The US has seen a sharp rise in confrontation with China on numerous geopolitics and Indo-Pacific issues. China is increasing its footprint in the Pacific region. On 22 March, China entered into an agreement with the Solomon Islands to develop Honiara. US, Japan, and Australia view it as a Chinese attempt to build it as a naval base.
Earlier, on 13 March, the leaders of the US–UK and Australia met in California and announced the way forward for their security partnership AUKUS, in which Australia will acquire conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines to thwart Chinese threat in Indo-Pacific. USS Milius, a guided-missile destroyer, on 17 March, sailed into the waters of the Paracel Islands, exerting its Freedom of Navigation right, sparking off a new row in the South China Sea.
In the area of trade, on 23 March, the CEO of TikTok underwent a tough gruelling by the US Senate. The recent visit of China’s leader to Russia and the announcement of the Russia–China Strategic Partnership, in the backdrop of the Ukraine war, is another Chinese attempt at heckling the US.
The front lines between US and China seem to be ever widening, and nations seem to be either drifting into the US camp or the Russia-China camp, repeating the Cold War era politics. Yet certain nations are extremely important in this “great game” but maintain a stance of non-alignment, as in the Cold War era. India leads this group of countries.
Indian observers are witnessing US attempts to negate Chinese influence in South and East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. A dominant power in South Asia with a sound economy and a strong-armed force, India, for the US, could be the crucial counterweight to China, both in South Asia and outside it. The US overtures to India with increased 2+2 dialogues and agreements, sale of US arms and aircraft and joint exercises between the armed forces are attempts by the US to garner India’s support in its bid to rein in the rising influence of China. The US has realised that possibly the success or failure of its efforts to counter China depends upon Indian support.
However, despite the upbeat in India-US relations which has reaped economic, strategic, and political dividends for both nations, there have been divergences of opinion between the two countries on numerous multilateral issues. India’s rather combative role at the UN is increasingly at odds with the strategic proximity the two nations have developed, especially after the signing of the historic deal to transfer nuclear energy technology for a peaceful purpose in 2008.
Historically, the pitch of Indo-US relations has been a seesaw, often marked by suspicion. Despite the improvement in the relations, distrust still hangs heavy in the air. Indian foreign policy since independence has given it a unique identity in the comity of nations. On several issues, Indian and US views have converged, but often, in the very next moment, they have been poles apart, as has been often witnessed on the world stage, especially at the UN.
In 1949, the US sent the President’s aircraft to transport the then-Indian Prime Minister, Nehru, from London and gave him a red-carpet welcome—a very high honour bestowed on a then-poor and nascent nation. Being two large democracies, there were many convergences that the US warmly welcomed.
But during the same visit, the Indian PM’s divergent views on communists taking over Vietnam and the recognition of the new Chinese nation raised eyebrows. The US described Nehru as a “difficult man to deal with.” Divergent world views have sown seeds of mistrust since then. At the commencement of the Cold War, India had been expected to side with the US. Still, India believed that dividing the entire world into two camps was inherently dangerous and a sure road to conflicts. It made clear to the world that its foreign policy is aimed at the pursuit of peace, but rather than aligning itself with any major power or groups of power, it was to be through an independent approach to each conflicting issue.
India’s foreign policy was deeply influenced by its colonial past. It strongly believed that if it joined any power block, it would again lose its hard-fought independence and would have to toe the line of the major powers in that group.
During the Cold War, the US had portrayed the attitude of “with us or against us”. It made India wary of the US and often reflected in India-US relations. Inviting Pakistan, India’s archenemy, to join SEATO and CENTO and arming Pakistan under the guise of stopping the spread of Communism cemented India’s distrust in the US.
Not wanting to play second fiddle to any major power, India and like-minded nations founded the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. India viewed a future for itself as an independent and powerful nation and as a champion of the many nations who, like India, were emerging from their colonial past. Possibly in this quest, the US emerged as a competitor vying to rope in the newly independent nations into its fold. This, even though there was no ideological divide between India and US. The inability to understand the need for India to remain independent in its thinking and policies by the US was incomprehensible to India, as was its support to Pakistan.
It’s been nearly 74 years since the Indian PM’s first visit to the US; since then, the world has seen monumental changes, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed, and globalisation saw the world prosper by leaps and bounds, yet this golden phase in modern human history seems to near its end as the world appears to be again splitting into two power blocks, one in which US is dominant and comprises mainly of NATO, QUAD, AUKUS and in the other block are predominantly Russia and China and their allies. Here again, India is watched closely by the US, mainly on the Ukraine war and the growing animosity between the US and China.
On the Ukraine issue, India has tweaked its policy of supporting Russia. Although it has condemned the invasion and often called for a cease-fire, it has also abstained from voting against Russia in the UN.
With China, there has been a significant shift in Indian policy. Stung by the defeat in its hand in 1962, the growing Chinese presence in South Asia as the dominant economic and development partner, its efforts to shore up Pakistan through China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in which it has also been given the rights to develop infrastructure in Pakistan Occupied-Kashmir (POK), and the recent standoffs in Doklam in 2017 and Ladakh in 2020, has made it clear to India that China views India as an unfriendly nation.
China’s frivolous attitude in not submitting maps, delineating its perception of the boundary with India to solve the boundary issue, which is the core issue of conflict, too, is viewed by India to keep the borders alive, with friction. China’s speedy development of infrastructure in Tibet and the Indian neighbourhood, especially in ports close to India, staging forward of cantonments and airfields, have all confirmed that China considers India, a potential enemy.
India has a booming $130 billion trade with China. Despite this, India is developing its infrastructure and modernising its Armed Forces to meet the joint China–Pakistan threat. It sanctioned/banned many Chinese companies, including TikTok, to counter China in 2020. Here India has found convergence with the US and has incorporated itself in the US scheme of things to stymie China. This is in divergence with India’s non-aligned policy, a departure emerging out of a necessity as we need partners to counter China.
The more US-China ties worsen, the warmer our ties become with the US. India’s participation in QUAD indicates that India, the US, Japan, and Australia are not ready to allow China to disturb the existing global order. The present US administration upgraded QUAD to a top leadership interaction in September 2021. Since then, the leaders of the four nations have met thrice, besides meetings between Foreign and Defence Ministers. A QUAD Foreign Minister’s meeting recently occurred in the background of the G20 Foreign Ministers summit in New Delhi.
Though downplayed as a military alliance, QUAD is dubbed the Asian NATO, and the navies and armies of QUAD have held joint exercises to develop synergy between their armed forces. US and Indian troops last year conducted military manoeuvres in a region which neighbours China. China lodged a strong protest against its conduct.
QUAD has emerged as a crucial block in ensuring global security and is an essential component of India-US relations. As a fallout, India is now considered a safe destination for the US and other foreign companies to relocate their business from China. Establishing iPhone factories in India and exporting Indian-made iPhones is an example of India emerging as the favoured destination for relocating manufacturing from China.
India today is confident that it can ally with the US without losing its ability to hold independent opinions and chart an independent path in its foreign policy. The US and the rest of the world have now developed a deep respect for India’s policy of ‘strategic autonomy’.
This is reflected in the Indian PM’s attendance at the QUAD summit in Tokyo in May 2022, followed by his attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet (SCO) in Samarkand in Uzbekistan in September 2022. Whereas QUAD is primarily an anti-China alliance, SCO, which includes China, Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan, and central Asian nations, could be viewed as an anti-US, anti-NATO, anti-QUAD and anti-AUKUS alliance.
But in this SCO meeting, India openly criticised the Russian invasion of Ukraine and sought to end hostilities. However, the UN has not buckled under US pressure to vote against Russia on the same issue. Nor has it stopped having strategic and trade ties with Russia, much to the US and NATO’s annoyance.
Of late, it appears that the world’s oldest democracy has begun to understand that the world’s largest democracy’s foreign policy of non-alignment and strategic autonomy will never make it a natural ally. It means that India will continue to have differences from the US.
These facts also exhibit that India will always consider US requests against the backdrop of its own national interest. It will join only if its national interests coincide with the US request/policy. Its unwillingness to break ties with its strategic and economic partner Russia and US acceptance of it is observed in the US permitting India to buy the S400 air defence missile system and Russian oil, despite US sanctions on Russia.
For India, Russia is also an influential mediator between it and China in case of war with China, and the US appears to understand this too.
Even with China, though both US and India are on the same page, this has not prevented India from trading extensively with it or joining the strategically important SCO. To fund its development, India has also taken loans from Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and New Development Bank, in which China is the majority shareholder. It also allows Chinese-owned companies such as MG Motors, Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo India to manufacture and sell in India. Xiaomi has a 30 per cent share of the Indian mobile market.
Respecting its strategic autonomy, the US views India as an important partner in its “Indo-Pacific” coalition – a key nation in its main geopolitical goal to curb China and does not want to alienate it.
India, too understands that in today’s multipolar world, the US is still a major force, a major source of high-end technology and military equipment, an important trading partner and a counter to growing Chinese influence.
US relations with India are a recognition of India’s growing stature in the world. It is also a testimony to the success of India’s policy of nonalignment and strategic autonomy.
Col RN Ghosh Dastidar (Retd)
Interesting, well analysed article, on India’s compulsions on maintaining Strategic balancr with US,Russia & China..
Keep it up Dusty.
Colonel Vinod Kumar Sharma
Nice article on a very important issue. It is really very difficult to tread a non aligned path in a present day world where our national needs and interests are controlled one way or other by the concerned powers. India needs to be militarily and economically strong to pursue this policy. Moreover, a stable government can really plan and execute this policy.
This Article by Col RN Ghosh Dastidar provides a very apt analysis of the complexities of India – US relationship. USA needs India as a counter to China and to contain latter’s increasing strategic influence in South Asia &Indo Pacific region. India too requires USA to counter China, with which it has unsettled borders and sporadic border clashes. This mutual need of India & USA to support each other explains US going lengths to accommodate India’s divergent views/ actions, be it over Ukraine or weapons and oil from Russia.
However, on India remaining Non -aligned going forward, one may have to reconsider. Non Alignment, to whatever extent in spirit it was true, may have served the purpose earlier but with a hostile, belligerent China, an aspiring a Second Super power, knocking on it’s doors; India will probably look for US support. We may still be able to pursue our Independent Foreign policy and not become US camp followers. But to follow a true stand alone Non aligned policy, may not suit our interests.
The author has covered these aspects very well, wherein he says that USA respects India’s strategic autonomy. At the same time, India too has shown clear intent in enhancing it’s economic, scientific and strategic relations with USA through various pacts, agreements and frequent engagements at the highest levels.
Candid. Thanks Kapil.
A very well written article. It covers almost all the aspects of Indo-US relations. India’s neutral stance towards joining either the US or Russia/China is the key to its foreign diplomacy. It is also imperative that India must leverage the platform of QUAD to downplay the Chinese assertion & growing influence in the Pacific. The way China is exerting pressure along our land borders by false claims & stand offs, similarly, international pressure must continue along China’s maritime border.
Col RS Sidhu
The term ‘non-aligned’, though coined in the early 1950s, had come to be discredited before the turn of the century, with the collapse of the erstwhile USSR. The geopolitical stage then was acknowledged to be bipolar, led by the then rival superpowers US and USSR. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), of which India was one of the pioneers, represented an irrelevant Third pole. China, after its breakup with USSR, had charted an independent geopolitical path for itself, despite lagging very far behind in all global development parameters. Its rapprochement with the USA in the early 1970s, slowly and steadily tilted the balance of power in favour of the US. A weak but adversarial China was enough to pose a two front threat to USSR.
Fifty years down the line, India today stands at similar geopolitical crossroads, but with a difference. China has emerged as the second pole on the global stage to challenge the geopolitical supremacy of US. Russia is now aligned with China as the junior partner. India is being actively wooed by the US to overcome the challenge being posed by China. But that is where the similarity ends.
India is no longer looking at revival of NAM, but is adopting a multi-lateral approach, as evidenced by its active participation in SCO, QUAD, and BRICS groupings. The collapse of USSR was more due to economic overreach, rather then induced by a strategic defeat. Currently, too, the battle for geopolitical supremacy is being fought by weaponising economic factors. Like China, in the 1990s, was in the process of restructuring its economy, so adopted a pragmatic hands-off approach, India too is currently involved in restructuring its economy, hence, can ill-afford to dissipate its meagre economic resources in geopolitical squabbles. An economically weak but adversarial India occupies the envious position of being the deciding factor in the ongoing geopolitical power play.
RS, you describe what I state as NAM, as a multi lateral approach in our foreign policy, based more on needs driven by economics , with an aim to accelerate development.
There’s a lot of merit in your assessment and possibly a more logical way to make sense of our foreign dealings.
Your assessment of our Foreign policy, more driven by economic needs to accelerate our development and as also strategic needs is a more logical explanation, terming it as a multilateral approach.
But yet , in yesteryears NAM did stand up to mainly US and Western domination without appearing to be aligned or supportive of USSR.
Even now in UN , with nearly 40 nations abstaining to vote against Russia is an indication that countries can exist and develop without joining a power block.
NAM may not revive but the thought, the idea will stay alive.
Thanks RS, always a treat to read your writings.
Colonel K Ramachandran
The signals emanating from the foreign office in the recent past are often confused ones. The foreign policies of Nehruvian era was clear cut and kept both US and USSR blocks at equidistance. The NAM stalwarts in those days were Nehru, D’gaul Nasser and the like. They refused to join any of the two blocks and was relevant in the geo political stage of sixties. However, with the breakup of USSR, US became the only superpower. India started swinging closer towards US. Of late , during the Trump era, India started leaning still more towards the US. ( Remember How d Modi and ab ki bar Modi Sarkaar slogans by Trump) In the meantime, China’s geopolitical standings became stronger. Therefore, both India and US wanted to tackle the growth of China and coined various alliances like QUAD, BRICS, SCO etc. But during the recent Ukraine issue India refused to side with US and defied US sanctions on Russia purely due to economic reasons. India eyed the petroleum import at cheap rates from Russia and continued to do so even now. But to neutralise China’s proximity to Russia, Indian foreign minister sounded timid in saying that we cannot confront China in retaking our recently lost territories and China’s development of border villages near Arunachal and Bhutan. At the same time, India sounds quite determined to send out stern warnings to our estranged neighbour, Pakistan. It all, throw up a kind of confusion in the mind of Indian foreign office as to how to deal with different situations and different countries in the current geopolitical scene. India must take a firm stand on these issues rather than sending out confused signals.
Thanks for your well studied and researched
article.You rightfully focused on present issues, engaging the historical facts also.
Definitely trade is one important angle to
build a sustaining relationship among nations but this is also true every nation believes in ‘who will Bell the cat’.
India is strong in democracy ,huge population and economic growth but perplexed in creating a balance between super powers and fox powers.
India must secure it’s different ends then
adopt philanthropic view for various groups.
Finally I appreciate your efforts. In