India – United States relations have undergone a complete transformation in the past three decades, primarily due to a three-pronged factors: namely the liberalisation and the opening up of the Indian economy; the end of Cold War and in recent years, the growing shared concern regarding China’s expansionist behaviour. The last factor has certainly become a cementing factor in the broader bilateral relations between India & US.
The importance of Russia in the India-US-China equation is noteworthy, especially because of the important role it plays in India’s defence setup. This has continued to have bearings on India-US relations. There is no denying the fact that Russia will remain, at least for the foreseeable future, a major defence partner of India. A majority of the military hardware is of Soviet/Russian origin. Cooperation in the sensitive defence field presupposes and has engendered a high level of mutual trust and a broad compatibility of geopolitical interests.
China is currently pursuing an active policy of replacing US as the dominant power in Indo-Pacific and eventually the world. While earlier China pursued a policy of biding time while it built up its capabilities, both economic and military. But under President Xi we are witnessing revisionary tactics. China has become increasingly assertive and even aggressive. Several factors are believed to be behind this shift including China’s belief that its time has come to take the lead on the global stage.
Domestic pressures both economic and political, the backlash it is facing from around the world with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, has only resulted in China becoming more aggressive with respect to its neighbours. India has experienced this up close on its border with China at Galwan Valley, Hot Springs, Depsang and Pangong Tso.
This assertiveness is also visible in South China Sea (SCS) against Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines as well as against Japan and Taiwan in East China Sea. Such assertions are a part of China’s well thought out strategy rather than a string of kneejerk reactions.
India’s Possible Options
Three main options that India should pursue:
- Build own Capability and Capacity
To build our own capability and strength, particularly military, should be India’s first Priority. Perhaps we missed an opportunity that existed during the early days of the Galwan Crisis to capture certain Chinese territory to be able to use it as bargaining chip while negotiating with China. Furthermore, better intelligence gathering, border surveillance and putting in place pre-defined trigger mechanisms should now be the priority for some time.
- Build Economic Capability and Capacity
The earlier Indian approach was to look to resolve the border dispute while furthering cooperation in other sectors like trade and commerce, but this was now changing. There is a trade deficit in favour of China to the tune of nearly USD 48.66 billion 2019-20 on account of decline in imports from neighbouring countries. Chinese investment in critical areas like telecom, finance and power is also a matter of concern. Fortunately, the government has begun to take positive steps in this regard with issuing new requirements for India’s neighbouring countries for making investments in key Indian sectors, as well as taking other punitive measures such as banning 59 Chinese apps for security reasons.
- Build Strong Diplomatic Channels
India’s continued policy of following an overly balanced approach in its engagement with great powers needs to be reviewed. The diplomatic response involves moving closer to countries like the US who share similar concerns regarding China and at the same time have the capability to balance it. A strategic tilt in favour of US is the need now.
United States Factor:
The US is an important trade, defence and technology partner, moreover there are deep financial links between the private sectors of the two countries. In recent times, the two countries have signed several fundamental agreements like the LEMOA and COMCASA for deeper defence cooperation. The US has also designated India as a major defence partner bringing it at the level of its other NATO allies. This has overall resulted in increased defence trade between the two. While the defence deals between India-US stood at nearly USD 1 billion in 2008, the total deals made till 2020 is around USD 20 billion. The defence relations are not without problems though, Indo-US Defence relations has mostly been transactional not resulting in any serious research and development cooperation. The “Two plus two dialogue” initiated between the two countries to discuss strategic and security issues. This dialogue is expected to abate, if not resolve, highly problematic issues like Chinese aggression and West Asia Crisis.
Indo-Pacific is an important convergence point for the two countries and forms part of a broader congruence of interests. The US aims to check China in the maritime domain, It has recently officially rejected Chinese claims in South China Sea (SCS), and also sent carrier battle groups to SCS twice in recent times and even sent the US Health and Human Services Secretary to Taiwan for an official visit.
What are limitations to US’s response to check China’s aggression?
The US is primarily focused on maritime and is not as concerned about land disputes. For India, which shares a border with China, the absence of an ironclad guarantee of security in case of a land conflict adds to apprehension for making moves that might provoke China. In the US, there is bipartisan support for exiting Afghanistan which points to its unwillingness to get involved in any territorial conflicts.
Another area of the US is concerns is regarding Russia and sanctions, using CAATSA, against countries buying military equipment from Russia. This is a serious problem for India due to its military equipment dependence on Russia. To add to the trust deficit, US position with respect to China has fluctuated quite a bit from the Nixon era to Obama’s, where there were talks of a G-2 world order lead by the US and China and to the present day. All this will certainly restrict how far the India-US ties can go. US can help India significantly in terms of intelligence sharing, military capability building and diplomatic support in the international system.
India could achieve best outcomes if expectations of both the countries from this relationship are kept realistic, which means, allowing both to take advantage of opportunities that exist today. India should at the same time continue to engage other middle powers like Japan, Australia, Israel and France without being overly dependent on just one superpower.
(Synoptic of the Talk delivered by Ambassador Meera Shankar, Former Ambassador to the USA on 12th August, at CLAWS Webinar )