From the India Dividend to a Bad Bet: Changing U.S. Expectations or a Veiled Threat?

A recent, widely commented upon essay in Foreign Affairs by Ashley Tellis, an acclaimed strategic analyst on India-U.S. relations, argues that Washington’s more than two-decade long bet on India as a key strategic partner that would come to U.S.’ help in its contest with China, has been a bad one. The article, which is “meant to be a warning” for American policymakers, calls for looking at India differently and revising their expectations. Interestingly, just four years back, the author in another essay in the same magazine acknowledged New Delhi as America’s “best hope” in Asia, and dismissed any complaints about the bilateral relations not transforming into an alliance, as “off the mark.” What has changed?

Has U.S. expectations from India overshot the tacitly agreed upon level of reciprocity, in the context of intensifying global challenges? Does the U.S. now suddenly expect India to join a U.S.-led military alliance in a potential conflict with China – an aim that most credible India watchers in Washington have and will continue to see as unachievable in the context of India’s long held principles of non-alignment and strategic autonomy. Perhaps, the warning is more for Indian policymakers than American. The discussion in the article on Biden administration’s “generosity,” citing the Initiative on Emerging and Critical Technology as key to India’s aim to replace China as the manufacturing hub of the world, alongside the power of the U.S. government to “make or break the initiative,” arguably suggests a veiled threat.

Changing Geopolitical Context

Since the turn of the century, there has been an overall upward trajectory of the bilateral relations between India and the U.S., owing in large part to the increasingly pivotal roles the two countries have come to play for each other. Broadly, it was useful for America to have an alternate power center in Asia to keep a check on an ascendant China, and in return, India’s deeper engagement with the U.S. allowed it to work on its domestic capacities to address the power asymmetry with China and bring it closer to its great power ambition.

Both countries strengthened their convergences and worked in tandem to address geopolitical changes. If Washington has invigorated its relationship with India in all spheres – political relations, civil-nuclear cooperation, defense cooperation, counter-terrorism, trade and economics, energy and climate, education, space, science and technology, health – a bilateral template that is broadly reserved for its ally partners, India too has reciprocated by shedding its past reluctance to engage more actively with the U.S. in areas that are consequential for regional and maritime security, often with oblique references to China.

Until a few years ago when China and Russia were just one of the three main sets of challengers actively competing against the United States, Tellis thought that “the success of U.S. efforts in India should be measured not by what India does for the United States but by what India does for itself.” However, in the current geopolitical situation, where China and Russia are the most pressing strategic challenge, the U.S. expected its enormous bet on India to pay off. More so, because it thinks India would be more inclined to tilt after its Ladakh encounter with China in 2020, and the continuing impasse on the border. From an American standpoint, India has disappointed the U.S. in both balancing China and upholding the liberal international order, at a critical juncture of geopolitical rivalry.

Why does India’s response to the China challenge diverge from that of the U.S.? Physical proximity and relative weakness are valid points identified by the author, but the framework of India’s response to China deserves closer attention in order to set US expectations right.

Revisiting Kautilya’s Approach

Kautilya, an ancient Indian strategic thinker who arguably has had a significant influence on contemporary India’s strategic thinking, would advise India to balance between ‘spineless submission’ and ‘foolhardy valor’ in response to China, the relatively stronger madhyama (middle power), who is also an ari (enemy), of the rajamandala (circle of states). The default foreign policy action of a relatively weaker power – samdhi (peacemaking) – has been upturned by China arguably because of its substantial strategic advantage and its perception of a less restrained treaty partner (India). Vigraha (war and hostility) is ruled out as being imprudent. What are India’s options then?

Kautilya’s first, and most obvious, recommendation would be to shore up India’s national power by optimizing intellectual, material, psychological, and diplomatic capacities expressed through the saptanga (seven organs/limbs) theory. The health of the seven constituent elements of the body politic allows a wider array of foreign policy choices to attain the state’s yogakshema (political end goal). In the absence of the internal state factors (swami-ruler, amatya-council of ministers, janapada-people and territory, durga-fort, kosa-treasury, and danda-armed might) being fully optimized, relative weakness can also be addressed by seeking help from the external state factor – mitra (ally).

While the sadgunyas (six measures of foreign policy) provide the basic framework for inter-state relations in the Kautilyan scheme of things, strategic partnerships (samavaya) which state enter if it is imperative to increase power with the help of others to balance the rise of the enemy, has received fair attention. The underlying principle of these is relative strength and bargaining power, and consequently, the convergence of interest and reliability is of the essence.

A third course of action which also relies on less overt ways of dealing with China, and is arguably plausible given China’s misdoings in the region, is to rouse the members of the rajamandala against the middle power: “The middle king, grown very powerful, has risen for the destruction of all of us; let us join together and frustrate his expedition.”

In each of these maneuvers that Kautilya lays out, the role that the U.S. can and has been playing is critical and substantial. On its part, India has never sought direct U.S. involvement in any India-China dispute but has instead made it its mitra (ally) over the last two decades, navigating the journey through a perceptible balance between interests and autonomy.

The Way Forward

The terms on which the India-U.S. bilateral relationship has flourished and the sensitiveness the two countries have shown to each other’s proclivities and preferences cannot be jettisoned at an inflection point in the international order. Perhaps, as a realization of this fact, the 2022 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America states that Washington respects the sovereignty of states and acknowledges that decisions allies and partners face are rarely binary. It promises to “advance its Major Defense Partnership with India to enhance its ability to deter PRC aggression,” and offers support to partner efforts in tackling acute grey zone coercion by PRC, including in disputed land borders such as with India.

A stronger India translates into stronger resistance to China in the region, and a greater assurance of free and open access to the Indian Ocean Region. According to a recent CNAS report, the offer of sophisticated military technology, co-production and co-development of military equipment, strengthening India’s maritime and naval capacity, and extending full support to India, in the event of another border crisis, is indeed help compatible with American interests. 

The new expectations from India, or tying the flow of critical technology to how New Delhi comes to Washington’s aid in its crisis, will only reduce the two countries’ collective capacity to balance China. U.S. strategic altruism must continue, and on its part, India should not take it for granted. Ultimately, as Tellis himself notes, “the greatest obstacle to a deeper partnership is wishful thinking about what it can achieve.” These considerations should guide the discussions around Prime Minister Modi’s forthcoming Official State Visit to the United States.