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.
The United States can fortify its strategic partnership with India and move toward forming a close strategic friendship, if not a tacit alliance. New Delhi already knows Washington’s support is critical to facilitate India’s rise and that the United States is India’s most important global partner, one that can offer it the economic and strategic advantages it needs to overcome the development and geopolitical challenges it faces. The United States is already India’s primus inter pares strategic partner, a fact recognized by India’s leadership and much of its foreign-policy community.
Unlike his predecessors, Modi could prove to be a willing and credible partner for the United States He could become an effective leader who can deliver results and is willing to gamble on deepening the partnership in new and creative ways. Ambitious and pragmatic, Modi continues to retain strong political and popular support in the country. He has shown a proclivity for foreign policy and surprised people with his strategic thinking. Also, he has displayed a willingness to push the boundaries of his nation’s usually uninspired foreign policy out of the comfort zone of the Indian foreign-policy establishment. Although Modi’s foreign policy is about “India First,” that policy is also about finding common ground and determining where interests converge.
India seeks a greater role in the world and now has a capacity to contribute more. India’s reinvigorated global and regional diplomacy shows Modi’s desire to carve out an active and commensurate diplomatic role for a rising India. In Nehru’s time, India had a smart and proactive leader who was passionate about foreign policy, but the nation lacked any economic clout to back up its desired international profile; present day India has an ambitious foreign-policy leader and growing economic power to buttress its international aspirations. With the emergence of other global powers, a strong strategic partnership with a democratic and generally like-minded India is desirable, if not a necessity, in order to advance U.S. strategic objectives.
Recommendations for U.S. Policymakers
Strategic autonomy remains the most influential principle of Indian foreign policy, making it more challenging for the United States and India to develop an informal alliance. However, New Delhi seems to understand that tradeoffs are required if its desire for India to be a “leading power” is to be realized. A U.S. partnership with India requires long-term efforts to craft a new strategic model addressing the complex, and often conflicting, interests of Washington and New Delhi.
The emergence of a Sino-centric Asia order is a sine qua non for a strong U.S.-India strategic partnership. India supports a multipolar Asia with an open and inclusive regional architecture that includes a robust role for the United States. A faster than expected—or a poorly managed—decline in the relative power of the United States in the world order would create doubts in India about the partnership and cause it to look to other partners.
The United States should intensify its efforts to improve India’s economic development, security capabilities and overall capacities, which would help India expand its national power. India bears responsibility for improving its business climate, governance and society. However, the United States and India have myriad initiatives under their Strategic and Commercial Dialogue that can and should be given the highest degree of priority.
India faces many hurdles within South Asia, especially with its relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan. These challenges force Indian attention inward within South Asia and prevent it from devoting more diplomatic attention and efforts toward regional and global issues. Although India needs to find a way to resolve festering local grievances in Indian-administered Kashmir and a mechanism to better manage its Pakistan ties, a day may come when U.S. military sales to Pakistan are no longer compatible with or feasible if the United States genuinely desires to establish a credible, close “alliance-like” strategic partnership with India. Substantial U.S. military sales to Pakistan continue to irk India’s leadership and public and reinforce their doubts about U.S. reliability and authenticity as a “natural ally” and friend.
The United States should not attempt to make India part of a U.S.-led alliance aimed at containing China. India should be made part of a U.S. policy that supports India to first be strong, stable, capable, democratic and outwardly looking with global interests that support U.S. interests in an Asian strategic rebalance. The United States should help India convert its elements of national power into instruments of national power.
The Indian Ocean region remains the most important strategic area for India’s security interests. The United States should discuss the possibility of building an informal quadrilateral framework among India, Japan, Australia and the United States. These nations have already established trilateral dialogues: United States, Australia, Japan; United States, India, Japan; and Australia, Japan and India. A previous attempt to form a quadrilateral dialogue collapsed in 2008. Now is an opportune time to reexamine the possibility of holding such a dialogue. The United States should also encourage closer bilateral engagement and operational cooperation among the security forces of India, Japan and Australia. The India-Australia political and security partnership has improved in recent years but remains weaker than the India-Japan partnership. An Asian security network with spoke-to-spoke connections between U.S. treaty allies as well as new regional partners, such as India, would buttress regional security.
As the United States forges ahead in deepening its strategic partnership with India, it must understand the intangible factors informing Indian thinking on foreign policy—especially the factor which has influenced it from India’s independence in 1947 to the emerging India today. Those factors include the cultural characteristics of India, which make nonalignment and strategic autonomy not only pragmatic foreign policies for India, but also ones that are a natural fit for India’s national psyche.
India’s nonviolent independence struggle was rare among colonies, so it should not be surprising that its foreign policy is different from Western nations and other emerging nations. The United States should understand Indian perspectives and its civilizational ethos which influence its foreign policy. It needs to manage high expectations from within the U.S. government and business community regarding short-term or medium-term benefits because India is the quintessential long game strategic play.
India experts, including many Indians, employ traditional international relations concepts such as realism and liberalism to capture Indian foreign policy and behavior, while discounting India’s indigenous thinking, which is a primarily Gandhian thought process associated with the peace-studies theory. Peace-studies theory focuses on nonviolence, equality and working together for the collective good. As noted previously, Gandhian views permeated Nehru’s thinking when he formulated India’s foreign policy. Nehru sought to apply Gandhian views on nonviolence and on the interconnectivity of actions to international politics. Gandhian thought continues to pervade Modi’s foreign policy through his emphasis on engagement and soft diplomacy. The principle of nonviolence, on which Indian foreign policy was built, continues to influence it.
India, like the United States, views itself as an exceptional country. Indian exceptionalism, paradoxically, may challenge cooperation with the United States since the United States also has its own strong sense of exceptionalism based on its history and ideas of nationhood. The United States should recognize Indian exceptionalism and seek areas of convergence in order to advance mutual United States and Indian strategic interests.
Mir Sadat, PhD, is a naval officer currently assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations. He has over two decades of experiences dealing in Middle East/South Asia geostrategic topics. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. government or any of its departments or agencies.