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Drivers of the India-US relationship

  • Geopolitics
  • 10 Months ago
  • 4 min read
Drivers of the India-US relationship

Drivers of the India-US relationship

Pankaj Saran
Pankaj Saran - Convenor, NatStrat

The forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US, his first under the Biden Presidency, comes not a day too soon. In the next one year both countries would have entered the election year, and will be preoccupied with domestic affairs. Despite the absence of such a bilateral visit at the summit level since 2019 in either direction the relationship has seen many breakthroughs in the interregnum, which is in itself extremely significant because it speaks of the buoyancy and momentum the relationship has acquired over time.

Historically speaking, this has not been an easy relationship to navigate, and much has been written about why this was so. It has gone through the stress test of different political alignments within each country ever since the ice-breaking visit of Rajiv Gandhi to the Reagan White House in 1985, as well as multiple crises globally. It is probably true to say that the relationship seems to be finally coming of age.  Yet, as recent writings in US strategic literature illustrate, while both countries may have emerged from the “mutual distrust trap” they seem to be falling into a “mutual expectations trap”. As Ambassador P.S Raghavan has recently commented, such a mismatch arises from “the obvious asymmetries of capacities and interests in the India-US relationship”, which it is necessary to recognize.

It is also timely to note that we should prevent the relationship from falling into the “China trap”. Firstly, the relationship shifted to a higher gear well before the China threat was so visible. Secondly, if today China looms large in the US outlook as evidenced in its latest National Security Strategy, it requires little imagination to understand how much larger China looms in India’s strategic calculations. For India, China is immediate, palpable and real. If the US speaks of cooperation and competition with China, and preventing a new Cold War, India has an even greater stake in finding a modus vivendi with China. The prospect of living with a neighbour such as China in a state of perpetual hostility is not a desirable one.  It is for these reasons that India is closely watching the national security debate in the US on the approach to China. India is equally watching the debate between the US and Europe and within Europe on how to deal with China.

Thirdly, the Indo-US relationship is and must be bigger than China if it has to sustain itself through the vicissitudes of international politics. It is tempting and expedient to believe, but China cannot be the glue that holds the relationship together.

Nor can paradoxically our shared values of democracy, freedom, pluralism, diversity and the primacy of the individual. If this was so, the two countries would have been alliance partners years ago. History teaches us that these values are neither necessary nor sufficient for the growth of the relationship. They provide at best an enabling environment for the relationship.  A look at some of the US’s closest partnerships in the past would show the dispensability of shared values. The Indo-US partnership derives its sustenance and durability from several interrelated factors that are both endogenous and exogenous to the relationship.

Bilaterally, there is growing complementarity between the two countries that can reinforce each other’s strengths, whether in the economic, defence or strategic areas. The deepening of our cooperation on issues that directly affect the wellbeing and welfare of our people needs to form the bedrock of the relationship in the long term. India’s rise will be facilitated by having good relations with the US.

It bears repetition that India’s success depends on how much it integrates with the right global sources of high technology, critical raw materials, energy and large markets and how it leverages such integration to build its own strength. India’s IT and software industry owed a large part of its success to US industry but over time has become a major force multiplier for US corporates.  On the other hand, India’s success in building its national power, proving that democracy works and ensuring that the inexorable shift away from the post-1945 world order is orderly, are all in the US’s interests. 

At a global level, existing powers are being challenged, new powers are emerging while others are declining. Just as the US sees a rising China and a weakened Russia, a rising India is an emerging reality. The transformation of India is an opportunity for the US to influence the direction and speed of India’s change. This will call for an innovative approach and more nuanced understanding of India. The US should not expect an alliance relationship with India. It should be ready to accept and deal with India as a State that will increasingly assert its civilizational identity with the passage of time. India, on the other hand, should not expect the US to be the solution for all its troubles.

From a larger strategic point of view, it is this duality of a rising India fitting into a US led world order that will form the undercurrent of the relationship as we go forward.

A US that is looking at the prospect of its unbridled power being challenged and a rising India that is looking to reclaim its place in the world can potentially offer immense opportunities for cooperation. The success of this will depend on the extent of strategic convergence and mutual trust as they navigate and lead the change. This is a dynamic and time sensitive process.

It is noteworthy that the US National Security Strategy repeatedly describes this time as the “decisive decade for America and the world”.

What is at stake for the wider comity of nations is the ability of democracies such as those of India and the US to deal not just with their internal challenges but also their ability to provide hope and help to countries of the global South to meet their development and societal aspirations.

Both sides have so far managed their differences over Russia better than expected. This is a good sign. The problem has however not gone away, and is unlikely to. Russia will remain a blind spot for the US. India cannot afford to paint Russia and China in the same brush. Perhaps the toughest parts of the relationship may lie outside its bilateral boundaries.

Regardless, the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US comes at time of change, and the battle for India.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


     

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