Countering China: Can US Take India for Granted?

By Imtiaz Gul
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the joint session of the US Congress during his high-profile Washington Yatra. (Photo via video stream screen grab)

As we in Pakistan agonize over three simultaneous crises — political, constitutional and economic — neighboring India forges ahead to establish new partnerships and reinforce existing ones in a world driven by bloc politics and geo-economic interests.

The trajectory of Indo-US relations since 2006 in particular is the envy of many countries. It remains a subject of debate across the world. Besides the strategic convergence, their cooperation in trade, science, technology, defense and AI is growing by leaps and bounds. But this is not a completely congruent partnership, driven only by the US desire to build up Indian power as a way of creating a geopolitical equilibrium in Asia (vis a vis China). Multiple factors — largely a nationalistic ethos and cognizance of its own weight and size — prevent India from acting as a US ‘yes man’ in Asia. It will never sacrifice its independence despite a strong desire to grow with the support of Washington via various partnerships.

In a May 16 podcast with the Council on Foreign Relations, Ashley J Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made some compelling points while spelling out several striking features of the growing Indo-US relationship — a combination of mutual interests, opportunities as well as limitations. India’s own unique interests would always prevent it from blindly following the US.

Some of the salient points of the podcast are as follows:

  •  India has the ambition to become a great power and it wants US assistance in getting there but does not want to become a confederate of the US and hence does not want to sacrifice its own independence. It does not and may not necessarily follow the US in every detail. (No surprise India shocked many in Washington when it took an independent position in relations with Russia after the latter’s invasion on Ukraine.)
  •  India sees itself as a proud independent country that doesn’t want to tether its future to another country, and hence its relations with the US are essentially “very narrow and transactional in nature”.
  •  The competition with China Intensifies the US desire to build up Indian power as a way of creating a geopolitical equilibrium in Asia (vis a vis China), but without asking for anything much of India in order to build a counterweight to China. This American desire is restricted by the burden of geography i.e. India simply cannot escape its geography being the next-door neighbor to China. It shares a contested border with China and may gradually evolve its own relations with Beijing.
  •  Different layers of the government and the bureaucracy in the US have to navigate this situation to make policy choices on a) expanding the bilateral relationship as a strategic partnership, b) building Indian power as a counterweight to China. So while the Indians have a vested interest in working with the US to limit China’s capacity to harm US-Western interests, this cannot be taken for granted — no carte blanch for unquestioned policy actions in a region so well-connected. New Delhi has a vested interest in making certain that Chinese power does not come to domination.
  •  If China, with a GDP four times that of India, comes to dominate Asia unambiguously, the US may have to play second fiddle to India because of its own vested interest in maintaining relations with Beijing.
  •  A simple reality drives the Indo-US relations i.e. many of their interests converge but not all of them may be congruent.
  •  India can and is willing to do much together with the US in the areas of diplomatic coordination, and economic and defense cooperation, yet this desire is no carte blanche for dictation by Washington because US grievances with China are not always — necessarily — India’s grievances.

One can discern clarity, calculation, and conscious caution in India’s relations not only with the US but also with Russia and China. Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar has spearheaded this policy in the selfish national interest. This is what he insists on in his writings too and rightly so. Others have no right to dictate to us how India steers its policies, Jaishankar insists. For this, he and other leaders have leveraged their country’s unique geopolitical position, buttressed by the nationalist ethos and the desire to put India on top of the world. A remarkable balancing act indeed.

This bears lessons for other nations too: safeguarding national interest while stitching new and servicing existing relationships. Unquestioned allegiance or blind perusal of objectives set by others may not necessarily end up in advantage.

Do Pakistan’s current woes flow from the latter, or is it facing the cumulative consequence of decades of political divisions, constitutional deviations and refusal by the civil-military elites to shun personal /group interests in favor of the national interests? The absence of progressive long-term vision, divided power centers, missing national ethos and t bureaucratically-driven tardy economic policies have not only stunted its growth but also seem to be crippling its sovereignty.

This article was first published in The Express Tribune. Click here to go to the original

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