Once referred to as ‘Enduring Global Partners in the 21st Century,’ the strategic alliance between India and the United States has entered a challenging phase since the February launch of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine.
As the only ‘major democracy’ to maintain a neutral position on the Ukraine conflict, New Delhi’s ties with Washington are being tested over disagreements on how to deal with Moscow.
The duo’s ‘Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership’ is based purely on guaranteeing mutual national interests: securing international peace and security through regional cooperation in the Pacific, strengthening ‘shared democratic values,’ policing nuclear non-proliferation, and enhancing cooperation on economic and security priorities.
Today, although New Delhi and Washington are poles apart on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, one area where Indo-US relations remain in lockstep is the issue of containing China’s rising influence.
The Quad squad
This was illustrated in February during this year’s fourth Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) Foreign Ministers Meeting when India signalled its lack of enthusiasm for the Quad’s sharp criticism of Russia.
Initiated in 2007, the Quad is an informal alliance comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan, and was especially formed to collectively stand as a bulwark against Chinese ‘expansion’ in the region.
India, unlike its Quad allies, maintained silence on Ukraine, but continued its alignment with their positions against China’s growing role and ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
The Leaders’ Meeting held in Tokyo this week comes amid growing concern over whether the US will take military action should China – theoretically emboldened by Russia – decide to invade Taiwan. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also held bilateral talks with US President Joe Biden, with greater emphasis on cooperation between their National Security Councils.
Mutual concerns over China
During February’s Quad meeting for foreign ministers, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also hinted that while punishing Russia for its Ukraine policy was ‘front and center’ of the US’ immediate foreign policy priorities, the long-term challenge was working closely with regional allies to “out-compete” China. In this context, India is a pivotal US ally.
The US and India are thus likely to soft pedal Russia-related differences for the sake of consolidating a ‘maritime rules-based order’ in the Pacific, where the US and its regional allies seek to thwart Chinese influence.
In its effort to bolster India as a potential counterweight to China, the US has inserted itself directly into Indo-Pacific affairs, a political development that has irked the Chinese and Russian leadership alike.
Why did India resist US pressure to condemn Russia?
India’s refusal to sanction Russia over Ukraine is understandable within the context of their decades of close relations, cooperation and commerce. In recent years, Moscow and Delhi have together increased their global clout as members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS, cooperative political platforms that have proactively advanced more multipolar agendas.
The fact is, while Washington may have pushed New Delhi to adopt a tough stance against Moscow, Russia is still India’s largest defence partner and the country’s weapons are heavily reliant on Russian spare parts for proper functioning.
Security interests for both countries have converged in neighbouring Afghanistan. After the chaotic US withdrawal from the war-torn country, India has also repositioned its priorities there.
After the Taliban’s accession to power in Kabul last summer, both India and Russia have further expanded their cooperation by establishing a ‘permanent bilateral channel for consultations’ on Afghan affairs.
Russia effectively aids India’s engagement with the Taliban-led government. Both countries have been actively engaging on Afghan terrorism and drug trafficking priorities, and bilateral intelligence cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi appears to also be expanding into Central Asia.
Despite the recent strengthening of Russian and Chinese strategic cooperation, competition continues to exist between the two states in Central Asia, the Arctic and the Russian Far East. A politically stable and economically powerful Russia is in Indian interests as it could potentially act as a counterbalance to rising Chinese power in these regions.
To this end, a maritime corridor between India and Russia has already been formalized. The corridor, upon functioning, can improve their mutual economic clout and allow the duo to potentially rival China in the South China Sea and Russian Far East.
A strong Russia is in India’s interests
Tanvi Madan, an Indian foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, fears that Russia’s excessive reliance on China may damage Kremlin’s political and economic leverage and push it into China’s sphere of influence, thus costing New Delhi a viable mediator in the event Sino-Indian border tensions re-erupt. It is one of the reasons compelling India to oppose the US policy of weakening Russia through economic sanctions.
There are also widespread concerns in New Delhi that growing Chinese influence in Moscow may halt weapons supplies to India and make India vulnerable to any likely assault from Beijing in the future.
During a series of border skirmishes between Indian and Chinese armed forces, Washington issued mere boilerplate statements rather than playing a constructive role in diffusing the crisis. This, among other factors, has convinced Indian policy makers that the Kremlin can be a more reliable partner in resolving any future flare-ups with Beijing.
Indo-US cooperation on China
While the Biden administration remains unsure about whether or not to impose sanctions on India under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) for purchasing Russian S-400 missiles, both states continue to deepen their strategic partnership on China.
Similarly, against all western expectations during April’s 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue between the US and India, the latter again declined to condemn Russian military operations in Ukraine. India continues to buy oil from Russia at competitive prices and resents the US for admonishing it over this.
Despite US statements on deteriorating human rights conditions in India, increasing disquietness about trade policy matters, and India’s repeat abstentions on US-sponsored resolutions against Russia, their mutual rivalry against China has kept the relationship engaged and afloat.
The Indo-US focus on China has played out in various spheres. During the US administration of Donald Trump, India was granted a sanctions waiver to continue purchasing oil from Iran – part of efforts to support India’s INSTC (International North South Transport Corridor) which New Delhi presents as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Bilateral trade and investment between the US and India also hit record levels last year. In their collective quest to contain Chinese economic influence in its own region, both duo appear unanimous in criticizing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a political development perturbing policy makers in Islamabad.
Why is the Sino-Indian rivlary intensifying?
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has lately transformed into a major hotspot over the growing rivalry between Beijing and New Delhi, two of Asia’s biggest economic powerhouses. The region’s growing geostrategic importance – connecting energy-rich West Asia to energy-hungry East Asia – has compelled the two to vie for that dominance.
As both China and India are heavily reliant on hydrocarbons to shore up their economic engine, the IOR becomes pivotal for the uninterrupted flow of their seaborne trade and energy imports. The US naval presence in the region, however, has indisputably played a key role in the intensification of hostility between the two Asian giants.
The US considers the region crucial for its economic interests and security as any likely disruption to these seaborne lanes can have serious implications for US hegemony and the global economy at large.
The New Silk Road
In order to contain China’s rise, the US has inserted itself into the region by aggressively consolidating strategic, diplomatic, and military ties with regional allies – in it much-ballyhooed “Pivot to Asia.” Inevitably, this strategic move has heightened tensions between China and allies of the US, notably India.
Washington’s strategy is not necessarily working as seamlessly elsewhere. On Wednesday, the Japanese foreign ministry announced the results of a 2021 ASEAN survey that showed respondents selecting China as the G20’s most important future partner country. Japan slipped to second place for the first time since the survey launched in 2015, with the US coming in third.
To circumnavigate the threats posed to its sea lanes by the Indo-US presence in the IOR, China is diversifying its energy and trade routes. In this regard, the BRI has become an instrument of reducing strategic vulnerabilities through expansion of regional trade and infrastructural investments in areas falling outside the strategic choke point of the Strait of Malacca, a narrow sea area between the Indonesia island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula through which China imports more than 80 percent of its oil.
As the rivalry between China and India is not limited to the Himalayan region and has largely become maritime-focused, the expansion of China’s BRI in South and Central Asia is reducing China’s vulnerability to possible future Indian and US attacks in the East China Sea and the South China Sea to disrupt Chinese seaborne trade.
Another relevant component of the BRI, is the aforementioned CPEC, connecting China’s Xinjiang region to Pakistan’s Gwadar seaport. Through CPEC, China aims to solve its ‘Malacca Dilemma’ while simultaneously consolidating its economic and political ties with New Delhi’s nemesis, Islamabad.
A Passage to India…or Bharat
India fears that after the Chinese encirclement of its sea lanes through growing strategic presence in Pakistan, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, and Djibouti, the BRI can also pose threats to India’s land trade routes while simultaneously mitigating the impact on China from a combined Indo-US assault on its sea lanes.
The current ‘Hindu nationalist’ government of India, with its own ideologically expansionist designs, has also been responsible for exacerbating the crisis with China. New Delhi’s ties with its neighbours are largely dictated by the idea of Akhand Bharat, a term used by right-wing Hindu nationalists for a vision to restore a unified Indian subcontinent.
By referring to India as Vishwa Guru or ‘teacher to the world’, Modi has convinced his devotees that only he can restore the lost greatness of Hindustan. This expansionist mindset has pitted the country against its many neighbors, while Modi has used the narrative to consolidate his Hindu support base.
Who needs who?
In addition to Washington’s efforts at propping up India as an outsourcing-alternative to China for US companies, the growing Indian middle class are also perceived as a desired and lucrative destination for US exports.
The ‘limitless friendship’ between Russia and China is seen as a threat to US hegemony and may even require India as a bridge to reach out to Russia in the future. In fact, some strategists in Washington even suggest a ‘wedge’ strategy of engaging Russia to prevent it becoming overly dependent on China, and thus fostering a sense of rivalry between these two great-power rivals in their shared Eurasian space.
In this context, India’s partnership with Russia in key parts of Eurasia – such as Afghanistan and Central Asia – make it an ideal bridge to Moscow.
India and the US are likely to compartmentalize their priorities without coercing each other to veer too far from their respective interests. While unhappy about it, the US understands India’s sensitivities towards Russia and will pragmatically tone down its criticism of New Dehli’s positions.
The alternative would drive a wedge between the two allies and compromise their collective effort to contain China. If the US needs India to counter China, India surely needs both Russia and the US to keep China at bay.