In his recent critical Foreign Affairs essay, “America’s Bad Bet on India,” Ashley J. Tellis argued that the Biden administration’s India policy is “misplaced.” He accused Washington of overlooking “India’s democratic erosion” because the United States needs a reliable partner in South Asia to challenge the rise of China. The article’s perceptive analysis of the U.S.-India security partnership notes that the relationship is hardly based on mutually assured democratic trust. He notes, for example, that India is breaking with the West in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian War and instead “goes it alone.”
Tellis’ conclusion is that “India’s security partnership with the United States will remain fundamentally asymmetrical for a long time to come.” While New Delhi would want Washington to prevail in a major conflict with Beijing in the East China Sea or the South China Sea, it is “unlikely to embroil itself in the fight.” This assessment is predicated largely on India’s nominal “strategic autonomy” in its foreign policy. India has evolved with a history of Soviet and Russian military ties as well as a lingering record of border conflicts with China.
However, China’s unprecedented military and economic capabilities have increasingly challenged New Delhi’s strategic autonomy. A matured India may not have a strategic alternative to sustain the past; it must thus work harmoniously and collaboratively with Washington for its national interest and civilizational heritage.
The “Return to History”
For the civilizational states of China and India, the past is often prologue. In his book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, Indian external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar wrote that New Delhi believes it faces an inevitable “return to history,” rather than the Fukuyaman “end of history,” in the emerging international governance of multipolarity.
To the east, China—which holds a similar worldview regarding multipolarity and the perception of American decline—has begun to prepare itself for the coming era. To that end, it has devised an incremental “Blue Dragon” strategy for the Indo-Pacific region. This approach encompasses the country’s expansion and influences in nearby major bodies of water, supported by economic and military projects. Starting with the East China Sea, Beijing has already aimed at expanding its reach to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean to encircle India.
To this end, China has wasted no time sitting idle over the past few years. Instead, Beijing set its eyes on the two island nations of Sri Lanka in the heart of the Indian Ocean and Taiwan in the Western Pacific to advance its’ best “core” national interests and fulfill its longstanding geopolitical ambitions. For Beijing, Taiwan has been a “breakaway province” of mainland China; Sri Lanka has maintained religious, diplomatic, and trade links to China for millennia.
Concurrently, these two strategically located island nations have become increasingly vital to American foreign policy objectives—including the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region, the promotion of democratic governance, and the maintenance of peace and prosperity in the region. These two island nations have also long been characterized as “unsinkable aircraft carriers.” The phrase, originally attributed to General Douglas MacArthur, was used to describe Taiwan and to highlight its historical and strategic importance to China as well as to the United States.
China’s approach towards these two “unsinkable aircraft carriers” is composed of two different strategies—a carrot and a stick—aimed at China’s rejuvenation. Guided by the Blue Dragon strategy, Beijing has basically encircled the expanding vicinity of the East China Sea and Taiwan, the South China Sea and the artificial islands in the Paracel archipelagos, and the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka, located at the southern tip of India and in a perfect strategic position, has historically been important to Beijing.
Against this backdrop, are India and the United States able to jointly and harmoniously work together to make the Indo-Pacific region safe for democracy?
The Indian Conundrum
It is against this background that one must consider Tellis and other discerning observers’ questioning of India’s position as the United States’ most important and dependable democratic partner and friend. These doubts arise from the civilization dogma of “return to history,” which can be traced back to India’s millennia-old Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Such influences are nothing new; after achieving independence in 1947, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, advocated a “middle-path” non-aligned foreign policy during the Cold War period.
In his India Way, Jaishankar attempts to reconcile and transcend right-wing tendencies and left-wing aspirations by defining Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political vision, his economic agenda, and India’s security and geopolitical challenges. The Modi administration’s worldview seems to fit well with the emerging approach of “multipolarity” towards global governance, in which New Delhi could play an interlocutor role between and among China, Russia, and the United States. In his video message to the recent G20 Meeting of the Foreign Ministers in Srinagar, for example, Modi said: “As you meet in the land of Gandhi and the Buddha, I pray that you will draw inspiration from India’s civilizational ethos—to focus not on what divides us, but on what unites us.”
Despite all this, the Russo-Ukrainian War emerged as a test for India of Gandhian morality and Buddhist ethics in international affairs. New Delhi—a longtime military partner of Moscow—called for an end of hostilities but failed to criticize the Russian invasion and declined to support UN resolutions against Russia. The United States and other Western leaders have been notably disappointed but accepted India’s neutrality and its reluctance to “condemn” Russia’s unjustified aggression. Moreover, these leaders—particularly those in Europe—understand India’s long history of reliance on Russian weapons and energy sources.
In the prevailing gamut of complexities and changing national security interests, Jaishankar summarized that “this is a time for us to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia.” For India, this approach is in keeping with the “vivid expression of [Indian] beliefs and traditions” of the middle path of Buddhism and the foreign policy of Nehruvian Panchsheel.
For the United States, however, the current situation presents an interesting conundrum. This evolving foreign policy—from the non-alignment to strategic autonomy—has prevented New Delhi from fully aligning with Washington.
There are some signs for optimism. In recent years, successive U.S. administrations have engaged with India as a reliable partner in trade and investment, science and technology, as well as security and education. Similarly, the share of weapon procurements from the Soviet vintage has gradually been declining as India has begun to buy defense weaponry from the United States and two other Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) countries: Australia and Japan. In the past, Russian defense materiel was vital for Indian defense in light of sectarian conflicts with Pakistan as well as the lingering border disputes with China. Even before the Russo-Ukrainian War, defense relations between India and Russia apparently started to drift apart and continue to “steadily drift away” after the strategic Sino-Russian “no-limit” agreement was signed at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022—mere weeks before President Vladimir Putin launched the “special military operation” in Ukraine.
With Russia entangled as a junior partner to assertive China’s strategic and tactical gamesmanship, it is increasingly challenging for New Delhi to preserve its historic partnership with Moscow. The strategic “no-limit” pact between China and Russia hardly mentions Ukraine but has purposefully included Taiwan. Nonetheless, China now realizes that the United States and its democratic allies link their indirect efforts to weaken Russia in Ukraine to confront China elsewhere. Of course, the Ukraine war and the Taiwan issue cannot be easily compared, but the strategic resemblance of the two seems to illustrate both Russian and Chinese endgames.
Which Way, India?
As Jaishankar highlighted, New Delhi must “engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia.” However, both India’s future and democratic legacy increasingly seem to depend more on being associated with the United States. In fact, this process began with the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2005—followed by the four foundational U.S.-India Defense and Security Agreements and the Quad.
As Tellis argues, the strategic but asymmetrical partnership between India and the United States—along with other American allies and democratic friends in the Indo-Pacific—may deepen to counteract a more assertive China. Meanwhile, the Russian and Indian defense and energy linkages might continue but will weaken over time.
However, Indian investment in the Quad and its military exercises—combined with the four foundational agreements on defense procurements, intelligence sharing, and cyber security—would help New Delhi to preserve its strategic autonomy in its neighborhood and against its two neighboring nuclear powers: China and Pakistan, the latter of which is China’s “all-weather” friend.
Additionally, India must recognize the medium- and long-term calculus of China’s grand-yet-veiled vision of national rejuvenation in the Indo-Pacific. It encompasses Beijing’s Blue Dragon strategy that has already put necessary footprints in the continental and maritime region of South Asia to encircle India in both security and economic domains. The subtle encirclement starts with Taiwan in the Western Pacific Ocean and extends to Sri Lanka in the heart of the Indian Ocean.
All this points to a deterministic grand vision articulated by Beijing that is historically deeper and more geographically expansive than the United States’ conception of “strategic competition” or India’s strategic autonomy. Modern China has adhered to the advice of Sun Tzu, who long ago asserted that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Following his counsel, Beijing has succeeded in building militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea while the United States and its regional allies did not intervene because it would lead to an open confrontation with China. Likewise, if nothing changes, the Indian Ocean could eventually become China’s “Western Ocean” as described in ancient Chinese literature.