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EFSAS Commentary

The US’ prognosis for India’s future is upbeat, and its support and broader world events are propelling this assessment


Over the past several months, India has been unabashed in saying publicly that while the war in relatively faraway Ukraine brings unexpected and unwanted challenges for it, India’s government would chart its own course independent of the United States (US) and other Western countries in ensuring first and foremost the interests and the well being of its own citizens. This hardnosed focus on national interests, especially on issues such as purchase of Russian oil at subsidized rates at a time when global prices were skyrocketing due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and while the West urged India to slow down on Russian oil purchases having increased its own procurement of Russian energy considerably, has served India well and seems to have earned it a certain renewed respect globally. Not only has the US-led West come to terms with India’s Russian oil purchases, the US is increasingly indicating that Russian oil purchases and its not joining US-led initiatives against Russia notwithstanding, India remains the most important bilateral relationship for the US in the 21st century. Publications such as CNN, meanwhile, are writing about the rise of a new Asian power, with the rider that “it isn’t China”.

CNN, in its analysis by Rhea Mogul, underlined that “As New Delhi deftly balances its ties to Russia and the West, (Indian Prime Minister) Modi, analysts say, is emerging as a leader who has been courted by all sides, winning him support at home, while cementing India as an international power broker”. New Delhi has strong ties with Moscow dating back to the Cold War, and India remains heavily reliant on the Kremlin for military equipment – a vital link given India’s ongoing tensions at its shared Himalayan border with an increasingly assertive China. At the same time, India has been growing closer to the West as leaders attempt to counter the rise of Beijing, placing India in a strategically comfortable position. CNN quoted Happymon Jacob, associate professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, as asserting that Western leaders “are listening to India as a major stakeholder in the region, because India is a country that is close to both the West and Russia”. Meanwhile, Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based think tank Center for Policy Research, pointed out that “the current Indian leadership now sees themselves as a powerful country seated at the high table”.

Statements emanating from US officials in recent days have been even more forthcoming, and they serve to underline that the US-India relationship is no ordinary partnership. The publicly articulated support for India and the exalted place that Washington visualizes for New Delhi in the global scheme of things is something that has the potential to catapult India’s growth trajectory over the rest of this century, both in strategic and economic terms, manifold.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean Pierre, for example, stressed to reporters at her daily news conference on 8 December that the relationship between India and the US was strong, and that all levels of US government were in touch with their Indian partners or their counterparts. “That's what we believe”, she said in response to a question on the strength of the bilateral relationship, adding that “We are grateful for their (India's) leadership at the last G20, and look forward to working closely with India as they’re new chair of the G 20. So, we also look forward to continuing working with India on a range of important regional and global issues as well”. She also said that the Biden administration continued to seek the confirmation of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as the US Ambassador to India, elaborating that “We want to see that happen quickly, who was voted...with strong bipartisan support to serve as Ambassador to India. We don't have any updates on timing, but we'll continue to push that forward”. Garcetti, who has been Mayor of Los Angeles since 2013, was in July 2021 nominated as Ambassador to India by President Joe Biden and is a close aide of President Biden.

Responding to a question on India during his appearance at the Aspen Security Forum meeting in Washington D.C. on 8 December, Kurt Campbell, the White House Asia Coordinator, said that in his view India is the most important bilateral relationship for the US in the 21st century. While advocating that the US invest even more of its capacity, and build in people-to-people ties, working together on technology and other issues with India, Campbell stressed that “The fact is, I don’t know of any bilateral relationship that is being deepened and strengthened more rapidly than the United States and India over the last 20 years”. Campbell acknowledged the inhibitions that existed in the bureaucracies of both countries, and the many challenges that stood in the way of furthering the India-US relationship, but added that “I do believe that this is a relationship that should have some ambition. We should look at things that we can do together, whether it’s in space, whether it’s education, whether it’s on climate, whether it’s on technology, and really move in that direction”. In this context, he reminded that “If you look over the last 20 years and look at the hurdles that have been surmounted and the depth of engagement between our two sides, it’s remarkable”.

In a candid articulation of the US’ understanding of India’s worldview, Campbell pointed out that “India has a unique strategic character. It will not be an ally of the United States. It has the desire to be an independent, powerful State and it will be another great power. But I think there are reasons to believe that our strategic alignment is growing across the board in almost every arena”. India is, indeed, not a formal treaty ally of the US and neither is its security dependent on the Americans. Yet all recent US statements and documents like the National Security Strategy assign a high place to New Delhi in the Washington’s scheme of things. The January 2021 Indo-Pacific document saw India as a key country to “counter-balance” China.

This recognition of India’s aspirations is remarkable as it demonstrates the US’ willingness, even keenness, to continue engaging closely with India despite the latter’s reluctance to formally align with the US. Also, as India independently aspires to great power status herself, the US is open and willing to facilitate and aid that process through an expanding “strategic alignment” that extends “across the board”. This, coupled with the facts that most Western allies of the US appear, as they historically have done, to be towing Washington’s line, as well as the visible keenness of most world powers to keep India in their good books, whether these powers be Russia or China, could have a salutary effect on India’s overall growth trajectory in the coming decades that could propel its progress on a compounding path.

Campbell also stressed that the India-US relationship was not simply built on anxiety around China, but on a “deeper understanding of the importance of the synergies between our societies”, adding that the Indian community in the US is a powerful connection. He acknowledged that India was ambivalent when President Biden and his administration decided to take the Quad to the leader level. “There were probably voices in their bureaucracy that were against it. But when President Biden made the direct appeal repeatedly to Prime Minister Modi, they decided that this was in their interests”. India, the US, and several other world powers have been talking about the need to ensure a free, open and thriving Indo-Pacific in the backdrop of China’s rising military maneuvering in the resource-rich region.

On the Quad, Campbell went on to say that “I’m thrilled to say that Prime Minister (Anthony) Albanese of Australia has invited us in 2023 for a major Quad meeting that we think will extend our coordination, and cooperation, not just in Southeast Asia, and the Indo- Pacific as well. I'm very bullish on the Quad. I think it will remain an unofficial venue. But it has many lines of communication, and it’s led to strengthening and deepening of coordination between these four (the US, Australia, India, and Japan) key maritime democracies”. Campbell further said that the US was working constructively with Indian on the major set of initiatives in COVID-19 vaccine delivery, in maritime domain awareness, and in education.

The US, in its 2022 National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy identified China as its sole geopolitical competitor with the intent, will, and capabilities to reshape the world order. Even as the US sees India as a key country to “counter-balance” China, India has thus far been cautious and guarded in coming across as too open or keen to fulfill such a role and has even spoken of the ability of New Delhi and Beijing to handle their differences bilaterally. Despite this, that China continues its mindless belligerence in the Himalayas, as witnessed in its transgression across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh this past week in an attempt to again unilaterally alter the LAC to its advantage, is making it very difficult for India to remain mellow.

The CNN’s skepticism in viewing China as the next major Asian power and opting for India instead may sound out of tune to many, given the massive disparity in the current growth trajectory of the two countries, with China being far ahead of India. However, given Beijing’s authoritarian and repressive regime, its brute suppression of its own people, its tendency towards unprovoked aggression against, and attempts to bully, its smaller neighbours, and its propensity to drag poor and vulnerable nations into debt traps that threaten their very sovereignty, not to mention a core inclination to disregard the rule of law to achieve narrow objectives, it does remain moot whether such a nation could be allowed to be, or be accepted as, a major world power.

India’s rise, on the other hand, is propelled by it being the world’s largest democracy, one that has historically held a principled stance on major global issues and continues to do so, one that through unwavering adherence to the rule of law has earned deep international respect, and one which in recent years has been benefitting from the US’ recognition that New Delhi’s value stems from its unique status.