For the past two decades, Washington has made an enormous bet in the Indo-Pacific—that treating India as a key partner will help the United States in its geopolitical rivalry with China. From George W. Bush onward, successive U.S. presidents have bolstered India’s capabilities on the assumption that doing so automatically strengthens the forces that favor freedom in Asia.
The administration of President Joe Biden has enthusiastically embraced this playbook. In fact, it has taken it one step further: the administration has launched an ambitious new initiative to expand India’s access to cutting-edge technologies, further deepened defense cooperation, and made the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), which includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, a pillar of its regional strategy. It has also overlooked India’s democratic erosion and its unhelpful foreign policy choices, such as its refusal to condemn Moscow’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine. It has done all of this on the presumption that New Delhi will respond favorably when Washington calls in a favor during a regional crisis involving China.
Washington’s current expectations of India are misplaced. India’s significant weaknesses compared with China, and its inescapable proximity to it, guarantee that New Delhi will never involve itself in any U.S. confrontation with Beijing that does not directly threaten its own security. India values cooperation with Washington for the tangible benefits it brings but does not believe that it must, in turn, materially support the United States in any crisis—even one involving a common threat such as China.
The fundamental problem is that the United States and India have divergent ambitions for their security partnership. As it has done with allies across the globe, Washington has sought to strengthen India’s standing within the liberal international order and, when necessary, solicit its contributions toward coalition defense. Yet New Delhi sees things differently. It does not harbor any innate allegiance toward preserving the liberal international order and retains an enduring aversion toward participating in mutual defense. It seeks to acquire advanced technologies from the United States to bolster its own economic and military capabilities and thus facilitate its rise as a great power capable of balancing China independently, but it does not presume that American assistance imposes any further obligations on itself.
As the Biden administration proceeds to expand its investment in India, it should base its policies on a realistic assessment of Indian strategy and not on any delusions of New Delhi becoming a comrade-in-arms during some future crisis with Beijing.
For most of the Cold War, India and the United States did not engage in any serious conversations on national defense, as New Delhi attempted to escape the entanglements of joining either the U.S. or the Soviet bloc. The two countries’ security relationship only flourished after Bush offered India a transformative civil nuclear agreement.
Thanks to that breakthrough, U.S.-Indian security cooperation today is breathtaking in its intensity and scope. The first and most visible aspect is defense consultations. The two countries’ civilian leaders, as well as their bureaucracies, maintain a regular dialogue on a variety of topics, including China policy, India’s procurement of advanced U.S. military technologies, maritime surveillance, and undersea warfare. These conversations vary in quality and depth but are critical for reviewing strategic assessments, defining the parameters of desired cooperation, and devising tools for policy implementation. As a result, the United States and India work together in ways that would have been unimaginable during the Cold War. For example, they cooperate to monitor China’s economic and military activities throughout the wider Indian Ocean region and have recently invested in mechanisms to share near-real-time information about shipping movements in the Indo-Pacific region with other littoral states.
A second area of success has been military-to-military collaboration, much of which takes place outside public view. The programs for senior officer visits, bilateral or multilateral military exercises, and reciprocal military training have all expanded dramatically during the past two decades. High-profile exercises most visibly exemplify the scale and diversity of this expanded relationship: the annual Malabar exercises, which bring together the U.S. and Indian navies, have now expanded to permanently include Japan and Australia; the Cope India exercises provide an opportunity for the U.S. and Indian air forces to practice advanced air operations; and the Yudh Abhyas series involves the land forces in both command post and field training activities.
Finally, U.S. firms have enjoyed notable success in penetrating the Indian defense market. India’s military has gone from having virtually no U.S. weapons in its inventory some two decades ago to now featuring American transport and maritime aircraft, utility and combat helicopters, and antiship missiles and artillery guns. U.S.-Indian defense trade, which was negligible around the turn of the century, reached over $20 billion in 2020.
But the era of major platform acquisitions from the United States has probably run its course. U.S. companies remain contenders in several outstanding Indian procurement programs, but it seems unlikely that they will ever enjoy a dominant market share in India’s defense imports. The problems are entirely structural. For all of India’s intensifying security threats, its defense procurement budget is still modest in comparison with the overall Western market. The demands of economic development have prevented India’s elected governments from increasing defense expenditures in ways that might permit vastly expanded military acquisitions from the United States. The cost of U.S. defense systems is generally higher than that of other suppliers because of their advanced technology, an advantage that is not always sufficiently attractive for India. Finally, New Delhi’s demand that U.S. companies shift from selling equipment to producing it with local partners in India—requiring the transfer of intellectual property—often proves to be commercially unattractive, given the small Indian defense market.
INDIA GOES IT ALONE
While U.S.-Indian security cooperation has enjoyed marked success, the larger defense partnership still faces important challenges. Both nations seek to leverage their deepening ties to limit China’s assertiveness, but there is still a significant divide in how they aim to accomplish that purpose.
The U.S. goal in military-to-military cooperation is interoperability: the Pentagon wants to be able to integrate a foreign military in combined operations as part of coalition warfare. India, however, rejects the idea that its armed forces will participate in any combined military operation outside of a UN umbrella. Consequently, it has resisted investing in meaningful operational integration, especially with the U.S. armed forces, because it fears jeopardizing its political autonomy or signaling a shift toward a tight political alignment with Washington. As a result, the bilateral military exercises may improve the tactical proficiency of the units involved but do not expand interoperability to the level that would be required in major combined operations against a capable adversary.
India’s view of military cooperation, which emphasizes nurturing diversified international ties, represents a further challenge. India treats military exercises more as political symbols than investments in increasing operational proficiency and, as a result, practices with numerous partners at varying levels of sophistication. On the other hand, the United States emphasizes relatively intense military exercises with a smaller set of counterparts.
New Delhi has now prioritized Washington’s support for its defense industrial ambitions
India’s priority has been to receive American assistance in building up its own national capabilities so it can deal with threats independently. The two sides have come a long way on this by, for example, bolstering India’s intelligence capabilities about Chinese military activities along the Himalayan border and in the Indian Ocean region. The existing arrangements for intelligence sharing are formally structured for reciprocity, and New Delhi does share whatever it believes to be useful. But because U.S. collection capabilities are so superior, the flow of usable information often ends up being one way.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has increasingly focused on defense industrial cooperation as the key driver of its security partnership with the United States. Its underlying objective is to secure technological autonomy: ever since its founding as a modern state, India has sought to achieve mastery over all critical defense, dual-use, and civilian technologies and, toward that end, built up large public sector enterprises that were intended to become global leaders. Because this dream still remains unrealized, New Delhi has now prioritized Washington’s support for its defense industrial ambitions in tandem with similar partnerships forged with France, Israel, Russia, and other friendly states.
For over a decade, Washington has attempted to help India improve its defense technology base, but these efforts have often proved futile. During President Barack Obama’s administration, the two countries launched the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative, which aimed to promote technology exchange and the coproduction of defense systems. Indian officials visualized the initiative as enabling them to procure many advanced U.S. military technologies, such as those related to jet engines, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, and stealth capabilities, so that they could be manufactured or codeveloped in India. But Washington’s hesitation about clearing such transfers was matched by U.S. defense firms’ reluctance to part with their intellectual property and make commercial investments for what were ultimately meager business opportunities.
WASHINGTON’S BIG BET
The Biden administration is now going to great lengths to reverse the failure of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative. Last year, it announced the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, which aims to fundamentally transform cooperation between the two countries’ governments, businesses, and research entities pertaining to technology development. This endeavor encompasses a wide variety of fields, including semiconductors, space, artificial intelligence, next-generation telecommunications, high-performance computing, and quantum technologies, all of which have defense applications but are not restricted to them.
For all its potential, however, the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology does not guarantee any specific outcomes. The U.S. government can make or break the initiative, as it controls the release of the licenses that many joint ventures will require. Although the Biden administration seems inclined to be more liberal on this compared with its predecessors, only time will tell whether the initiative delivers on India’s aspirations for greater access to advanced U.S. technology in support of Modi’s “Make in India, Make for World” drive, which aims to transform India into a major global manufacturing hub that could one day compete with, if not supplant, China as the workshop of the world.
The bigger question, however, is whether Washington’s generosity toward India will help accomplish its strategic aims. During the Bush and Obama administrations, U.S. ambitions centered largely on helping build India’s power in order to prevent China from dominating Asia. As U.S.-China relations steadily deteriorated during the Trump administration—when Sino-Indian relations hit rock bottom as well—Washington began to entertain the more expansive notion that its support for New Delhi would gradually induce India to play a greater military role in containing China’s growing power.
There are reasons to believe it will not. India has displayed a willingness to join the United States and its Quad partners in some areas of low politics, such as vaccine distribution, infrastructure investments, and supply chain diversification, even as it insists that none of these initiatives are directed against China. But on the most burdensome challenge facing Washington in the Indo-Pacific—securing meaningful military contributions to defeat any potential Chinese aggression—India will likely refuse to play a role in situations where its own security is not directly threatened. In such circumstances, New Delhi may at best offer tacit support.
New Delhi’s relative weakness compels it to avoid provoking Beijing.
Although China is clearly India’s most intimidating adversary, New Delhi still seeks to avoid doing anything that results in an irrevocable rupture with Beijing. Indian policymakers are acutely conscious of the stark disparity in Chinese and Indian national power, which will not be corrected any time soon. New Delhi’s relative weakness compels it to avoid provoking Beijing, as joining a U.S.-led military campaign against it certainly would. India also cannot escape its physical proximity to China. The two countries share a long border, so Beijing can threaten Indian security in significant ways—a capability that has only increased in recent years.
Consequently, India’s security partnership with the United States will remain fundamentally asymmetrical for a long time to come. New Delhi desires American support in its own confrontation with China while at the same time intending to shy away from any U.S.-China confrontation that does not directly affect its own equities. Should a major conflict between Washington and Beijing erupt in East Asia or the South China Sea, India would certainly want the United States to prevail. But it is unlikely to embroil itself in the fight.
New Delhi’s deepening defense ties with Washington, therefore, must not be interpreted as driven by either strong support for the liberal international order or the desire to participate in collective defense against Chinese aggression. Rather, the intensifying security relationship is conceived by Indian policymakers as a means of bolstering India’s own national defense capabilities but does not include any obligation to support the United States in other global crises. Even as this partnership has grown by leaps and bounds, there remains an unbridgeable gap between the two countries, given India’s consistent desire to avoid becoming the junior partner—or even a confederate—of any great power.
The United States should certainly help India to the degree compatible with American interests. But it should harbor no illusions that its support, no matter how generous, will entice India to join it in any military coalition against China. The relationship with India is fundamentally unlike those that the United States enjoys with its allies. The Biden administration should recognize this reality rather than try to alter it.