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The US Does Not Lack Leverage Over India

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The US Does Not Lack Leverage Over India

Washington should not avoid honest discussions with India on differences for fear of souring ties.

The US Does Not Lack Leverage Over India

U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer in talks with India’s Minister for External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar at New Delhi, India, December 4, 2023.

Credit: X/Dr. S. Jaishankar

In 2023, two countries separately accused an agent of the Indian government of plotting the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader on their territory. The two countries received wildly contrasting responses from India.

In September, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that his government was pursuing “credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen [Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar].” India responded in angry denial, expelling several Canadian diplomats from New Delhi and suspending visa services for Canadian citizens. India’s foreign ministry also called Canada a “safe haven for terrorists.”

Months later, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that an Indian government employee had “directed a plot to assassinate on U.S. soil an attorney and political activist,” identified by the media as Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

But this time around, there were no indignant denouncements from New Delhi or a declaration that America was harboring terrorists. Instead, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “If a citizen of ours has done anything good or bad, we are ready to look into it.”

The contrast did not escape Trudeau’s notice. This week, Trudeau said that India’s tone had changed after the U.S. revelations. “I think there is a beginning of an understanding that they can’t bluster their way through this,” he said.

But this contrast, innocuous as it may seem, has one inescapable conclusion. For all the talk in New Delhi of blazing a path of defiance against the West, India has far more to lose than Washington if ties turn sour.

That conclusion flies in the face of the established narrative in Washington. Through much of this past year, as U.S. President Joe Biden courted Modi at the White House, the G-20, and at democracy summits, there was one constant refrain in Washington: that India has arrived on the world stage and is now too important an ally for honest talk on differences.

In May, Stanford University’s Arzan Tarapore argued that India is America’s “best bet in the Indo-Pacific.” In June, as Modi headed to the White House for a state dinner, experts at the U.S. Institute of Peace wrote, “While Washington and New Delhi have their disagreements on issues like Russia’s war on Ukraine and human rights, they see the relationship as too strategically vital to be jeopardized by these differences.” This week, The Diplomat’s Akhilesh Pillalamarri argued that India is too important to be “ignored, sidelined, or meaningfully punished, even when its officials are accused of an attempted assassination on American soil.”

Washington’s view on India often has the effect of ceding excessive leverage to New Delhi. The implicit argument is that, given how important India is to the U.S. cause of counterbalancing China, Biden should eschew talking to New Delhi about democratic backsliding, human rights concerns, or violations of the rule of law.

That is a conclusion that many in New Delhi have drawn as well. After Biden declined an invitation to visit India this coming January, Yale University’s Sushant Singh wrote, “India has likely observed that even if the U.S. and Canadian accusations prove to be true, they wouldn’t amount to serious consequences.”

Yet, underneath this bluster, India’s response to the U.S. indictment betrays a more realistic assessment: that given their hugely different levels of development and threat assessments of China, the India-U.S. power balance is still heavily tilted in Washington’s favor.

This is true even in defense cooperation — an issue where India is perceived to enjoy significant leverage because of U.S. export interests.

In recent years, as the world’s largest arms importer, India has used its market power to good effect in bargaining with defense partners. Yet, given crippling shortcomings in its defense capabilities, India has few alternatives to cooperation with the U.S. — especially in areas such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, where U.S. capabilities are comparatively advanced.

The threat of China makes defense ties with the U.S. far more critical to India’s basic security needs than those ties are to the United States. Unlike the U.S., by virtue of sharing a border with China, New Delhi perceives the China threat as a far more immediate concern than China can ever be to Washington — a problem that was highlighted by India’s inability to reverse losses to China after the 2020 Galwan clashes.

Yet, as much as China is a physical threat, Modi is unlikely to want to counterbalance its influence in multilateralism and global geopolitics — a key interest that drives much of the U.S. courtship of Modi.

This is where the uncomfortable and much-reviled question of democratic values, rule of law, and political stability become important.

Two decades ago, long before India’s border tensions with China flared up, Washington had begun investing in India’s rise in the hope that New Delhi would be a U.S. ally in thwarting a Chinese world order. There was good cause for that hope. In my 2021 book, “Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership,” I had explained why a secular, liberal democratic India would want to champion many of the same rules and laws in global governance as the United States. Similar domestic polities, societies, and economies need similar global frameworks.

But as India redefines its convictions in parliamentary democracy, secularism, and the rule of law, New Delhi’s needs and interests are drifting away from those of the U.S. and closer to what would constitute a Chinese world order. That shift has already manifested in the way that India votes and speaks on global issues such as cybersecurity, data privacy, religious freedom, and media censorship. This is not to discount the fact that India can only compete meaningfully with China if it retains the civic code and inclusive democratic order that has underpinned its political stability and economic growth thus far.

In its dealings and discussions with the Modi government, the U.S. should not avoid these issues for fear of souring ties, falsely believing that it lacks leverage to talk about them. Instead, India and the U.S. should confront these issues more honestly.