India-US ties are back in the spotlight with Donald Trump’s latest broadside on Kashmir at Davos 2020, expressed for the second time in the presence of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. Narendra Modi government’s enthusiasm for the relationship has led it to overlook such diplomatic slights from the White House. It appears both sides have discovered an efficient way to manage ties and construct a public discourse that does not let differences interrupt the trajectory of the relationship. But the fact is there are convergences and differences, and it is time we recognised this complex reality.
For the US, there are several advantages that come with a cooperative India. It helps strengthen US influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region; provides valuable ideological support for the US in Asia; offers a vast market for the US private sector including defence manufacturing firms; enables the US military to sustain its regional posture and buttress logistical networks in the Indo-Pacific; provides political leverage against China in the future. Perhaps, most consequentially, the US has succeeded in moving India to a position where it has been adopting a political and diplomatic posture of a positive abstention, if not outright support, in favour of the US vis-à-vis other great powers in the neighbourhood and Asia. That is a key strategic outcome for US foreign policy and has been achieved at very little cost.
A positive equation with the US benefits India too. It provides India with access to the international order and its key institutions, many of these still dominated by the West; it provides options for India’s economic development and modernisation; it provides access to advanced military capabilities; it provides a degree of leverage against Pakistan and China; it provides a certain space for India to rise without inviting containment or negative policies. Finally, US crisis management has benefited India on many occasions, including during the India-Pakistan standoff after the Pulwama terror attack last year.
India as a passive actor
Close engagement does bring mutual advantages across a range of issue areas. Yet, to make the leap from a clear-eyed picture, where different visions and interests do not come in the way of a mutually advantageous relationship, to one where we speak of a global strategic partnership, where interests are being jointly defined and geostrategies crafted together is a stretch too far. The moment the hyperbole begins, the contradictions surface.
One critique is that India has been a passive player in shaping ties, and that a stable relationship with Washington is increasingly seen as an end in itself rather than as part of a broader Indian grand strategy. When we talk of strategic convergence, it is usually about whether India is adhering to US preferences. The agenda-setting is rarely undertaken by India’s policymakers, think tanks or even the media, who more often than not reproduce or react to US priorities.
Take China, for example. When we talk of a rising China, it is the maritime rather than continental dimension that dominates most of our conversations. The West Pacific area is an obvious priority for the US, but a peripheral geopolitical concern for India. Even the ‘Quad’ is ultimately about getting India to share the burden on East Asian security, with no apparent quid pro quo on challenges closer to home: securing the northern frontier with China and hedging against the possibility of China-Pakistan military moves in a regional crisis.
Even on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South Asia, the absence of a meaningful India-US response to counterbalance Chinese influence stands out. In his recent visit to Washington, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi felt confident enough to make the case for a renewed US-Pakistan partnership that would run in parallel with China-Pakistan ties, and with Pakistan as a “bridge builder” in this triangle. Reports of Pakistan avoiding a negative ruling at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in Beijing last week should also be seen in this light: the US and China have a common interest in Pakistan’s well-being and often act in tandem when their ally is in trouble.
Look at regional security. Take the Pulwama-Balakot episode in February 2019. It was apparent that the US was not interested in embarrassing the Pakistan army or endorsing a coercive Indian policy. In fact, there was more continuity than a radical departure – a third party US role that promoted regional stability and sought to strike a fine balance between the security interests of its two main partners in the subcontinent.
The leverage that Pakistan has derived from the 18-year long US military presence in Afghanistan is well known. In all likelihood, if the US-Taliban deal, mediated by the Pakistan army, is struck in time, the main reason for Trump’s rendezvous to the subcontinent next month would to be to showcase success on that front.
Let us turn to defence. The spectacular growth in US exports in recent years obscures fundamental differences. The dominant discourse is focused on promoting US market access rather than India’s overall military modernisation. So, Indian attempts to pursue alternative technological options immediately invite negative policies and pressure. The points of friction, however, run deeper. Through its arms sales, the US aims to develop a network of states that would integrate into a broader US-controlled ecosystem of technologies and intelligence, and, would collectively share the burden of managing a US-led security architecture. But for India, such a concept is not only incompatible with the vision of an inclusive multipolar world order, it also undermines the very basis of strategic autonomy – where the ability to autonomously operate its military forces is vital for the independence of India’s foreign and security policies.
What is complicating the India-US relationship today is the ongoing global and regional power transition in Asia. Fundamental questions have come to the fore. Should India seek to assist the US in restoring its primacy in Asia or seek to build a reformed and stable world order that would inevitably require cooperation with other great powers and regional powers many of whom the US is preparing to confront in the coming decade? Is India’s desire to be an independent great power and pursue “multi-aligned” foreign and economic policies consistent with the US approach that seeks exclusivity and conformity from its clients and partners? How would a more assertive US foreign policy in the coming years fit with India’s priorities for economic transformation and a stable neighbourhood where great power discord is limited?
During the mid-2000s, when Washington and Delhi were exuberant about the future of their relationship, the notion of a power transition was too remote a proposition to precipitate a real debate. We have now reached that turning point where the scale and scope of the India-US relationship needs to be sensibly re-defined and then pursued realistically. India cannot play the role envisioned by the US in the coming decade. Neither can the US pull Indian chestnuts out of the fire. High-flown rhetoric will get us nowhere. The Modi government should begin the process when Trump visits India next month.
Zorawar Daulet Singh is author of Power and Diplomacy: India’s Foreign Policies during the Cold War. Views are personal.