Strategic altruism makes little sense as India continues to hedge and play the role of a geostrategic free-rider, pursuing a form of non-alignment it has rebranded as “multi-alignment.” Furthermore, India’s value in blunting China’s path toward becoming Asia’s hegemon is diminished by its sclerotic bureaucracy, patronage politics, and bloated military. As Beijing right-sizes its armed forces, focusing on quality rather than quantity, New Delhi continues to boost its personnel numbers, taking away precious funds from modernization.
The net effect of our strategic altruism toward India is that it will embolden India’s hegemonic aspirations in its immediate neighborhood and force smaller South Asian countries to tighten their embrace of China to balance India. By propping up India as an Asian power, America is unwittingly hastening China’s rise in South Asia.
U.S. policymakers see India as a benign power in South Asia and view its extraterritorial actions and unilateralism in recent decades as exceptions to a policy of restraint. But that view is not shared by many of India’s neighbors who have a historical memory of New Delhi behaving like a bully and fear it emerging as a regional hegemon.
For Pakistan, India is a country whose military invasion resulted in the loss of half of its territory in the 1971 civil war. In the 1980s, India trained and armed the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers terrorist group. More recently, India blockaded Nepal after the country’s calamitous earthquake in 2015.
Nepal, like political factions in Sri Lanka, has since courted China. Even Bangladesh, whose present government is strongly allied with India, has been alarmed by New Delhi’s push to strip millions of Muslims of citizenship, fearing migrant inflows into their country.
Washington’s amplification of New Delhi’s influence is causing anxiety among smaller South Asian states. For example, a U.S.-grant funded electric power line project in Nepal has become controversial because political forces there perceive to be tied to an American strategy to prop up India and contain China.
Nepal is a tiny, poor, landlocked country sandwiched between Asia’s two giants. While Washington warns Kathmandu and others of Beijing’s alleged “debt-trap diplomacy,” it is New Delhi that treats the Himalayan country as a colony. Logically, Nepal has engaged China as an alternative source of energy and gateway to the sea.
America Needs to Stand on Its Own Two Feet in South Asia
China is, of course, a strategic competitor to the United States in Asia and beyond. And India will provide modest value in shaping a strategic architecture in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region that restrains Chinese ambitions and blunts its relative capabilities. But American strategic altruism toward India will have costs. And these costs will be multiplied by the negative externalities of a laissez-faire approach to human rights in India.
The United States needs a non-India-centric way of competing with China in Asia. Instead of treating India as our default copartner in South Asia and outsourcing much of our foreign policy to it, we should bolster bilateral relations with individual states in the region and position America as an alternative economic and security partner to both China and India.
By promoting Indian as a “net security provider” in South Asia and the nucleus of regional trade, successive U.S. administrations have been pushing the region toward a bipolar order with the United States and India on one side and China and Pakistan on the other. Given India’s growing economic and military disparity vis-à-vis China, bipolarity in South Asia is to America’s disadvantage.
America can retain an edge over China by cultivating meaningful economic and security partnerships with both India and Pakistan, as well as select regional states.
To blunt Islamabad’s growing alignment with Beijing, Washington should expand bilateral trade and revive the subsidized sale of advanced military hardware. Over the past decade, the United States has helped widen the conventional military gap between India and Pakistan, making the latter more reliant on China as a source for advanced military hardware and contributing to Beijing’s rise in the international defense industry. Bolstering Pakistan’s conventional deterrence also strengthens strategic stability.
In the immediate term, the United States must stop emboldening Modi in his push to make India a Hindu majoritarian state and regional hegemon. American diplomats should publicly engage Indian activists, intellectuals, and journalists who have been arrested and attacked by New Delhi and elements of the ruling party. And as India’s siege of Kashmir enters its sixth month, U.S. diplomats should press for permission to meet with Kashmiri leaders who have been detained without charge. Washington must use its leverage with New Delhi to get it to engage both Islamabad as well as local Kashmiri leaders on a solution to the dispute in Kashmir.
America’s effective silence on India’s Hindu majoritarian shift will be seen as an endorsement by the country’s religious minorities and smaller neighbors. Indeed, countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are likely to turn even more toward China as a balancing force, eroding American influence in a region home to a quarter of the world’s population.