What Limits Any U.S. Alliance With India Over China
Though sharing concerns about Beijing’s growing aggression, New Delhi has always been wary of aligning too closely with Washington.By Michael Schuman
MARCH 1, 2023, 9:07 AM ETSHARE
The front lines of the widening confrontation between the United States and China stretch from the halls of the United Nations to the island nations of the South Pacific. Yet, as in any great geopolitical game, certain countries carry more significance than others for American interests—foremost among them India.
As Asia’s other emerging power, India could act as a crucial counterweight to Chinese influence, both in the region and outside it. That’s why Washington has been courting New Delhi with gusto. President Joe Biden has grand plans to cement the U.S. position in the Indo-Pacific, which encompasses South Asia, East Asia, and the western Pacific, through a range of diplomatic, economic, and security initiatives. India could play a determining part in their success or failure.
Whether India can be counted on to support the U.S. is an open question. Historically, relations between the two countries have been marred by deep distrust and sharp differences.
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That legacy weighs on the relationship to this day, but more important is the mercurial nature of Indian foreign policy, which has been a hallmark of the nation’s sense of its place in the world since its formation in 1947. One moment, India’s leaders appear aligned with Washington; the next, they march off in their own direction, sometimes to parley with America’s enemies.
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Motivated by a mix of ideological conviction and cold calculation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained his country’s fiercely independent approach to international affairs. That makes India the world’s ultimate swing state, the Pennsylvania or Georgia of the global geopolitical map. Which way India leans, when and why, could help decide whether the U.S. or China dominates Asia, and who prevails in great-power competitions around the world. And much like the most purple of American states, the twists of New Delhi’s choices could be a source of high-anxiety uncertainty.
Relations between the U.S. and India have veered between amity and hostility from the beginning. In October 1949, President Harry Truman dispatched his personal plane, the Independence, to transport Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was then in London, and welcomed him when he landed in Washington. The red-carpet treatment was a sign of how badly the Truman administration wished to woo the Indian leader on his first official visit to the U.S. As a committed democrat and a heroic figure in the developing world, Nehru was a valuable guest—exactly the friend Washington needed in its expanding contest with the Soviet Union.
Nehru seemed to reciprocate. In an address to Congress, he noted that, with their common political values, “friendship and cooperation between our two countries are … natural.” Yet differences quickly got in the way. When Secretary of State Dean Acheson hosted Nehru at his home, he invited him, in the words of the readout, “to feel the greatest freedom to tell me about any situation in which he felt that action of the Department had been mistaken or unhelpful.” Nehru proceeded to lecture him until one in the morning. When Acheson expressed concern about a Communist takeover in Vietnam, Nehru said, as the secretary recorded, that the American position “was a misapplication to the East or European experience.” The two also disagreed on recognizing the new Communist regime in China, founded a few days earlier. Later, Acheson described Nehru as “one of the most difficult men with whom I have ever had to deal.”
What set the two at odds was a fundamental divergence in worldview. With the onset of the Cold War, the Americans expected Nehru to take their side. Nehru believed that dividing the world into contending blocs was inherently dangerous. In a speech given at Columbia during the same visit, he described one of India’s main foreign-policy objectives as “the pursuit of peace, not through alignment with any major power or group of powers, but through an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue.” He continued, “The very process of a marshaling of the world into two hostile camps precipitates the conflict which it [has] sought to avoid.”
Nehru’s thinking, explained Shashi Tharoor, a member of India’s Parliament and a former minister of state for external affairs, was rooted in India’s colonial experience under the British Raj. “We had 200 years of another country deciding to speak for us on the world stage,” he told me. “The one reason Nehru was completely unwilling to join in an alliance during the Cold War was precisely because he didn’t want to mortgage India’s independence of action and opinion to any other country.”
The U.S.-India divide deepened as the Cold War progressed. Washington’s “with us or against us” attitude made India appear decidedly unreliable, and contributed to American policy makers choosing India’s mortal enemy, Pakistan, as an anti-Soviet partner.
Nehru had no wish to play second fiddle to Washington, either. His dearly held principles made him one of the most prominent figures of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was founded in 1961. He had a vision of India’s future as an influential power in its own right, and as a champion of the many new countries also emerging from colonial empires. In that respect, the U.S. was as much a potential competitor as a partner.
“There was no ideological divide between India and the United States,” Francine Frankel, an expert on Indian politics at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in her recent book, When Nehru Looked East. “The problem was that Nehru’s conviction in India’s destiny as a great power found no place in the worldview of American policymakers.”
More than 70 years later, Nehru’s ghost haunts U.S.-India relations. The world is again splitting into two opposed camps, today centered on the U.S. and China. Once again, New Delhi is being pressured to take a side. And again, the Indians are reluctant to choose—maddening U.S. policy makers as they did during the Cold War.
This time, though, New Delhi’s calculus is somewhat different. Nehru’s position was complicated by his admiration for the Soviet Union, especially its state-led economic model, elements of which he introduced at home. Modi treats China as a threat to India’s national security. That dovetails with the Biden administration’s aim of engaging more with India as part of its wider strategy of contending with China.
“The U.S. is shoring up partnerships to counterbalance China,” Tharoor told me. “India is very leery of officially participating in such an enterprise, but in practice has every reason to do so given that China has turned increasingly belligerent … We, too, need to really have partners with an eye on China.”
At the center of India’s security concerns are long-standing territorial disputes with China along their remote Himalayan border. These contending claims sparked a war between the two countries in 1962, and mean the areas remain volatile today. Tensions have risen over the past five years or so because Beijing has pursued its claims with greater assertiveness—as it has in other territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea.
Two incidents stand out. In 2017, a standoff between the two countries’ armed forces occurred in the Himalayas after China was discovered extending a road in the Doklam area claimed by Beijing and the small kingdom of Bhutan, which is an ally of India’s. Then, in 2020, in the northern region of Ladakh, an Indian territory neighboring Kashmir, Chinese forces pushed into a disputed area, apparently in response to Indian road-building. That precipitated a medieval-style melee in the Galwan Valley during which soldiers bludgeoned one another with fists and clubs, reportedly leaving 20 Indian and four Chinese service personnel dead.
“Unless or until the border standoff is resolved in India’s favor, India-China relations cannot get back to normal,” Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, told me.
Adding to India’s worries are China’s close ties to Pakistan. India’s nemesis next door is among the largest participants in Beijing’s international infrastructure-building bonanza, the Belt and Road Initiative. One of its premier projects, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, controversially passes through a section of Kashmir controlled by Islamabad.
As a consequence, Beijing’s relations with New Delhi have deteriorated—arguably, as badly as its relations with Washington have. The U.S. government has talked about banning the Chinese social-media platform TikTok; the Indians actually did it, in 2020. Fearing that the Belt and Road Initiative is a tool for expanding Chinese influence, India has also rebuffed Beijing’s efforts to lure it into the program.
The more threatening Beijing has become, the warmer India and the U.S. have grown toward each other. The most obvious indication of this is India’s participation in the Quad, a security partnership that also includes the U.S. and the staunch American allies Australia and Japan. Initially, Indian leaders were skeptical about the Quad, fearing it might be seen as an emerging Asian NATO. Now Modi is all in. Biden elevated the Quad conferences to the top leadership level, which means that Modi routinely associates with counterparts who form the core of the U.S. alliance system in the region.
“The levels and habits of cooperation that have developed” in the Quad are “remarkable,” Kurt Campbell, Biden’s top Asian-foreign-policy aide, told me. “I think it will become a central feature of global stability and a critical element of the American strategy in the Indo-Pacific.”
The cooperation has run deeper still. Last year, the U.S. and India conducted joint military exercises not far from the disputed border with China, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. India also joined Biden’s 14-member Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in May, and with U.S. officials and business executives seeking to reduce American reliance on China for the supply of key manufactured goods, the populous South Asian nation could be a crucial alternative. A significant increase in iPhone shipments from India-based factories may indicate that the mutually beneficial shift is under way.
Indian policy makers “have proven much more willing to embrace stronger forms of alignment with the U.S. without the fear that India would become some kind of American lapdog,” Jeff M. Smith, the director of the Asian-studies program at the Heritage Foundation, told me. Because of their recent experiences with Washington, these officials “began to realize that some of the fears of the worst critics were proven untrue and maybe this partnership with the U.S. was helping to advance India’s national interests, and maybe the U.S. wasn’t this domineering superpower that would force you to cede your sovereignty in order to cooperate.
“In fact,” he went on, “India has been able to preserve its strategic autonomy even as it has grown ever closer to the U.S.”
That last point will remain a challenge for Washington, however. The Indian leadership is as independent-minded and allergic to formal alliances as ever. Modi, like Nehru, won’t take a side.
New Delhi will therefore continue to forge relationships, join forums, and make choices that are unpalatable to U.S. policy makers. That becomes clear with a quick glance at the itinerary of Modi’s recent travels. In May, Modi stood with Biden at a Quad summit in Tokyo; four months later, he was in Samarkand, in Uzbekistan, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a grouping of Central Asian states that is widely perceived as anti-Western.
“If we think because they are the world’s largest democracy and we are the world’s oldest democracy that we should get along perfectly—not going to happen. We have to be realistic,” Rand’s Grossman said. “They are never going to become an ally with us, because they hold nonalignment and strategic autonomy as core principles of their foreign and security policies.”
That means India and the U.S. will continue to have their differences. Mere months after India joined Biden’s economic framework, New Delhi withdrew from participation in the partnership’s trade component.
Most glaringly, Modi has broken with the U.S. position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although Modi did criticize Putin over the war during the September meeting in Samarkand, he has ignored pressure from Washington to take a harder line. Modi also joined Xi in abstaining from United Nations votes on resolutions condemning Moscow.
In this stance, New Delhi exhibits how it will prioritize India’s national interests regardless of whether they coincide with American wishes. Modi is unwilling to alienate Russia, which remains an important military and economic partner for India, and a supplier of copious quantities of oil—at a good discount.
Even on China, which each sees as a threat, New Delhi and Washington aren’t entirely on the same page. Although both are apprehensive about China’s closer ties with Russia, for instance, they diverge in approaches to that challenge. Policy makers in New Delhi probably regard maintaining links to Moscow as a way to influence Russia’s relationship with China and forestall any coordinated action the two might take against India.
In Acheson’s day, such transgressions might have soured the entire U.S.-India relationship. But the Biden team is being more pragmatic. Agreeing to disagree with Modi, it has pursued closer cooperation with India anyway. In the Biden administration’s view, it can’t afford to undermine the coalition it’s building in the Indo-Pacific “in order to get a symbolic victory on the Ukraine issue,” Smith, of the Heritage Foundation, told me.
This flexibility has not gone unnoticed in New Delhi. “America seems to have the patience to let the Indians find their comfort levels,” Tharoor told me, “which have certainly been progressing in the direction the U.S. would like.”
Still, Washington’s willingness to separate issues has a downside. Biden has generally chosen to overlook Modi’s illiberal domestic actions in order to pursue the overarching geopolitical goal of confronting China. This is an uncomfortable concession for a “values based” president who is engaged in what he paints as a struggle between autocracy and democracy.
India thus highlights the challenge the U.S. faces in confronting China in an integrated world, because New Delhi’s approach to international relations may be typical of the dominant direction of 21st-century global diplomacy. The “us versus them” nature of the Cold War does not apply to a complex and multipolar global order. In effect, Nehru’s belief in nonalignment is ascendant in world affairs.
For Washington, that may be a more difficult world, demanding a degree of adaptability that U.S. policy has often lacked. Washington will have to learn how to achieve its foreign-policy goals without the formal alliances that once served as the bedrock of the U.S.-led order. And in the coming confrontation with China, Washington needs all the friends it can find, however it may get them.
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