India feels it has a strong case to be the natural leader of the Indo-Pacific. Whether the Americans agree may shape the future of their partnership.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States at the invitation of US President Joe Biden is being viewed in Washington DC as a “great opportunity” to review their growing trade, investment and defence relations as well as discuss fresh areas of cooperation.
However, an article by former US Department of State and National Security Council official and India hand, Ashley Tellis, calling India a “bad bet” could well be the inside view in the American capital that Indian officials will have to deal with during the visit.
Tellis’ argument — that India has its own view about its bilateral relations and foreign policy in Asia — should not be a cause for any disappointment in the US. It is simply a description of reality.
India can hardly be expected to play second fiddle to US interests in Asia, a point Modi may once again make clear in his address to US Congress.
Perhaps Tellis’ “bad bet” case is not so much about US frustration with India on the China front as much as it is about mystification over the nature and purpose of India’s China policy.
Three years after the 2020 clashes, India continues to have trouble putting together a coherent military and diplomatic response to Chinese transgressions. There are several reasons for this, including domestic politics, lack of diplomatic capacity and a poorly prepared military.
Today, no conflict can be joined without a degree of international support, especially if your economy is a quarter the size of China’s – or at least that is the thinking within the corridors of power in India.
This reality drives India’s calculations on the Quad and the larger India-US relationship. There is great doubt in New Delhi about the reliability of the Quad and the US regarding China.
All it took for the first iteration of the Quad to fall apart was Chinese diplomatic pressure on the Australians in 2008. That the Quad rose again suggests the security challenges posed by China could no longer be ignored. And yet, like India, its members continue to dither, individually and collectively, on how to respond credibly to China’s provocations.
While its salami-slicing tactics in the South China Sea are too well known to require detailing, China has also targeted Australian and Japanese citizens recently. The Quad has responded to the provocations and international law violations in a roundabout way.
This approach does not address the immediate security challenge from China. Its troops attempted to encroach again into Indian territory in late 2022 and Chinese surveillance balloons were found intruding into US airspace in February 2023.
China’s confidence has at least partly to do with it seeing the Quad as pulling in different directions with a general inability to achieve big-ticket strategic goals.
The US deciding to start an alternative security-focused forum in AUKUS (with the UK and Quad partner Australia) suggests a degree of American frustration with the Quad’s progress.
But from the Indian perspective, it also suggests the Americans can’t stick with it – the last Quad summit of heads of government scheduled for May 2023 had to be cancelled because of American domestic politics.
Given its physical proximity to China and an active boundary dispute, India is naturally cautious about making big moves against its neighbour including through the Quad. Other members of the Quad can more afford to blow hot and cold on China.
In Japan and Australia, it is difficult to escape the impression that changes in policies on China are just an election away. The recent resumption of high-level economic dialogue between China and Australia is taken as a sign of improving relations.
In the US, greater bipartisan consensus on China is simultaneously accompanied by more domestic disarray, polarisation and navel-gazing. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for India to fully believe in the Quad’s intent to act against China.
The US (and the West at large) is unhappy with India’s refusal to condemn Russia over the situation in Ukraine, a somewhat ironic position given the West’s long unwillingness to heed Indian advice on Beijing’s bad behaviour.
India’s lessons learnt from Chinese transgressions along their disputed boundary are also something the rest of the world has ignored.
Such experience gives India a claim to leadership over the Indo-Pacific, something the Quad partners are yet to acknowledge.
Indian troops are also the only ones that have physically clashed with Chinese troops in recent years and might have to do so again in the coming years – even as the rest of the world engages in feverish speculation of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
India already feels short-changed by the international community because it is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council – support for its leadership of the Indo-Pacific should, therefore, be considered entirely appropriate.
Of all the Quad members, India stands to lose the most from equivocating on China. Empowering India to lead the region could be the soundest bet the Americans have made in decades — such a confirmation could spur the growth of the Quad and other security architecture in the region.
Until then, India will continue to pursue its own agenda and at its own pace.
Jabin T. Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, and Director, Centre for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi National Capital Region, India. His Twitter is @jabinjacobt.