By István Hagyó
In the recent decades India has become a major power in the Indo-Pacific region which has increased its importance for the United States. China, the second largest economy, aims to establish hegemony in competition with the United States. This provides an opportunity both for the United States and India to find a common path and deepen their partnership to balance China. However, India’s intentions are still unclear and even more sophisticated, due to the changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. Will a traditionally neutral India be willing to support the United States in its effort to counter China?
Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy proved that Asia became the top priority of US Foreign Policy during his Administration. However, under Trump, the focus was reduced by merging East Asia with South Asia, calling the whole region as Indo-Pacific. President Trump’s February 2020 visit to India and the subsequent signing of Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement in October 2020 allowing the two states to exchange geospatial intelligence are symbolic events in highlighting India’s rising status in the U.S. Foreign Policy strategy. Additionally, the two states are engaged in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue along with Japan and Australia. The Dialogue has become a significant regional cooperation platform led by the United States.
In late March this year, the Biden Administration continued the effort to engage with India by sending the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to visit India. During his first Asian trip, besides visiting America’s two closest allies Japan and South Korea, he also visited India, a symbolic step towards highlighting India’sincreased importance for the United States. Biden is generally viewed as an India-friendly politician, particularly due to his contribution towards the United States-India Civil Nuclear Deal in 2008. Additionally, the fact that his administration comprises of a higher percentage of Indian Americans than any other administration, in particular the vice-presidential pick Kamala Harris, carries a great symbolic significance. Biden considers the bilateral relations with India as the “defining relationship” of the 21st century. This makes more sense as China is seeking to become a regional hegemon, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) mega-project giving Beijing greater influence and military and geopolitical advantage in the region. The BRI mega-project would allow Chinese investments in several participating, vulnerable countries surrounding India, such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India’s traditional adversary, Pakistan. China is developing the ports in these countries which will allow it to gain access to the Indian Ocean. This raises concerns in New Delhi of geopolitical encirclement, thereby giving the United States a great opportunity to engage with India.
However, the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system by India raises concern in the United States. New Delhi was a traditional partner of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and afterwards, with Russia. It is unlikely that India will give up these ties on America’s insistence. As India’s External Affairs Minister,Subrahmanyam Jaishankar argues, India has no intention of fully aligning either with Russia or the United States, rather will continue to be neutral as it has been for the last 70 years. Further, he points out: “This is a time for us to engage America, manage China, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play … and expand traditional constituencies of support. … A longstanding trilateral with Russia and China coexists now with one involving the U.S. and Japan”. However, the former Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Arun Singh has a different vision on India’s role, where he says, “In the framework for China, U.S. sees India as a very important partner. I think that would be ... the defining parameter for the relationship going ahead.” Narendra Modi the Indian Prime Minister described the basic pillars of the bilateral relations: “India stands for "freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce and adherence to international law." Certainly, India welcomes these efforts and see the potential in it, but will consider all options and act in accordance with its national interest.
It is uncertain how long India can remain neutral in a dynamically changing regional landscape. Will the United States be willing to accept India’s military ties to Russia as it engages with India to balance China? It is hard to answer which military alliance is more important for India, but it is certain that the United States is making serious efforts to engage India to counter China. The U.S Secretary of Defence stated, “...it's clear that the importance of this partnership (US-India), and its impact [on] the international rules-based order will only grow in the years ahead." While the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh described the future of the US-India relations: “keen to work together to realize the full potential of the India-US comprehensive global strategic partnership." With four consecutive US Administrations in favor and bipartisan support for the US-India relations, it can be assumed that the bilateral relations will remain stabIe for the time-being. In case that India decides to align fully with the United States, the balance in the Indo-Pacific region will be reshaped and will accordingly prompt shift in policies on both sides, between the US-led group of countries and the China-led one.