Washington’s Indian Delusion

Appearances may deceive: US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 in 2021. Image: The White House / Wikimedia Commons

The US believes it has secured India as a strategic ally in the Indo-Pacific region. There will certainly be mutual benefits from the deepening partnership, but India has no intention of sacrificing its ‘strategic autonomy’ to join the Western camp against China, or of abandoning its friendship with Russia.

By any standard, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington in June was a triumph for India. President Joe Biden rolled out the red carpet and heaped praise on both Modi himself and his country. After all, India is now the fifth largest global economy and the world’s most populous nation, and Modi is so dominant in Indian political life that he is certain to be re-elected to a third five-year term in 2025.

Central to the visit were several military deals. India is to acquire fighter jet engines from General Electric and drones from General Atomics. This is an urgent requirement for India, which has been incredibly slow to recognise its military vulnerability after many years of ponderous defence procurement processes and a heavy reliance on antiquated and unreliable Russian (and often Soviet) weaponry.

The performance of Russian equipment in Ukraine has been a wake-up call for New Delhi. The Russian T-72 tanks which now litter the Ukrainian countryside north of Kyiv and in Donbas are broadly the same model as India’s Ajeya main battle tank, and India’s armoured personnel carriers are based on the old Soviet BRDMs. Ukraine has shown that India (along with many other countries) is unprepared for the new nimble forms of warfare based on small units operating with drones and anti-tank missiles and dialling in precision artillery strikes using satellite and mobile phone coverage.

India’s urgent military requirements might suggest that New Delhi is ready to abandon its Russian ally. But this could not be further from the truth. A prominent Indian journalist wrote to me that ‘the only time the Indian Parliament discussed Ukraine, not a single member from any party among the 25 MPs who took part in the discussion supported Ukraine. None. Indians are absolutely thrilled that Modi got a state visit in Washington. But their heart… is with Putin’.

Russia–India ties have been further strengthened by India importing cheap Russian oil since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This has been a huge boon for the Indian economy and has been done with the tacit approval of the US, which has been unwilling to endanger its relationship with India even at the cost of providing Russia with much needed oil revenue (albeit paid for in currencies which are not always easy for Russia to use).

Since becoming prime minister, Modi has weathered several serious Chinese transgressions over the northern border, but has resisted calls by his own national security team to escalate

This contrasts markedly with the US treatment of Pakistan. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan was met with hostility in Washington after his feckless visit to Moscow on the day of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In the months after Biden’s inauguration, Khan did not receive a single phone call from the US president, who was likely registering his irritation at Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan both before and after the US withdrawal. This cold-shouldering of Pakistan is doubtless part of US attempts to draw India into a strategic embrace. The US has a long history of trying to abandon Pakistan and then finding itself sucked inexorably back into an alliance with a country which is geographically significant and whose security (not least because of its nuclear weapons) is crucial for global (and Indian) security.

The central motivation for the US’s cultivation of India has nothing to do with Russia or Pakistan, however, but is focused on the increasingly serious global stand-off with China. With India being regularly challenged on its northern border by China, this might feel like a slam-dunk for policymakers in the State Department and at the Pentagon. However, Modi’s position on China is much more nuanced than that of his hawkish national security team led by Ajit Doval or of the pro-Western officers of the Indian Navy. He has kept channels with Beijing open and has made sure that commercial relations (except in the security domain) are unaffected. In fact, India–China trade continues to grow.

Modi is probably mystified by China’s hostility towards India. Having won a conclusive victory in the 1962 war, China voluntarily retreated to a demarcation line of its own choosing. Beijing may now worry about the proximity of northern India to its restless regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, but that threat is much greater if Beijing continues to alienate New Delhi. In Nehru’s time there was talk of Hindi Chini bhai bhai (Chinese-Indian brotherhood), and as late as 1996 Beijing contemplated taking a balanced approach between India and Pakistan.

When Modi was chief minister of Gujarat (when he could not get a US visa because of concerns about his alleged role in an anti-Muslim pogrom), he was a regular visitor to China (and Japan). Since becoming prime minister, he has weathered several serious Chinese transgressions over the northern border, but has resisted calls by his own national security team to escalate. This is partly because of India’s military weakness, and partly for fear of coordinated operations between China and Pakistan. But the main reason is that Modi does not want to do anything that endangers the Indian economy.

For all the talk of India becoming the third largest global economy by 2027, the reality is that India has by far the lowest GDP per capita of any of the world’s top economies. In 2021 it was ranked 159th out of 229 countries. In 2023 it will be higher, but much of urban and rural India is undeveloped, with high levels of poverty and deprivation and a lack of basic public services. Modi knows this better than anyone. His own humble roots provide him with a different perspective to that of the Indian bureaucracy and the military.

When push comes to shove, Washington will find that India will be unwilling to support it in taking tough measures before, during or after a Chinese invasion of Taiwan

The package of measures discussed during Modi’s visit to Washington was impressively ambitious. Modi will have been particularly attracted by opportunities for offset and for local manufacture in India. The potential for new employment and for the transfer of technology and skills is exactly what Modi has been advocating in his ‘Make in India’ policy. Even the idea of the US providing a logistical hub in India for use by US and allied navies will be seen by Modi in a similar light. But none of these measures will lure India into a military alliance against China. India has been a member of the Quad (with Japan, Australia and the US) for several years, but has been the least willing of the four to extend the grouping into anything approaching a military alliance.

In spite of Modi’s disdain for the Congress Party, its non-sectarianism and Nehru’s legacy since 1947, he has adopted its foreign policy of non-alignment. His foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has renamed it ‘multi-alignment’, but it is the same thing. So, India is a member (along with China, Russia and Pakistan) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and (with Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa) of the BRICS. In fact, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs is one ministry where the Nehruvian culture has barely changed since Modi’s party came to power.

None of this need matter to the US for most of the time. US arms suppliers will sell well to India (but will worry about losing Intellectual Property) and US manufacturers will be relieved to move some of their offshored production from China to India (a process known as ‘friend-shoring’). The exchange of IT expertise will continue, with Indians retaining and extending their prominent position in the US technology sector.

But when push comes to shove, Washington will find that India will be unwilling to support it in taking tough measures before, during or after a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Indeed, India was even disapproving of the AUKUS deal when the US, the UK and Australia decided to supply Australia with nuclear submarines, partly because it was seen as unduly provocative towards China.

So, Washington is going to be disappointed by India. Biden’s big foreign policy investment (only achieved by suppressing his personal distaste for right-wing populists) is likely to face some early challenges, and not just over Taiwan or Russia. Another Indo-Pakistani crisis (and there is usually more than one in each decade) will see Washington having to engage closely again with Pakistan. Even assuming Modi rejects suggestions of providing weapons to Russia, the scale of India’s gain from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will still rankle in Washington. Meanwhile, India’s frustration at being denied a position at the top table of the global security architecture (permanent membership of the UN Security Council) will increase. China will continue to block its elevation, and Modi will discover that there is nothing that Washington can do to help.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG

Senior Associate Fellow

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