Rationalizing the India-US Strategic Partnership
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Rationalizing the India-US Strategic Partnership

An inability to articulate expectations has caused misperceptions in the relationship

Rationalizing the India-US Strategic Partnership

By Shishir Rao

Robust alliance systems and strategic partnerships were a hallmark of United States' foreign policy in the 20th century, which have seamlessly been carried forward in the 21st century. While proving a huge success in ensuring US preponderance of power globally, the nuances of this policy can be problematic when dealing with new partners, most notably India. This is since the tradition and experiences incurred as a result of the US alliance system has led to a straitjacketing of what a partnership with the US entails. For example, building and maintenance of US bases and troops on partner states’ territories is a cornerstone of the alliance system. On the opposite end of the spectrum stands India, a willing partner, albeit one that has been preoccupied with its sovereignty to the extent of resisting multilateral initiatives that call for placing of monitoring equipment on its territory; accepting foreign bases or troops is hence a far cry.

The India-US strategic partnership covers many dimensions including counter-terrorism, global governance, and space and energy cooperation; yet, the core of this partnership is focussed on China, a state with which both India and the US have developed complex economic interdependency. At the same time, the security imperatives of the world’s two largest democracies vis-à-vis China also differ. The US security imperative is to contain China, while India’s is to curtail aggressive Chinese behavior. The US views China as a near-peer competitor that is developing the economic and military muscle to upstage the US from its global leadership role, including through intimidation of US allies. India’s primary concern is persistent Chinese aggression along its disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC), Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean Region (which is India’s strategic backyard) through dual-use infrastructure and its coercive economic diplomacy with small states through debt traps. The nadir of India-China ties was reached with the Galwan Valley clash on 15 June along the LAC, which resulted in Indian casualties and reignited the debate of what India expects from the US, its ‘new’ strategic partner.

The American foreign policy makes a fundamental mistake when it likens India to a state that seeks a US security umbrella, evidence of which is derived when India rebuffs US attempts at mediation and categorically states that Sino-India border tensions are a bilateral matter. ‘What, then, does India want?’ is a fundamental and justified question; one that has rankled since the establishment of diplomatic ties. The fact remains that India is quantitatively at a disadvantage with China; yet, its situation is not entirely abysmal thanks to India’s favorable geography. This geographical status-quo is exactly what China intends on changing with its recent adventurism. The counter-question hence becomes, ‘What does the US want India for?’

India has approached the 21st century as a state that abides by the rules-based international order, which the US champions. China on the other hand is a revisionist state that premises its foreign policy on Chinese exceptionalism as a civilizational power and displays a fundamental lack of respect for the rules-based order as evidenced in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and along the LAC. This makes China is a credible threat to US and Indian interests and security imperatives. Thus, though not the same, Indian and US interests are complementary. The US requires India to remain in its camp to retain its legitimacy as a global leader, which is fast being challenged. India’s interests are also best served by the US remains the global leader as the threat perception from China makes a China-dominated world order unacceptable for India. However, this does not by default mean that India will involve itself in a US-China conflict; the US is a distant power that is ‘there today but maybe gone tomorrow’, China is a proximate power that India needs to manage as long as current borders remain.

On the flip side, India approaching the US for military support during a confrontation with China is likely to remain a desperate last resort. This is since involving the US in an IndiaChina conflict poses the risk of dramatic escalation that India would seek to avoid. India’s best interest is served by a swift and favorable end to a conflict, following which the process of normalizing relations with its neighbor can begin. What India seeks from the US is diplomatic support at global forums, along with the transfer of equipment, technology, and operation knowhow that can help India unilaterally counter Chinese aggression. The US remains the world leader in military equipment and technology, while India lags behind China in this regard. Given this scenario, it is only rational for India to expect its partner to help reduce the gap in military capabilities; more specifically, through leapfrog technologies that can hasten this process.

At the same time, India will seek to maintain diversity in its arsenal and it would be naïve of the US to expect India to stop arms imports from Russia. The reason for this is that India faces diverse threats and its military requirements from the US and Russia are different; for example, high-end enabling systems from the US and cost-efficient, sturdy platforms from Russia. Thus, unless the US can bring down the prices of its weapons to competitive levels, the cost-sensitive Indian arms market is likely to continue its dependency on Russia. Another reason for India to maintain a diverse arsenal is to ensure that an overreliance on the US is avoided; states such as Russia, Israel, France, Germany, South Korea, and Japan are hence likely to remain on India’s arms import radar.

India must also realize that only those US weapons transfers that are aimed at furthering shared interests, namely countering China and terrorism, will be forthcoming and it is unlikely that equipment through which India can impact US interests will be transferred. An example of this is the transfer of anti-submarine warfare equipment such as MH-60 ‘Romeo’ helicopters and P8-I aircraft in view of increased Chinese submarine naval activity in the Indian Ocean, but not submarines themselves, for which India has turned to France and Russia. Notably, the Landing Platform Dock INS Jalashwa, the earliest naval platform procured from the US in 2007 and the second-largest platform currently operated by the Indian Navy, contains a restrictive clause that prevents its deployment for offensive operations.

The India-US strategic partnership has developed on many fronts driven by India’s rise as relevant power and the US’s search for partners that go beyond dependents and have the capabilities to contribute to shared interests. However, an inability to articulate and appreciate security imperatives and requirements have often been a stumbling block for this partnership. Developing such an understanding is hence crucial to favorably shape the Indo-Pacific and global order in light of an increasingly belligerent China.

About the Author:

Shishir Rao (ORCID: 0000-0003-0668-0935) is an MA (Geopolitics and International Relations) student from Manipal Academy of Higher Education. He has worked as a journalist for five years and also holds an MA in English and a Bachelor's in Media Studies (Journalism). His areas of interest are the Indian Ocean Region, India’s foreign policy and national security, South Asia, maritime security, and media-state relations.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.