With China on the Rise, America Must Woo India

"Obama must take bold steps to show Modi that India’s future is best secured by closer ties to the United States and its partners." 

The competition between the United States, Japan and China is heating up. All three countries are aiming to woo India—a country whose uncommitted partnership will help to define Asia’s balance of power. At meetings on September 29 and September 30 between President Barack Obama and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, Washington must reinvigorate the countries’ recently strained ties, make up ground lost to Beijing in courting New Delhi, and supplement Tokyo’s progress in drawing New Delhi closer.

There are many motivations for wooing India. It has the world’s second largest population and is projected to surpass China’s by 2028. As measured by GDP, India’s economy is the third largest in Asia. New Delhi fields the world’s second largest army, its military budget exceeds $38 billion (up 12 percent over the previous year), it is expected to become the world’s fourth largest defense spender by 2020, and it has been the world’s top arms importer since 2010. India is enhancing its power-projection capabilities, including by developing long-range nuclear missiles and manufacturing indigenous nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. The country shares a 2,500-mile border with China and sits near critical chokepoints in the Indian Ocean, through which over 80 percent of the world’s seaborne oil passes, along with almost one third of global trade. Given its strength and location, India can shape Asia’s balance of power in favor of or against China, depending on whether it deepens its cooperation with the United States and China’s competitors.

While in many respects, India is a natural U.S. ally, its partnership should not be assumed. These democracies’ overlapping interests include avoiding a hostile Chinese rise, maintaining open sea-lanes to meet their energy needs and combatting terrorism. But New Delhi’s history of nonalignment dampens its willingness to militarily partner with other countries. After all, India seeks favorable relations with all countries to maximize its benefits from each, and Modi came to office promising significant economic development after India’s average annual growth dipped from approximately 9 percent for over seven years to under 5 percent since 2012. Given doubts about U.S. security commitments in Asia and India’s deep economic ties to China (which is New Delhi’s largest trade partner and a growing investment source), these preferences are amplified vis-à-vis anti-China coalitions. Indeed, during the recent summit between Modi and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, the leaders struck economic deals, but failed to finalize pending security agreements. Perhaps Modi sought to encourage Chinese investment in his country and avoid upsetting Chinese president Xi Jinping before his scheduled India visit later this month.

However, as happened during the Cold War, when China threatened India and the United States supported India’s arch rival, Pakistan, India’s security environment can cause it to tilt to one side of a rivalry, even if it eschews formal alliances. (India’s lean towards the Soviet Union remains relevant. India backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and it bought most of its arms from Russia until recently.) New Delhi’s position on banding with other countries against Beijing is thus malleable—fluctuating based on, among other factors, the degree of Chinese encroachment in India’s sphere of influence. China and Japan know this, and so they compete for India’s favor. For instance, Japan committed this month to investing nearly $34 billion in India; it is involved in almost seventy infrastructure projects there (with more being negotiated); and Modi and Abe upgraded their countries’ relationship to a “special strategic” partnership. Meanwhile, despite recent Chinese-Indian standoffs, their deployment of additional troops and weapons near their contested border, China backing Pakistan and a growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, Beijing and New Delhi enjoy increasingly productive ties. Between 2003 and 2012, the countries’ trade surged on average 30 percent each year. In 2007, their armies conducted their first joint military exercise, which was duplicated in 2008 and last year. Another joint exercise is planned for November. And this past February, China offered to fund Indian infrastructure development with $300 billion in loans. These trends will likely sharpen once Modi and Xi meet later this month.

While Japan and China have been successful in wooing India, the United States has not been so lucky. Unfortunately, despite having greatly improving ties with New Delhi during the George W. Bush administration, Washington has recently mismanaged the relationship. As a senior Indian diplomat complained:

“[w]e can’t get any attention from [the Obama] administration, but you can’t solve serious problems without them. They’re busy with Russia, Syria, the Middle East and Iran. But in the current circumstances, it is vital that they also pay attention to the India relationship soon, since the current drift could get much worse.”