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India Is a Flashpoint in the China-US Cold War

India Is a Flashpoint in the China-US Cold War

Thursday, 25 February, 2021 - 05:30
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

The opportunity for the US in South Asia is that a powerful new alignment is coalescing. A state that is pivotal not just regionally but globally, India, has been gradually shedding its Cold War tradition of neutralism and embracing greater cooperation with America.

There are no guarantees: The road ahead in US-India relations contains some dangerous diplomatic landmines. And making the most of the relationship may, ironically, require tempering US expectations of what that relationship will become.

It is no mystery why policymakers in Washington salivate over the possibility of strategic partnership with New Delhi. On many dimensions of the US-China competition, India has the potential to make a major contribution to the American cause.

India is the world’s largest democracy at a time of intensifying ideological competition. It is a counterpoise to Chinese expansion in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. It represents the western leg of the Quad, an association of four democracies — Australia, Japan, India and the US — arrayed around China’s strategic periphery and committed to preventing the Indo-Pacific from becoming Beijing’s geopolitical domain.

Not least, India’s capacity for innovation, as well as its vast market, make it a critical member of any democratic “tech coalition” that seeks to shape the internet and industries of the future.

For New Delhi, too, the logic of cooperation with Washington is compelling, because the threat from China has become acute. Prime Minister Narendra Modi once touted a new era in relations with Beijing. But the fundamentals of geopolitics and China’s sprawling influence are putting the two Asian giants at odds.

Repeated border flare-ups, most notably a clash that killed 20 Indian soldiers last June, confirmed that China aims to alter the status quo along its western frontier. Belt and Road projects in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and other countries have created a fear that Beijing is encircling India on land and at sea. China’s tacit support for the recent coup in Myanmar will only fuel that suspicion.

The more assertive the autocratic great power next door becomes, the more valuable the support of the democratic great power far away appears. “In every sector of India’s forward march,” said Modi in 2016, “I see the US as an indispensable partner.”

This is good news for US strategists. Republican and Democratic administrations have sought a US-India partnership since the late 1990s. The basic trend has long been positive even if the pace has often been plodding.

The George W. Bush administration concluded a landmark civil nuclear agreement with New Delhi. Defense cooperation and military sales increased under Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Trump and Modi feted each other at public rallies.

The tempo quickened after the border clash last June: In addition to banning dozens of Chinese apps, Modi pointedly agreed to raise the visibility of the Quad and expand US-Indian military exercises. Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun even hinted that the Quad might evolve into a larger multilateral alliance along the lines of NATO.

That’s not going to happen. India needs decent relations with Beijing, not least because it remains militarily overmatched along their shared border. Non-alignment hasn’t fully lost its allure as ideology even if it has mostly lost its value as strategy.

Modi’s government prefers an unbalanced triangular relationship, one where India is closer to the US than to China, but avoids outright hostility with the latter that would lead to unwanted dependence on the former. Pushing a formal alliance or asking India to explicitly choose sides risks setting the relationship back rather than moving it forward.

There are further complications. India is moving closer to the US, but still buys lots of military hardware from America’s other great-power rival, Russia. The purchase of the advanced S-400 air defense system may subject New Delhi to US sanctions — a penalty that must strike Indian officials as perverse, given Washington’s interest in hardening India against Chinese coercion.

Also lurking is a clash over values. Under Modi, India’s democracy has taken on an illiberal tinge. A crackdown in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, the enactment of a citizenship law that favors non-Muslims, and a surge of religious violence have raised deep concerns. Civil liberties and press freedoms have suffered.

These tendencies posed little problem for Trump, whose own commitment to liberalism wasn’t even skin-deep. But if President Joe Biden indeed makes democratic solidarity the centerpiece of his foreign policy, the clash between ideological principle and power politics will become more pronounced.

The US must blend ambition and subtlety in its strategy for engaging India. Human rights and democracy can be addressed candidly but perhaps quietly. If the US can work productively with a one-party state in Vietnam, surely it can avoid a major blowup with Modi’s far more pluralistic (and important) government in India.

Washington should consistently push the frontiers of practical cooperation with New Delhi — on intelligence sharing, military exercises, and perhaps even vaccine distribution in the developing world — rather than fixating on whether that cooperation adds up to alliance, entente or something else.

Similarly, the US should engage India through an overlapping array of coalitions designed to meet various dimensions of the China challenge — a “T-12” technological coalition, the Quad and others — instead of trying to build the sort of deeply institutionalized alliance it enjoys with NATO. US officials should quietly explore how America can help India in a military crisis with China — and vice versa — without worrying too much about public declarations or formal commitments.

A progressively deeper US-Indian partnership represents a prize of surpassing strategic value in US-China competition. Accepting the limits of that relationship may be the best way of exploiting its potential.


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