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Constraints of India-U.S. Alignment

Oct 11, 2021
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

India’s diplomacy is unique. During the Cold War, it pursued a policy of non-alignment and was able to benefit from both superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the latter, in response to the trend of multipolarity in the world, India adopted a policy of strategic autonomy and maintained equal distance. In the era of competition between major powers, it has adopted a policy of multilateral alliance.

At present, India is not only a member of the G7+ and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, but is also a member of the BRICS group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, making it the only major country in the world that is a member of all the major organizations of both East and West. This is perhaps the best illustration of India’s policy of multilateral alliances — that is, pursuing nonalignment through multilateral alliances.

No matter how India’s foreign policy changes, its core connotation of maneuvering between major powers, leveraging their strengths, betting on both sides, ensuring diplomatic autonomy and maximizing its own national interest remains unchanged; its diplomacy remains speculative, two-sided and practical.

After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. actively courted India and helped accelerate its rise under policies pursued by successive American administrations. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. and India have signed four “foundational” military agreements: the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018 and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) in 2020.

Each of the four agreements represents a different level of military cooperation. From the most basic sharing of secret military information to the mutual opening of each other’s logistics — from the establishment of encrypted communication systems to the sharing of real-time sensitive data and India’s sharing of high-end U.S. satellite data, maps and other spatial information — U.S.-India relations have moved up a step every two years. With the signing of the last agreement, India has, at least in theory, enjoyed U.S. treatment as a quasi-alliance.

India is one of the largest buyers of high-end U.S. weapons. It not only imports a large number of conventional weapons from the United States but also procures equipment with a strategic support role, such as the C-17 large strategic transport aircraft, the most advanced P-8 anti-submarine patrol aircraft and MQ-9A Reaper reconnaissance and combat drones. In recent years, the United States has been India’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in goods valued at approximately $80 billion, plus trade in services. Bilateral trade totals nearly $150 billion.

The Donald Trump administration aggressively pursued an Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at containing China. President Joe Biden has preserved Trump’s policy with the Quad as the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Within two months of taking office, Biden institutionalized the Quad and held the first Quad virtual summit, announcing the provision of 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine for the Indo-Pacific region by 2022, to be produced by India, funded by the U.S. and Japan, and distributed by Australia. It plans to hold the second Quad leaders’ summit by the end of this year.

The United States favors India for three main reasons. First, both are so-called democratic countries. They share many of the same values and can be said to be like-minded. Second, the border conflict has set back India’s relations with China, and the United States believes India can be used to clamp down on China. Third, India is large and has the potential to act as a counterbalance and hold China in check.

According to the International Monetary Fund, India was the world’s fifth largest economy before the epidemic, with a GDP of $2.9 trillion in 2019, surpassing that the United Kingdom, under whose suzerainty India once lived. Since 1999, India’s economy has approximately quintupled. This has led many Western scholars to conclude that India will become the third Asian power and overtake Japan in the near future and become the second-largest economy in Asia and the third-largest in the world. Working with India “to maintain maritime security and counter China’s influence” is the fulcrum of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.

India is overjoyed by the olive branch extended by the United States and has actively cooperated with various U.S. initiatives to strengthen bilateral relations and the Quad. The rise to power of Prime Minister eNarendra Modi government in 2014 was an important point that marked the start of a fast track of U.S.-India military cooperation. What the United States wanted but failed to do for more than a decade soon fell into place, step by step.

India invited Australia to participate in the U.S.-Japan-India Malabar military exercises for the first time last year, playing an integral role in the institutionalization of the Quad. India is also actively involved in the Quad vaccine production program, but there is a great deal of uncertainty about its implementation in the face of the out-of-control epidemic. After the Galwan Valley incident, India blocked more than 200 Chinese apps, including TikTok, WeChat, Weibo, Baidu Maps and UC Browser. It made things difficult for Chinese companies and slowed down approvals for investment by them. The U.S. was also deeply involved during the India-China standoff in the Galwan Valley, with the former U.S. ambassador to India revealing on his departure that there was close intelligence cooperation between the two sides. India’s diplomacy has strong overtones of alliance with the U.S. against China.

There are several main reasons India is trying to cater to the United States. For one thing, the U.S. provides favorable conditions for India’s development. It works to court India militarily, politically and economically, which will provide the impetus and external environment for India’s rise. This is a strategic opportunity that India has been seeking.

Second, India needs to leverage U.S. power to counterbalance China’s regional presence. India lags behind China economically and militarily, making it difficult to offer the countries of the Indo-Pacific region an alternative to China’s aid in economic development. Therefore, New Delhi needs Washington’s regional presence to counterbalance and contain China’s military and economic influence.

Third, India wants to increase its bargaining power in its dealings with other great powers. Its enhanced relations with the United States, Japan and Australia will not only increase its weight on the international stage but will also strengthen its position in the BRICS group and the SCO, reinforcing its ability to maneuver between major powers.

However, U.S.-India cooperation is only a stopgap measure. Not long ago, the U.S. Navy carried out so-called “freedom of navigation” missions in India’s exclusive economic zone without India’s consent or approval, much to India’s consternation. The U.S. side made it clear that it was challenging India’s “excessive” claims to the waters. In addition, according to AFP, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “issued a veiled warning about the regression of Indian democracy” during his visit to India, while participating in a civil society roundtable.

In a joint news conference with Blinken, Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar rebutted this, saying, “Freedoms are important; we value them, but never equate freedom with non-governance or lack of governance or poor governance. They are two completely different things.” The apparent shared values and close bilateral cooperation do not conceal the lack of mutual trust between the U.S. and India, which have disagreed on many issues such as human rights, trade, Afghanistan and India's procurement of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems. In other words, the U.S. and India are only trying to use each other; they are not each other’s reliable friends.

India has a delicate and complex mindset with regard to the U.S.-India relationship. Although it receives many practical benefits from the U.S., it guards against and is wary of the U.S. in order to maintain its strategic autonomy. India has set restrictions and “no-go areas” for military exchanges between the two countries — refusing to open military bases to the U.S., barring the stationing of U.S. military forces on Indian soil, stipulating that the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, or LEMOA, can be implemented only during warships’ visits to each other’s ports and joint military exercises, the provision of disaster relief and humanitarian relief and adding security settings to military communications between the two countries to prevent data leakage and data transfer to any individual or entity.

In addition, some in India are advocating an India-U.S. alliance to counter China. But India cannot be made an official U.S. ally. An alignment with the U.S. would be contrary to India’s founding principles of autonomous diplomacy and would be a toxic topic in India. Moreover, it is not in India’s interest to become completely aligned with the United States, as this would not only compress its space for expanding relations with other developing countries but also erode its legitimacy as a member of the BRICS and SCO groups and damage its relations with Russia.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has boasted that Modi’s diplomacy is about throwing up multiple balls at the same time and demonstrating the confidence and skill not to let any of them fall. If India aligns itself with the United States, the balls will fall and the ball-tossing diplomacy of India’s multilateral alliance will not work — not to mention the dream of becoming a prestigious great power.

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