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Why does the deepening Indo-US friendship puzzle so many?

Not only has the foreign policy elite been unduly suspicious of the US, it has also misjudged India’s agency in shaping the relationship.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: March 9, 2021 8:57:58 am
The Democratic Party’s strong concerns on human rights, it was argued, were bound to undermine US ties with the Modi government. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

India’s expanding partnership with the US is marked by a fascinating political puzzle. The relationship has advanced by leaps and bounds even as doubters dominate the public discourse in both Delhi and Washington. The latest evidence comes from the quickening pace of diplomatic engagement between the two capitals.

For months, analysts in Delhi and Washington told us to expect a slowdown, if not setbacks, under the Joe Biden presidency. What we have instead is the likely elevation of the strategic partnership at the first-ever summit of the Quad nations scheduled for this week.

The Quad, or the quadrilateral security dialogue, brings India and the US together along with Washington’s longstanding treaty-allies, Australia and Japan. That the Quad is meeting at the summit level, well before Biden has spent two months at the White House, underlines the growing gap between our foreign policy debate and policy.

The roots of this problem, on the Indian side at least, lie in the enduring reluctance of Delhi’s foreign policy community to either acknowledge or accept the unfolding transformation of India’s ties with the US. It also rests in the continuing underestimation of Delhi’s capacity to rework its great power relations to meet India’s changing interests and circumstances. Consider, for example, some of the recent lines of the argument on India-US relations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was said, made a big mistake by investing far too much in engaging Trump and that Biden would neither forget nor forgive.

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The Democratic Party’s strong concerns on human rights, it was argued, were bound to undermine US ties with the Modi government. It was widely held that the Indo-Pacific and the Quad will become footnotes in Biden’s foreign policy. This in turn was based on the bet that Biden is likely to embrace China rather than confront it in the manner that Trump did. All these assumptions turned out to be inaccurate.

Biden has far too much on his plate at home and in the world to pick on the international friends of Trump. Biden has been in Washington long enough — for nearly half a century before he became President — to know that the international outreach to Trump was about sustaining the partnerships with the US at a difficult moment.

Concern for democracy and human rights has always been part of US foreign policy ideology. But to believe that they will define America’s engagement with India required a leap of faith. No state, not even a revolutionary one, can run its foreign policy on a single-point agenda. All chancelleries need to balance competing interests.

Biden has signalled more continuity than discontinuity with Trump’s China policy. He affirmed continuing commitment to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad. The foreign ministers of the Quad were quick to convene digitally and the summit appears a natural next step.

Analysis of international dynamics, especially at a time of fluidity, does not lend itself to easy assessments. Yet, a focus on structural trends does give us a sense of where major powers relations might be headed. India-US relations have been on a steady upward trajectory over the last three decades, withstood significant political transitions in both countries, and managed to overcome many difficult barriers.

The US is now India’s most comprehensive partner. The Russia relationship is long on defence but short on commerce. India’s commercial ties with China are large, but tilted heavily in Beijing’s favour; meanwhile, Delhi’s political trust in Beijing has evaporated amidst China’s aggressive antics on the contested boundary. Collective Europe is big on commerce but small on security cooperation. The US has a sizeable presence in both economic and security dimensions and the political common ground with India has steadily expanded.

Why, then, the persistent doubts in Delhi about the US partnership? One part of it is the ingrained ideological bias in the dominant foreign policy elite. It was generous to a fault when it came to assessing China’s interests and motivations, but always unduly suspicious of America.

But official Delhi has moved away from the legacy of anti-Americanism. The popular opinion — or the “street” as External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar calls it — has been enthusiastic about the partnership with the US. Delhi’s stilted debate on the US is, unfortunately, reinforced by the sad absence of investment in institutional capabilities to study American politics, economics and international relations.

Even as it continuously misjudged the US, the Indian foreign policy elite has not appreciated India’s agency to shape the relationship with America. The conviction that Delhi is perennially under US pressure to accept policies harmful for itself further distorts the discourse in the media and among the chattering classes.

The evidence from the 1990s — one of India’s most vulnerable moments after Independence — should have corrected this misperception. A series of weak coalition governments deflected the Clinton administration’s attempts to force a Kashmir settlement with Pakistan. Delhi defied the US pressure to roll back the nuclear and missile programmes, conducted nuclear tests, and began a serious diplomatic effort at bridging the prolonged atomic divergence.

Much water has flown in the Yamuna and Potomac since then; but the dominant discourse remains stuck in a groove. If Delhi negotiates a ceasefire with Rawalpindi, it is assumed that the Biden administration must have played a role. If Delhi sees value in the “Indo-Pacific” construct, it must be under American pressure. The traditional discourse finds it hard to come to terms with the twin factors shaping India’s new approach.

One is the significant increase in India’s material capabilities. India’s aggregate GDP increased ten-fold between 1990 ($270 billion) and 2020 (about $2,700 billion) and pushed it into the world’s top five economies. These relative gains have immensely expanded India’s geopolitical possibilities.

Equally important is the new political will in Delhi. The UPA government (2004-14) made such heavy weather of the historic initiatives it had signed with the US in mid-2005. It struggled to implement the nuclear deal and started walking back from the framework for defence cooperation.

The NDA government, in power since 2014, had the political will to build on the US initiatives launched by the UPA government. The new India no longer wrings its hands in dealing with the US; it relishes the large room for strategic bargaining with America. Even more important, Delhi is no longer a reluctant partner to Washington. Over the last three years, it revived the Quad, shaped the coalition’s approach to strategic connectivity, and has demonstrated its leadership in vaccine diplomacy. Delhi is now well-positioned to raise the Quad agenda to a higher level at the digital summit of its leaders this week.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 9, 2021 under the title ‘Despite the doubters’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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