Strategic Autonomy and Future U.S.-India Partnership

By Ethan Kessler

One of my college professors, a State Department veteran and Cold Warrior whose office bore a picture of him with President Gerald Ford in Vladivostok in 1975 (talking Michigan football, as proud Wolverines are inclined to), always liked to talk about a Soviet diplomat he spoke with as the U.S.S.R. was nearing its end. “Now, we have played the greatest trick on you,” the diplomat said. “We have taken away your greatest enemy.” My professor would go on to recount the lack of strategic clarity that bedeviled Washington after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Indeed, the strategy pursued by U.S. policymakers in the post-Cold War “unipolar moment” – liberal hegemony – largely failed, dragging the U.S. into messes like Somalia and Afghanistan for which U.S. action resulted in neither strategic gain nor lasting humanitarian relief. As the Soviet diplomat portended, a lack of strategic clarity in the U.S. helped breed unrealistic and counterproductive foreign policy.

It is thus easy to understand why many current U.S. policymakers demonstrate a zeal for the growing rivalry with the People’s Republic of China. For all the differences between the last bipolar world and the current one, competition with China brings a strategic clarity not seen since the Soviet Union. The post-9/11 “War on Terror” was hoped by some to bring this clarity but, as Americans have found, declaring war against a method of warfare as opposed to an actual polity slips easily into self-perpetuating, never-ending engagements. With a clear state competitor comes natural meaning for state resources and energy.

But just as it took years for the U.S. to define its strategy against the Soviet Union and consolidate its allies at the beginning of the Cold War, the still nascent competition with Beijing has yet to effect a well-defined U.S. strategy for the Indo-Pacific region. Will the U.S. attempt to form an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to counter China? Or, as the Quincy Institute’s Rachel Esplin Odell advocates, will Washington first attempt to head off another Cold War altogether? And, if Washington tries to create an Indo-Pacific security architecture, how will both treaty allies (like Japan and South Korea) and countries with a history of non-alignment (like Indonesia and India) be incorporated into it?

This article will engage with these questions by looking at India. I highlight the considerations that should give pause to who believe a Washington-Delhi alliance against Beijing is inevitable. As the U.S. has slowly, then abruptly, turned to focus resources on China, India has emerged as an intuitive choice to balance against Beijing – both because India considers Beijing an adversary and, as the world’s largest democracy, Delhi is a politically appealing partner for Washington. At this point, alignment to some degree seems likely. But, how comprehensively the U.S. is able to align itself with India depends not only on what the U.S. thinks of China, but also on what India thinks. It takes two to form a partnership. India has its own national security priorities: It wants to grow its economy sustainably; avoid worst-case outcomes in its multiple territorial disputes; and, under the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), reformulate India as explicitly Hindu rather than secular, as the country’s founders intended. Given these interests and Delhi’s history of non-alignment in foreign affairs, it is hard to imagine that U.S. engagement with India will produce something similar to the Western/NATO bloc of the Cold War days. U.S. policymakers would do well to adjust their expectations accordingly.

  1. Economic Prosperity

Right now, India’s primary national goals are to grow into a prosperous country and maintain its basic security – the same goals defined by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi nearly 50 years ago, and the same goals set at the country’s founding in 1947. Though attracting investment and spurring economic growth have been severely complicated by the BJP’s somewhat contradictory goal of displacing secularism with Hindu majoritarian rule, the BJP’s legitimacy still partly rests on delivering heightened standards of living to Indians. And even though poverty has been reduced substantially in India over the last two decades, there is still plenty of room left for more growth. Chasing prosperity will demand even more resources given India’s economic slowdown, which was apparent before the coronavirus pandemic but has accelerated rapidly since lockdown.

How do Delhi’s economic goals bode for U.S. alliance-building against China? It seems to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, Beijing’s growing resistance to international law regarding its territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Southeast Asian countries could drive India to balance against China by committing to Washington. India does around $189 billion in trade through the South China Sea each year – a figure representing nearly a third of its total trade. But there are reasons to believe that Beijing, bellicose as it may sound, will not attempt anything actually disruptive to trade in the region. It has more to lose than Delhi from such a gamble. Since none of its own territory is at stake in these territorial disputes, India has predictably maintained a fairly reserved stance on them.

The issue of trade must be factored in as well. China is one of India’s largest trading partners. Delhi’s growth targets could be severely threatened if trade with Beijing was slashed. Of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has already curtailed trade with China several times as part of his protectionist agenda. As exemplified by India’s banning of TikTok after the deadly Himalayan border dispute with China this summer, such explicitly nationalist measures seem more intended to score political points than anything else. But such performances come with economic costs. If Washington’s preference for costly economic warfare with China continues, Delhi should be wary of too close an American alignment. This is not to say Delhi will withdraw from outside engagement to solely focus on upkeeping bilateral trade with Beijing. In fact, there is good reason to think states will increasingly participate in international economic fora in the coming years of great power rivalry. But being pinned in by the possibly damaging economic priorities of an allied U.S. will be viewed by Indian statesmen as onerous.

  1. Territorial Disputes and Non-Alignment

On balance, then, Delhi’s economic goals do not necessarily conduce to a tight U.S.-India partnership. But what about India’s other primary goal? To assess how India will seek security, we should look to its security threats. Last February’s Pulwama Crisis – during which an attack on Indian security personnel by a member of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) triggered India and Pakistan to launch airstrikes on each other’s assets in the disputed Kashmir territory – serves as a sobering reminder that the territorial dispute over Kashmir with Pakistan could still erupt into war.

Pakistan is not Delhi’s only military problem. This summer’s border clashes with Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley, a disputed territory between India and China, was the deadliest confrontation between the two countries since 1975. Delhi has reason to worry that an increasingly nationalist and militarily superior Beijing will only grow more motivated and equipped to embarrass India and seize disputed territories. These disputes cannot be readily papered over with statements of peaceful coexistence. India’s rhetoric toward Beijing in the 1950s was conciliatory, yet the two ended up on opposite sides of the Cold War. Today, as a recent report from the Carnegie Endowment put it, “cooperative rhetoric has not yielded any substantive results” in India’s efforts to designate the founder of JeM as a terrorist in the United Nations. In addition to still siding with Pakistan on these matters, China poses its own territorial threats. That Delhi would balance against these threats by nuzzling up to Washington would track well with balance of threat theory and India’s existing relationship with Washington, in the form of its membership in the “Quad” partnership (which includes Australia and Japan as well).

But, such a prediction would ignore the logic of India’s historical strategic autonomy. As opposed to Washington’s Cold War strategy of creating extensive mutual defense commitments, enshrined in bilateral treaties and regional treaty arrangements like NATO, India since its inception has avoided alliances in a policy of so-called non-alignment, similar to Washington’s pre-Cold War foreign policy. The flexibility afforded by India’s preferred method of international engagement, strategic partnerships, is self-evident. By maintaining partnerships with both the U.S. and Russia, its traditional arms supplier, Delhi is able to have its cake and eat it too. In 2018, it signed a deal to acquire $5 billion worth of S-400 anti-air missile systems from Moscow, despite the fact that the U.S. Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act requires the U.S. to sanction buyers of Russian defense hardware.

Though this led to some diplomatic expressions of disappointment, no sanctions have yet been imposed because the Trump administration wants to keep on India as a customer for U.S. arms and partner in balancing against China. Meanwhile, Turkey faced far more opprobrium for buying the S-400, given its purchase of the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a NATO member. NATO and U.S. officials believed hidden features of the F-35 could be exposed if paired with S-400 systems, leading to a diplomatic row between Turkey and its NATO partners. Free from burdensome acquisition limits, Delhi is still able to partner as it wishes with other Indo-Pacific states fearful of China, as evidenced by the recent basing agreement it struck with Australia. Though it may be hard for Americans to get used to, India likes avoiding the messiness that can characterize expansive treaty commitments. As Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said in July, “The U.S. really has to learn to work in a sense with a more multipolar world, with more plurilateral arrangements, go beyond alliances with which it has grown up over the last two generations.” As if this was not explicit enough a reminder that the past will not be prologue in Washington’s growing rivalry with China, Jaishankar added that “this repositioning, recalibration, realignment of the United States would allow the U.S. to look at countries like India very differently from the way it did in the past.” Delhi’s defense ties with Moscow make that abundantly clear.

Indeed, current U.S. strategic thinking seems to demonstrate a dated attachment to Cold War analogies. Speaking at the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum on August 31, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Stephen Biegun noted his desire for the Quad to grow into an Asian NATO. On October 6, foreign ministers from all four Quad states met in Tokyo but did not so much as release a joint statement afterwards, and failed to mention previous hopes of a NATO in the east. The difficulty of getting a diverse array of Asian states to sign on to something resembling NATO is evidenced by even a cursory glance at the tight economic interdependence China has established with its neighbors: Australia, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea all count China as their top export destination and importer, while India counts it as its third-largest export destination and its top importer. Of course, substantial conflict can still occur in the presence of thick trade relationships. But Beijing’s targeting of the South Korean economy after Seoul deployed U.S. Terminal High Altitude Air Defense batteries should certainly call into doubt such rosy and simplistic characterizations of Asia’s security landscape as Biegun’s.

Tellingly, non-alignment seems to be persisting despite Modi’s traditional contempt for India’s original commitment to it (and to many other policies favored by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru). This May, Modi for the first time participated in a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – the bloc of third-world states during the Cold War that did not align with the Soviet or U.S. blocs, led partly by India. Even Modi seems to have calculated that it is wise to hedge on full-fledged Indian participation in a U.S. Indo-Pacific bloc. Again: Why wouldn’t Delhi maintain a non-aligned stance? It is unclear why India would feel compelled to ditch Moscow as a weapons supplier, as some have outlined, given that their current relationship helps impede a full Sino-Russian-Pakistani encirclement of India. Furthermore, even critics of Delhi’s lasting attachment to Russian arms have acknowledged that a big reason for its doing so is that Russian arms come with less strings attached than American ones – a benefit for Modi that will only grow more important given the West’s increasing animosity toward his illiberal policies.

Of course, even if the next U.S. president is more concerned with human rights violations than President Trump, heightened competition between the U.S. and China could make the U.S.’s liberal arms sales policies more “agnostic,” to borrow John Mearsheimer’s term, and thus remove America’s human rights concerns from arms sales to India anyways. But, if Beijing had grown this threatening to the U.S. and Asia, Russia would likely have already chosen to balance against China (as China did against the Soviet Union in the Cold War), putting what are now two opposing arms suppliers in the same camp. Both the U.S. and India feel threatened in their own ways by China, making it likely that they will grow closer in the future. Nonetheless, India has good reasons to maintain a non-aligned outlook.

  1. BJP and Delhi’s Domestic Agenda

But what of India’s regime interests? Aside from prosperity and territorial security, Modi and the BJP also have a broad, revisionist domestic agenda. Through such actions as the revoking of Indian-administered Kashmir’s autonomy (followed by an ongoing occupation); the 2019 citizenship law which, in tandem with the sectarian revision of the National Register of Citizens one year ago, excludes Muslims from a fast-track to Indian citizenship; and laying the foundation for a historically controversial Hindu temple in Ayodhya; Modi’s party has made good on its promises to shift India away from the founders’ promises of secularism and respect for minority (Muslim) rights. These violations, however, do not align much with U.S. interests regarding minority Muslim rights in Asia, which seem mainly confined to China hawks’ and human rights advocates’ assailing Beijing for its persecution of Uyghur Muslims in its western Xinjiang province. Indeed, continued BJP repression of Indian Muslims may make selling the U.S. public on an Indian partnership more, not less, difficult. Delhi’s current domestic priorities will not make alignment with the U.S. any more likely.

As Indian academic and foreign policy analyst C. Raja Mohan noted 14 years ago, when U.S.-India relations were improving substantially, “shared interests do not automatically produce alliances.” This is easy to overlook for those Americans giddy at the prospect of an intense U.S.-India partnership to balance against China. India’s interests dictate its strategic priorities; where China fits into those priorities, in turn, will guide India’s behavior. Looking at Delhi’s interests and priorities, Americans should not expect a balancing act reminiscent of NATO in the Cold War. India’s goal of economic development – a goal that has only grown more pressing given the economic toll of the current pandemic – does not dovetail neatly with Washington’s current trade war against Beijing. Delhi may place a greater emphasis on international engagement to avoid trade shocks that can slow down growth, but it could do this while helming NAM and remaining strategically autonomous as opposed to playing the junior role in a partnership with the U.S. There is even more reason for Delhi to avoid a full-throated, multilateral U.S. commitment given India’s defense reliance on Russia and the BJP’s illiberal policies toward Muslims at home.

Biegun revealed the central flaw in the U.S. approach to Indo-Pacific alliances only a week ago, at the Ananta Center India-U.S. Forum. In his prepared remarks, he expressed the sense that a tighter U.S.-India partnership can be produced if only we commit more to the cause, claiming that “we have been too cautious.” Washington would do well to instead heed Mohan’s advice and approach India and the rest of the Indo-Pacific with humility and realistic expectations. The available evidence indicates that strategic autonomy, not extensive alliances, will define future Indian statecraft – Cold War analogies be damned.

Ethan Kessler is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a major in Political Science and a minor in History. Originally from California, he is interning for the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington, DC. He enjoys studying international relations and American politics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s