Seeing Beyond the Hype: Dispelling Misleading Notions in the Indo-US-China Triangle

Over the last two decades, the US and India have significantly strengthened their strategic partnership. Both countries have reinforced relations through various agreements, initiatives, and engagements on the bilateral and multilateral fronts, with extensive collaboration in defence, security, economy, trade, energy, climate, health, science, technology, education, and culture. While this deepening engagement has created the impression that the two countries are perfectly aligned with each other in every domain, the two countries have certain differences. This opinion piece delves deep into the specific events that expose the gaps of this partnership.

India and the US have undertaken several cooperative agreements and initiatives since 2017. These include the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) in 2017, the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in October 2020, and the renewal of the Statement of Guiding Principles on Triangular Cooperation for Global Development (SGP) in March 2021. In April 2021, they launched the US-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership which comprised of Strategic Clean Energy Partnership (SCEP) and the Climate Action and Finance Mobilization Dialogue (CAFMD). Following the meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi on 24 September 2021 at the White House, the two leaders issued a joint statement on “A Partnership for Global Good”, in which they agreed to work closely on different issues like COVID-19, climate change, trade, investment, security, and democracy. More recently, the US-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) was launched in May 2023.

The strategic interests of the two countries converge over China, as Washington cultivates India as a potential counterweight against China in the Indo-Pacific. However, the expectations of US towards India are unrealistic. Given the strategic vulnerabilities of India, it would be utopian thinking on part of the US that India will confront China to appease the US. Writing for the Foreign Affairs on 1 May 2023, Ashley J. Tellis called it “America’s Bad Bet on India”. Tellis, it is important to note, has played a key role in the negotiations for the Indo-US strategic partnership.

There are many instances that suggest ideological misalignment between the two countries and that Washington’s hopes regarding this partnership may suffer an unhappy ending. These include democratic erosion in India, India’s neutrality on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and India’s strategic vulnerability. India’s growing closeness and convergence of interest with the US is unnatural. The strengthening bilateral ties are due to a common threat, i.e., a rising China. Arzan Tarapore has termed this convergence an “imperfect alignment”. Learning from the experiences of the humiliating defeat against China in 1962 and the comparatively recent border clashes with China, India is trying to strengthen itself against China by fostering ties with the US. Moreover, India has also to keep a check on the western front i.e., Pakistan. It cannot simultaneously keep an eye on both China and Pakistan on its own. That is why it is compelled to seek support from the US. Similarly, the threat of rising China is compelling Washington to support a counterweight force in the region. This is to say that strengthening Indo-US ties are not based on any ideological conformation. India’s focus is on the movement of China on land, while the US focuses on Chinese actions in Taiwan and in the sea.

While the US is the flagbearer of democracy and human rights in the world, its “strategic partner” is eroding democratic norms in its own country. The treatment of the religious minorities in India and particularly of Muslims is deeply distressing. Moreover, India, the claimant of being the world’s largest democracy is the supporter of the military regime in Myanmar while the US opposes this regime that took power through a coup d’état.

In the case of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the ideological gap between India and the US became further visible with India’s decision to take a somewhat impartial stance. In other words, it refused to conform to the demands of Washington to distance from Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Russia has been a traditional partner of India that supplies it with military equipment, arms, cheap energy, and oil. Therefore, India preferred its interests with Russia over US demands.

India is in a vulnerable position when compared to China. China outclasses India in every domain, be it economy, military, or technology. According to the 2022 report of the World Bank, China’s GDP is $17.96 trillion while India’s GDP is $3.39 trillion. According to the Global FirePower Index 2023, China and India are ranked 3rd and 4th respectively in terms of overall military strength. However, the comparison of the defense budget shows a stark difference. The defense budget of China is $230 billion while India’s defense budget is $54.2 billion. Thus, the defense budget difference between the two countries is around $175.8 billion. The Global Innovation Index 2022 (GII) ranked China at 11th while India is at 40th number in terms of innovation.

Therefore, despite all these growing bilateral and multilateral engagements, the future of the Indo-US Strategic Partnership depends upon the extent to which the US needs India to side with it against China. India has significant weaknesses as compared to China, such as slower economic growth, lower military spending, a weaker technological base, and greater domestic challenges. All these factors make India wary of provoking or antagonizing the powers like China. Understanding this complexity would be much more important and significant and it will shape the trajectory of the strategic partnership between the US and India. Going further with these unrealistic expectations from India will result in strategic miscalculation by the US.


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