance of democracies,” something India refrains from calling, instead considering it the coalition of like-minded states.
India has separate foreign policy goals and what they hope to achieve from the Indo-U.S. partnership. India assumes that the U.S. should confront China diplomatically without any confrontation itself. Instead, the U.S. should blunt all the pressure from China and India and deal with both states individually without any repercussions.
Security Crises with China
India already has very futile relations with its western neighbor Pakistan which is plagued with military standoffs and unstable borders, especially over the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. Conflict on its already delicate northern border would mean a big chunk of its military budget would be diverted to the Indo-Chinese border, where China is superior and better equipped in every aspect against much weaker India.
During the Dokhlam standoff in 2017, which lasted 73 days, India and China exercised great caution to prevent the crisis from spiraling out of hand. Subsequently 2018, both countries engaged in the Wuhan summit, where they mutually decided to enhance communication and reinforce existing confidence-building measures. Despite the Ladakh skirmishes in 2020, both nations are currently working towards de-escalation.
The U.S. has an ultimate expectation from India—to assist in containing the escalating influence of its geopolitical rival, China. This objective reflects what the U.S. hopes to achieve through the Indo-U.S. partnership. On the other hand, India has distinct objectives that revolve around obtaining tangible benefits such as the modernization of its aging military and bolstering its military capabilities. India does not view its collaboration with the United States primarily focused on containing China. However, when it comes to the Indian confrontation with China, the United States should provide support while refraining from direct involvement when it is India’s turn to take action.
To better understand why India is unlikely to commit to the U.S., it is important to consider the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal signed in 2008. Despite its approximately 15-year existence, this agreement appears to have stalled and has not fully realized its intended goals. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that India has derived significant advantages from this nuclear agreement.
Notably, India was granted a waiver at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It successfully became a member of esteemed international groups such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Wassenaar Group, and Australia Group. This means that the interests of both states may align for now but it is hard to say this partnership will be beneficial in the long run for the U.S. i.e. when India achieves its tangible objectives.
India’s unwavering stance of refraining from forming formal alliances with any state, combined with its adherence to a policy of non-alignment, naturally gives rise to inherent disparities between the United States and India. Additionally, India’s reluctance to publicly criticize its Cold War ally and its choice to abstain from voting in resolutions condemning Russia further underscore the misalignment of Indian interests with U.S. expectations. These factors indicate that India prioritizes its tangible gains and benefits over aligning entirely with the United States.
Research Assistant, (SVI)