President Donald Trump’s first meeting with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in June 2017 described the two nations’ relationship as one that called for prosperity through partnership. On August 21, when President Trump publicly discussed the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, he specifically spoke about furthering the U.S. partnership with India. Almost two months later, in October, coinciding with a visit to India, Secretary of State Tillerson described U.S. efforts to deepen cooperation with India in the face of China’s growing regional influence.
India’s foreign policy has historically been forged by economic and geopolitical strategic drivers. It was first shaped by the basic requirement of economic development as the impoverished nation transitioning from a British colony to a newly independent country that would soon be caught in the Cold War geopolitical struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Twentieth-century India was rooted in Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts and pragmatism, and its foreign policy was exemplified in former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s “nonalignment” doctrine. Since the era of Nehru, India has made impressive economic progress that has resulted in the tremendous expansion of its national power. In fact, economic development continues to play a critical role in India’s foreign policy.
The geopolitical context has dramatically changed since the mid- and late-twentieth century. During the first quarter of the twenty-first century, a surging and economically powerful China and a multipolar geopolitical world define new priorities and strategies for India. These challenges now shape Indian foreign policy under Prime Minister Modi.
Modi, like Nehru, has leadership qualities that positively impact foreign-policy engagements. Both prime ministers have drawn upon India’s spiritual and cultural heritage to elevate their nation’s international standing and advance foreign-policy goals. They share visions for country’s greatness on the world stage, which rests on their shared perceptions of India as a great civilizational-state. In addition to a focus on economics, both Nehru and Modi sought policies that maintain maximum flexibility for India in its relationships with the great powers and with all countries, large and small. Although nonalignment has faded and belongs to a bygone age, it has not disappeared. In India, it has been reincarnated as “strategic autonomy.”
Strategic autonomy permits India to navigate the fluid international environment, and influences how India views partnerships and alliances. It permits India to enjoy partnerships with the United States and other major powers while also maintaining the flexibility to engage with whichever partner it selects at any given time. However, executing a policy of strategic autonomy requires diplomatic resources and interagency coordination, a challenge which still bedevils India foreign-policy formulation and implementation. India is unlikely to enter a formal alliance with an outside power absent a direct and immediate threat to its national security.
Strategic Opportunities for the United States and India
India’s ability to project power beyond its region is still limited, and New Delhi has a strong tradition of strategic restraint. A wide gap exists between Indian ambitions and capabilities, and New Delhi often has difficulty implementing its foreign commitments due to bureaucratic weaknesses and resource constraints. The strength of India’s commitment as a partner during a crisis outside its neighborhood remains unclear. India’s complicated relationships with China and Pakistan may also impact U.S. policy options in the region, complicate the U.S. relationship with China, and negatively impact U.S. equities elsewhere. As the world’s sole superpower, the United States is a convenient target for Indian government officials and politicians who want to demonstrate to various domestic constituencies India’s independent foreign policy.
U.S. support alone, though necessary, is insufficient for India’s rise to great power status. India must make strategic choices and undertake the long overdue economic and governance reforms needed to increase its comprehensive national power and capabilities. India also needs to build up its physical infrastructure and human capital in order to become considered a great power.
Enhancing ties with India remains a logical investment for Washington in an uncertain world. For the United States, a closer partnership offers several advantages such as encouraging India to assume more responsibility for tackling the world’s problems. A rising, prosperous, and more engaged India helps create a favorable balance-of-power in Asia that supports long-term U.S. strategic interests. An Indian voice that echoes U.S. thinking can act as a force multiplier in discussions and debates in various fora in the Asia-Pacific region. New Delhi supports a rules-based global order and the Modi government has spoken in support of the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes and the importance of freedom-of-navigation operations. A democratic and diverse India—one that provides economic prosperity to its people—serves as an alternative model to other developing nations that might be attracted to authoritarian models.
A capable and willing India could share some of the U.S. burden in preserving stability in the Indian Ocean region. India has demonstrated its capability to help in humanitarian and disaster relief efforts in the region. India’s growing middle class will provide long-term economic benefits for the American economy and U.S. companies, which look forward to selling their products and services to millions of new customers.