Over time, the expansion of Chinese strength will undoubtedly push New Delhi to tighten its security relations with Washington, though the process will neither be as smooth nor as speedy as many would like.
Just as US-India ties were at a nadir following New Delhi’s nuclear tests in 1998 – and just as the United States and China were declaring their own strategic partnership – Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee famously characterized Washington and New Delhi as “natural allies” who would form “the mainstay of tomorrow’s stable, democratic world order.” Two years later, Vajpayee reaffirmed this description.
Judging by the dense bilateral links the two countries have crafted over the past decade, Vajpayee phrase seems to have been vindicated. Not only have a landmark civilian nuclear accord and a spate of defense contracts been concluded, but the two countries have established some 30 bilateral dialogues and working groups on a wide gamut of issues, and the United States holds more bilateral military exercises each year with India than with any other nation.
Yet U.S. elites are suddenly shying away from the term “ally.” Assistant Secretary of State for South & Central Asia Robert Blake, for instance, states that “India and the United States will never be allies in the traditional sense of the term.” Strobe Talbott, who as Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration began the first institutionalized dialogue between Washington and New Delhi, contends that the countries “are not now, and may never be, allies.” Stephen P. Cohen, dean of U.S. South Asianists, likewise maintains that “India is a friend, not an ally” and the new US-Indian strategic alliance is “still more symbolic than real.”
All three underscore the distinction between long-standing U.S. allies, such as the United Kingdom, Japan and South Korea, and partners like India that are not bound by formal security commitments. And Blake’s statement was undoubtedly in deference to Indian sensitivities about being sucked into America’s strategic orbit, although he adds that India can no longer be considered a non-aligned country given the “increased convergences in strategic outlook” between Washington and New Delhi. But Talbott and Cohen are less sanguine on this count. The former argues that:
“One reason we may never be [allies] or not in the any foreseeable future, is because there is still a huge constituency in support of India’s non-aligned status, despite the fact that I would say that non-alignment and the non-aligned movement is very much an artifact of the Cold War. I remember having a conversation with Natwar Singh [retired Indian diplomat and Manmohan Singh’s first foreign minister] when Congress was out of power and him saying to me that the proudest moment of his career was being secretary general of the non-aligned movement. That sticks in my mind. I took that as a sign that there are still a lot of Indians who take non-alignment seriously.”
Cohen strikes a similar note: “New Delhi has a deep commitment to strategic autonomy, as indicated by its insistent use of the moderating prefix ‘natural’ to describe its U.S. relationship. In the end, India got what it needed from Washington, including recognition of its nuclear weapons program and support for its permanent membership on the United Nations’ Security Council, at little or no cost.”
Believing that strategic ties remain, at best, “aspirational,” Michael Auslin, at the American Enterprise Institute, likewise notes that the
“continued adherence to Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-aligned strategy clearly animates the worldview of most thinkers [in India], even if the language used to describe it no longer partakes of such Cold War imagery. There is a firm commitment in New Delhi not to have any firm commitments to any one state. It seems the Indians have taken to heart, far more than the Americans, George Washington’s warning against entangling foreign alliances.”
All of these comments come at a time of widespread disappointment in Washington that the bilateral relationship has not lived up to the strategic and economic possibilities that seemed so alive just a few years ago. As my last post noted, some observers are even questioning whether the Bush-Singh nuclear deal has succeeded in its primary aim of invigorating US-India geopolitical cooperation in the face of a rapidly growing and more assertive China.
The Bush administration devoted singular energy to courting New Delhi as a key part of its strategy of strengthening security links with China’s neighbors. In a widely-read article, Condoleezza Rice, then serving as chief foreign adviser to the George W. Bush presidential campaign, observed that Washington “should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance.” She pointedly noted that “India is an element in China’s calculation, and it should be in America’s, too.” In his first major foreign policy address as a candidate, Bush argued that “we should work with the Indian government, ensuring it is a force for stability and security in Asia.”
Once the nuclear deal was unveiled at a July 2005 summit between Bush and Prime Minister Singh, Rice justified it by calling India “a rising global power that we believe could be a pillar of stability in a rapidly changing Asia.” At the summit, a senior Indian diplomat was quoted as saying that “Bush has a vision that we in India often don’t have. With Europe in decline and China rising, the U.S. sees India as a future global power with the ability to maintain [the] power balance in the 21st century.” A Bush administration official closely involved in the making of policy toward New Delhi commented that “China is a central element in our effort to encourage India’s emergence as a world power. But we don’t need to talk about the containment of China. It will take care of itself as India rises.”
In the years since, has the growth of Chinese strategic power nudged Washington and New Delhi into tighter security collaboration, as many in the Bush administration expected? Or is Michael Krepon, one of the nuclear deal’s prominent detractors, correct in arguing that “New Delhi continues to titrate improved strategic cooperation with the United States” and that it “continues to improve ties with Beijing. It is folly to presume that Washington can leverage New Delhi’s dealings with Beijing.”
There’s no denying the American disillusionment caused by India’s rejection of Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s bids in its $11 billion fighter aircraft competition and by the prolonged inability of U.S. companies to capitalize on the nuclear deal due to an Indian liability law that does not conform to international norms. It is also true that India and China have aligned to thwart U.S. objectives in global negotiations on trade and climate change, and that they often take the same side in UN deliberations.
But stepping back a bit in order to take in the wider perspective, it is clear that some fundamental geopolitical forces are at work in spurring India-China strategic frictions. Instead of being the fraternal titans that drive the Asian Century forward, as envisioned in the “Chindia” chimera, it is more likely that their relationship in the coming years will be marked by increased suspicion and rivalry. The relationship has never really recovered from the trauma of their 1962 border war, and the strains have only increased over the past five years or so. Beijing is now taking a much more hawkish line on territorial disputes in the Himalayans, including asserting a brand new claim that the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is actually “Southern Tibet.” It is also expanding its presence in territory controlled by Pakistan, and trying to block New Delhi’s efforts to play a greater role in regional and international institutions.
Much is made of the fact that China is now India’s largest trading partner and that two-way trade soared from $12 billion in 2004 to $60 billion in 2010, and that the countries are on track to reach $100 billion in 2015. When Premier Wen Jaibao visited New Delhi last December, he brought along a larger business delegation than President Obama did a month earlier, and the $16 billion in resulting trade deals eclipsed the $10 billion-mark struck by the Americans. Yet compared to US-India economic links, there are far more competitive elements, and far fewer complementary features, operating in India’s business interactions with China.
All of these developments have not gone unnoticed by the Singh government. Famous for his cautious, taciturn nature, Singh has caused a stir with his public expressions of disapproval regarding what he terms Chinese “assertiveness.” In a September 2010 interview he complained that Beijing sought to “keep India in a low-level equilibrium” and that “it would like to have a foothold in South Asia.” Three months later, he shocked his Chinese guests during the Wen visit by refusing to reiterate India’s traditional endorsement of the “One China” policy or customary recognition of Tibet being an inviolable part of the People’s Republic.
Indian military planning is also increasingly focused on the threat from its northern neighbor, from taking major steps to fortify its northeastern border to accelerating the development of the Agni-V ballistic missile. With a reach of over 5,000 kilometers, and capable of carrying multiple warheads, the missile puts China fully within range of a retaliatory nuclear strike.
The strategic entente with India is Washington’s first geopolitical partnership to be forged in the post-Cold War era, meaning that its rhythm is bound to be quite different from the security alliances the United States rapidly created in the aftermath of World War II. Back then, the national power of Washington’s new-found allies was in stark decline, while India’s current power trajectory is visibly upward. The structural dynamics of a bipolar global order also were simpler than today’s messy multipolarity. Over time, however, the expansion of Chinese strength will undoubtedly push New Delhi to tighten its security relations with Washington, though the process will neither be as smooth nor as speedy as many would like.