Biden Must Build on Trump's Partnership with India
Grounding U.S. India policy in five key principles can help the Biden administration build upon the efforts of past administrations, avoiding pitfalls that could stymie U.S.-India cooperation, and leveraging opportunities that will advance it.
Finally, the United States can continue to liberalize rules regarding the export of dual-use technology to India. Technology sharing will both build Indian strategic capacity and serve as a strong indicator of U.S. reliability, especially to Indian leaders skeptical of close U.S.-India relations. By reducing the trust deficit, these measures can ameliorate perhaps the most foundational problem in U.S.-India relations and facilitate robust cooperation between the two countries.
SECOND, DO not confuse India’s military constraints with a lack of strategic utility. India faces numerous military challenges, including aging equipment, sclerotic procurement processes, and stagnant defense budgets. The enormous expanse of the Indo-Pacific, and China’s formidable resources, only magnify these problems. This has led some critics to suggest that India may lack the wherewithal to serve as a useful U.S. strategic partner.
Such pessimism is unwarranted. India’s military constraints, though real, need not prevent it from meaningfully contributing to U.S. strategic efforts in the Indo-Pacific. The United States has limited aims in the region; it does not seek to control the Indo-Pacific, or to exclude China from it. Rather, the United States seeks the less demanding goal of preventing China from establishing regional hegemony. India can support this effort through relatively modest measures. It does not need to create extensive power-projection capabilities, which are costly, operationally challenging, and potentially provocative. Rather, at present, India can focus on the easier task of self-defense, protecting its land borders and home waters against forceful Chinese attempts to change the status quo. Even this limited approach will impede Chinese efforts to expand its regional power.
China poses its most immediate threat to India along the Sino-Indian land border, which is the subject of a decades-long dispute and the locus of periodic violence. In the summer of 2020, dozens of Indian and Chinese soldiers died in border clashes in Ladakh, the first killed in the dispute since the 1970s. Conventional wisdom has generally been pessimistic regarding India’s military options in the border region, and the recent clashes have evinced reasons for concern. Caught by surprise, India appears to have lost hundreds of square kilometers of territory to Chinese incursions. Although it eventually succeeded in achieving a stalemate, India may well be unable to restore the status quo ante.
Nonetheless, careful analysis suggests that India is in a reasonably strong defensive position in the border region, thanks to a number of advantages that it enjoys. These include short lines of communication, improved logistics, better aircraft and air bases, augmented air defenses, and longstanding experience in high-altitude warfare. In addition, Indian nuclear forces can reach major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. India can enhance these capabilities through relatively modest measures, such as replacing or upgrading older aircraft; improving intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; augmenting conventional long-range strike assets; and increasing the redundancy and mobility of its nuclear weapons. Even within its current constraints, then, India should be able to mount a capable defense against future Chinese land threats.
In the maritime domain, as on land, India enjoys a number of defensive advantages. Particularly important is its geography, which features close proximity to crucial SLOCs connecting Europe and the Middle East to Asia, as well as possession of outlying island chains such as the Andamans and Nicobars. Utilizing submarines, anti-submarine warfare assets, land-based aircraft, mobile precision-guided missiles, and small surface ships close to home, India can protect its own waters, generate intelligence for itself and its partners, and potentially contest Chinese access to SLOCs and chokepoints. Such a defensive approach will be far less costly and complex than attempting to develop a significant power-projection capability.
A solid defense will not allow India to attack China across the Sino-Indian border, or join the United States or other partners in operations in the South China Sea or the Western Pacific. But it will enable India to make an invaluable contribution to regional strategy by serving as a continent-sized barrier against Chinese expansion into the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions. India may lack the ability to do more for the foreseeable future, but from the standpoint of U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, it does not need to.
THIRD, ACCEPT an “open” relationship with India. India does not wish to establish a formal alliance with the United States, and the United States does not need it to do so. To contribute to the goal of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, India needs above all to remain diplomatically independent. An Indo-Pacific region composed of independent states will necessarily resist Chinese hegemony, even if those states are bound only by informal ties and do not belong to a treaty-based alliance structure.
The United States should thus keep its partnership with India close but informal. It should not strive to create a relationship modeled on its legacy alliances or devalue the relationship because it does not meet traditional alliance standards. The United States can expect India to be “like-minded,” but it should interpret that term liberally. India and the United States do need to be like-minded in their commitment to resisting Chinese hegemony and promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Otherwise, however, India should be able to disagree with the United States and go its own way on a variety of strategic matters.
One of the most important of these matters is India’s relationships with third countries that the United States finds problematic, such as Russia and Iran. This is a significant irritant in U.S.-India relations. India established a close partnership with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, formalizing strategic coordination through the 1971 Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation; procuring Soviet military hardware on favorable terms; and providing the USSR with reliable diplomatic support. With Iran, India has deep civilizational ties, as evidenced by the large Indian Shia population. India has also relied on Iranian oil exports to meet its energy needs.
The United States has pressured India to distance itself from both states. India has partially complied, reducing its level of security cooperation with Russia while working far more closely with the United States, and boycotting Iranian oil at the United States’ request. Still, these relationships will not disappear entirely. India will continue to purchase a significant amount of Russian defense equipment, especially when it needs to keep legacy systems operational or when it has been unable to acquire a particular capability or technology elsewhere. It also will stay involved with Iran, as evidenced by ongoing Indo-Iranian projects such as the development of Chabahar Port.
The United States can, of course, encourage India to modify its policies toward problematic countries in particular cases. As a general matter, however, the United States should accept India’s third-party relationships. As an increasingly active and important regional power, India will need to maintain relations with a wide variety of states—even states that the United States does not like. And, after all, the United States maintains close friendships with states that India dislikes intensely, such as Pakistan. Although India takes an extremely dim view of U.S.-Pakistan relations, the United States expects the Indians to recognize that the relationship has its own imperatives, will remain important for the foreseeable future, and does not undermine the significance of U.S.-India relations. If Washington refuses New Delhi similar flexibility, and seeks exclusivity in U.S.-India relations, it will drive India away, rather than drawing it closer.
FOURTH, SUBORDINATE competing bureaucratic interests to the strategic goal of advancing U.S.-India cooperation. Senior U.S. leaders have consistently emphasized the overriding importance of advancing U.S.-India relations. Former Obama administration Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, for example, said that the U.S.-India relationship would “define the twenty-first century,” necessitating “a presumption of approval for transactions with India … in the defense-technical sphere” that would allow the United States “to do things with India that have never been done before.” Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed these views, stating that cooperative efforts with India had to be “ambitious” and promote “interoperability, with common platforms, shared doctrines, and new technologies.”
As noted above, U.S.-India strategic cooperation has, in fact, grown dramatically. Nonetheless, the United States has fallen short of fulfilling its leadership’s ambitious vision. Despite senior-level clarity regarding the importance of U.S.-India cooperation, opportunities to share technologies and platforms have often stalled within the U.S. system. This has happened when working levels of the bureaucracy prioritized other goals, such as strategic stability in the India-Pakistan rivalry, nuclear non-proliferation, and technology export controls. As a result, the United States has often been unwilling to share particular technologies, thereby preventing U.S.-India cooperation in important areas such as air and missile defense and aircraft sales.
Cooperation in these areas would have enhanced India’s strategic capabilities and advanced U.S.-India defense ties. But the two countries’ failure to cooperate has not been just a lost opportunity to move forward. This failure has actively threatened to force the U.S.-India relationship backward, as it has encouraged India to look elsewhere for its defense needs. Consequently, India has made problematic purchases, like the Russian S-400 air-defense system, which could lead to U.S. sanctions. This outcome would undermine years of effort to build trust and advance the U.S.-India relationship.