The postponement of the “2+2” dialogue that would have brought together the Foreign and Defense Ministers of India and the United States has led to varying assessments and analyses. Commentaries such as the “the deepening disconnect,” the “2+2 delay does not mean India-US ties are in trouble,” “All is not well between Washington and New Delhi,” “The bilateral limits of hype: on India-U.S. relations,” “Time to analyse if US can continue to unilaterally dictate ties with India” show that the India-U.S. relationship has reached an inflection point, requiring a deeper diagnosis of the grand narratives guiding this partnership.
The India-U.S. relationship is an intriguing one in the sense that the two countries have never been adversaries, nor have they been brothers in arms. The relationship has seen its ebbs and flows, from strategic divergence during the Cold War to a new-found strategic convergence in what is now being heralded as the time of the Indo-Pacific.
In the 21st century, many epithets attributed to India’s place in U.S. grand strategy and global geopolitics have emerged from Washington. India was called a rising democratic power in a dynamic Asia. India was seen as “not simply emerging” but as having “already emerged” in Asia and around the world. Defense cooperation with India was viewed as “a linchpin” in the U.S. rebalancing strategy towards Asia-Pacific. India has been designated a “Major Defense Partner” of the United States and the latest U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) has welcomed “India’s emergence as a leading global power.” Add to this U.S. President Barack Obama hailing the India-U.S. relationship as having the potential to be “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”
Such high voltage rhetoric is often deemed necessary to lend the requisite political heft to the relationship. However, the reality of this bilateral relationship pans out amid both the drive and inertia inherent in any relationship between two large democratic countries, where the varying interests of multiple agencies negotiate their means and ends in the name of pursuing each side’s national interests. Despite the undoubted rise in India’s material capabilities and hence, its intention to be a power of regional and global reckoning, the relationship between India and the United States is still determined to a large extent by the power asymmetry between India and the United States.
So, what are the travails of dealing with a more powerful United States for India? The more Washington makes Delhi realize this asymmetry in their transactions, the more Delhi will face pressure at home to stand up to perceived American arm twisting. During her visit to India last month, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley urged India to reconsider its ties with Iran, as new sanctions on Iran are scheduled to start severely hitting customers of Iranian oil after November 4. U.S.-Iran dynamics have nosedived since the Trump administration scrapped the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also called the Iran nuclear deal. Earlier in May after meeting her Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj made it clear that India will abide only by U.N.-imposed sanctions and not those imposed by individual countries.
India’s decision to buy the Russian made S-400 Triumpf missile defense system despite threats of American sanctions through the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is yet another case where Washington’s priorities clash, even if unintentionally, with India’s interests. While this tangle might not put any substantial and long term dents into India-U.S. defense ties, it certainly highlights an operational snag that needs to be ironed out through strategic understanding before recurring problems snowball into an avoidable chasm.
How the United States perceives threats from countries like Iran and Russia might not align with India’s own perceptions, creating tensions in the relationship over which New Delhi has limited control. There will be limits to what extent the United States and India can influence each other’s threat perceptions. This is also the case when it comes to the Pakistan factor in India-U.S. relations. Despite Washington’s claims to having de-hyphenated its relations with India and Pakistan, the United States has not been able to extricate itself from the liabilities of its complex alliance with Pakistan. More than 17 years of American presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s centrality to efforts to bring any kind of resolution to this theater of war will constrain areas of convergence between the United States and India when it comes to dealing with terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
Balancing China’s rise in the international system, and more particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, is a clear strategic convergence between India and the United States. However, India’s geographic proximity to China, and India’s weaker capabilities as compared to both China and the United States, limits India’s traction in this case. While an elementary practice of geopolitics would see India engage with distant powers like the U.S. to balance against a proximate power like China, relations with the latter should not be determined by the former.
This is reflected in India’s dilemma when it comes to managing the India-U.S.-China triangular dynamics. Any signs of U.S-China power condominium might make India uneasy, and at the same time, India might be uncomfortable being sucked into any U.S.-China confrontation. While two rounds of consultation meetings have happened among India, the United States, Japan and Australia, to firm up the Quadrilateral idea, India and China have been planning a maritime dialogue.
Indeed, geopolitics and multipolarity can get really messy. In whose basket is New Delhi putting its eggs, or rather how is New Delhi dividing its eggs between whose baskets?
Urging democratic India to become a counterweight to communist China is an old Cold War story that dissipated in the shifting geopolitics of the U.S. rapprochement with China. The rise of China in the 21st century, however, has brought this old game of shared democratic values versus the threat of a non-democratic hegemony back from cold storage. If there is one lesson learned from Indo-U.S. relations during the Cold War, it is that the lure of shared democratic values did not go too far in terms of bringing the two countries together. Shared values can only be force multiplier to shared interests. Are India and the United States securely aligned or are the mutual expectations overhyped to the detriment of each other’s interests?
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking to the U.S. Congress in 2016 commented that the two countries had “overcome the hesitations of history.” Is this really so? Doesn’t history still echo in the corridors of Washington and Delhi; the United States is an unreliable power, and India is a reluctant partner? Is it different this time?
Any assessment that U.S. primacy in the international system and India’s rise are mutually reinforcing needs a rethink for the sake of India’s interests. The practice of India’s strategic autonomy has always been about creating traction for the pursuit of India’s national interests, and India’s ability to do so will be tested in how it manages its great power relationship with the United States . So, are we witnessing the birth pangs of a more robust partnership between India and the United States? Or, is India learning on the job that the only prudent way to deal with great powers is to increase its own capabilities by any means possible? Only time will tell.
Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India.