Why India Will Never Be Part of U.S. Alliances

Over recent years, there have been growing concerns in Russia over India’s foreign policy being increasingly tilted towards the United States. The pivot is evidenced in a number of developments, ranging from the build-up of the once-stagnant four-party Quad partnership (featuring the U.S., India, Japan and Australia) to Washington’s expanded share in India’s weapons procurement. There are many reasons for New Delhi’s rapprochement with its overseas partner. The main point is clear, though: India’s mounting concerns over sustained economic and military rise in China, its close neighbor.

While India could set out to single-handedly counterweigh China some fifty years ago, the situation today is that economic discrepancies and the military-strategical gap between the two great powers in Asia have widened so much that it is not possible to strike a balance within the foreseeable future, even in hypothetical terms. India needs powerful external leverage, one that could, if partially, offset New Delhi’s relative weakness in its bilateral ties with Beijing.

Under other circumstances, Russia could have played this role. However, there are currently no politicians in New Delhi who cherish the hopes they once laid in their partners from Moscow. With Russia still putting a premium on a privileged partnership with India and Russia’s most recent National Security Strategy placing India on the same level as China, geopolitical realities and economic markers speak to a strikingly different dynamics within the Moscow–Beijing–New Delhi triangle. Any aspect of bilateral relations—be it the overall volume of trade, the number and scale of joint military drills or the number of summits held—demonstrates that China vastly outstrips India on Russia’s current foreign policy case. Moscow tends to remain neutral in the disputes between India and China; however, this very neutrality is rather playing into China’s hands given the magnitude of existing imbalances.

These developments have many experts in Russian and abroad to conclude that as the international system is all the more moving towards a new U.S.–China bipolarity, India’s leadership will have no realistic alternatives but embark on a closer rapprochement with Washington, while Russia will be forced to drift further towards Beijing. This will allegedly result, albeit not in the near future, in the official establishment of Russia–China and India–U.S. political and military alliances—or, as far as the latter case goes, in the Quad transforming into a multilateral alliance similar to the recently established AUKUS (between Australia, the UK and the U.S.).

Pessimists believe that Moscow and New Delhi do not share perspective on the future of global politics, with the gap becoming ever larger. They go on to claim that the “privileged” bilateral relations linger under their own momentum accumulated over the decades of strategic partnership. If this is the case, we will sooner or later see the Russia–India partnership fade into twilight, at least the way it had been since the Soviet era.

Certainly, there can be no denial of the profound shifts India’s foreign policy has exhibited over the last two decades. It is equally evident, however, that New Delhi’s rapprochement with Washington has its limits. There appear to be at least five factors working against a full-fledged U.S.–India political and military alliance. Their cumulative influence throws into question whether such an alliance would be possible in the years or even decades to come. Moreover, these factors place quite specific constraints on the current mode of India–U.S. cooperation. In this vein, drawing direct parallels between India–U.S. and Russia–China relations seems rather improper: the latter partnership is free of the limitations inherent in the former. We shall now briefly describe these limitations.

India is reluctant to act as America’s junior partner

First of all, the U.S. has never been engaged in establishing or managing truly equal political and military alliances. Since the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. has played first fiddle in any bilateral and multilateral frameworks, while all other nations have had to contend themselves with being junior partners who are to follow in Washington’s foreign policy footsteps. This role will hardly satisfy India’s elites as they have foreign policy ambitions of their own, relishing India’s sovereignty and independence. At the same time, it is highly doubtful that the U.S. is ready to change its old habits and form an “alliance of equals” with India. It will be long before this readiness could ever be displayed, since this requires a fundamental change in the views held by the American elites as regards the role and place the U.S. enjoys in global politics.

This is exactly why it is rather hard to imagine the Quad to be at some point remolded into a full-fledged AUKUS-like alliance, where the two other members do not challenge Washington’s senior leadership. Other modes of cooperation between the four powers—be they joint naval drills or collective diplomatic démarches—will persist to possibly be expanded; but the limitations of the Quad’s further institutionalization, as we would argue, have already been exposed. It is not by chance that some influential analysts in India advocate for greater emphasis on the prospective areas of cooperation between the Quad members—ones that lack an inherent anti-Chinese bias, such as innovative technologies, artificial intelligence, climate change, combating the COVID-19 pandemic, managing the global Internet, and others.

A broader agenda for “the four” would ensure greater stability for the multilateral cooperation, fostering it through involving the nations of Southeast Asia (the so-called Quad+) that are interested in engaging the Quad but are reluctant to jeopardize their current relations of partnership with Beijing. Apparently, India’s leadership will adopt a similar stance on Quad-2, the emerging multilateral collaboration in West Asia featuring the U.S., India, Israel and the UAE. India’s leadership clearly intends to make active use of multilateral formats to expand its Eastern and Western footprints—however, New Delhi will refrain from assuming rigid allied commitments, which would cap India’s leeway or undermine the nation’s sovereignty.

Naturally, Moscow and Beijing share the same problem since they, too, lack the historical experience needed to build political and military alliances among equals, which is something that constitutes a significant obstacle to any formalized Russia–China alliance. The existing asymmetries in Russia–China relations are arguably not so evident as those that inform the relations between India and the U.S. Besides, for the last twenty years, Moscow and Beijing have consistently been working towards taking utmost account of each other’s stances to promptly respond to any conflicts of interest. We may therefore suppose that the current collaboration between Russia and China is marked by a greater strategic depth and stability than is the India–U.S. partnership, which is especially true given the high levels of uncertainty and unpredictability typical of Washington’s current foreign policy.

New Delhi and Washington still have a gap in values

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was similar to the former U.S. President Donald Trump in many respects—so much so that the two leaders had a good personal relationship and shared views on the nature of global politics. India’s leader once went as far as to speak in support of Donald Trump during the 2020 US presidential campaign. Apparently, Modi does not have and will hardly develop such an affinity with Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, who has Indian origins on her mother’s side.

New Delhi and Washington diverge on many fundamental issues of democracy and human rights. Naturally, no one in the U.S. would deny India the status of “the world’s largest democracy.” Yet, the Biden Administration is sharply critical of the policies encouraging Indian nationalism or of the attempts to impinge on the rights of India’s Muslim community. Nor does Washington support India’s decision to change the status of Kashmir. It is probably no coincidence that Washington has never earnestly raised the question of India joining G7, a group comprised of “mature” Western democracies.

The U.S. and India also have divergent approaches to the climate agenda. Today, India is the third-largest carbon emitter after the U.S. and China. Yet, as regards per capita emissions, India (1.58) is well behind not only the U.S. (15.5 tons) and China (6.9 tons) but also Russia (10.19), Germany (8.93), Japan (8.99), Canada (15.32), Australia (15.83) and South Korea (11.58). Washington is prompting New Delhi to commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, while India is calling upon the developed nations to curb their emissions ever more radically to redistribute the structure of global emissions to the benefit of the developing economies. Since, in the foreseeable future, India will continue to ramp up carbon emissions, it appears virtually unavoidable that India–U.S. tensions on the issue will subsist.

The Indian society retains certain mistrust towards the U.S. that stems from the complicated history of bilateral relations. This mistrust is fueled by the U.S. policies in the region, which are not always discreet. For instance, the decision to hastily withdraw the American troops from Afghanistan was taken without any consultations with the partners in India, which put the latter in a difficult position. Another frequent cause for frustration is maneuvers of U.S. warships in close proximity to the Indian coast, sometimes without preliminarily coordination of their activities with India. We should not underestimate the influence pro-American groups have on Indian intellectuals, though, much as the influence the large and successful Indian diaspora has on the relations between the two countries, but this influence should not be overestimated either. The Indian diaspora in the U.S., for instance, is rather fond of criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s domestic policies.

A similar “gap in values” is not emblematic of the cooperation between Russia and China. With Russia positioning itself as a democratic state with a market economy and China remaining a socialist country with the Communist Party playing a major role, the recent years have nevertheless seen a clear convergence in the political development of the two countries. Moscow and Beijing are sympathetic to the measures taken by each of them to protect their sovereignty and traditional values. Russia and China’s political leaders are united in their determination to stand firm against what they perceive to be an information war waged by the West against their countries.

India will be unwilling to lose its traditional partners

India is not—and will not be in the foreseeable future—prepared to sacrifice partnerships with countries important to New Delhi and seen by the U.S. as geopolitical rivals. These primarily include Russia but also Iran. Moscow has traditionally been of key significance for India in the military and technical area, and Tehran has held a similar importance in terms of energy. While Washington was forced to be somewhat flexible concerning the military-technical cooperation between Russia and India, America’s harsh sanctions imposed on Iran’s oil and gas sector caused major damage to a number of Indian companies, presenting obstacles to India’s multidirectional foreign policy. Evidently, India will not wish to stand together with the U.S. in its approach to Tehran or Moscow and will avoid complying with U.S. sanctions whenever possible.

India’s membership in the Quad or Quad-2 does not suggest that India will somehow curtail its involvement in such well-established structures as BRICS or the SCO, although it is hard to imagine New Delhi as the principal driver of these organizations. It is plausible that India’s diplomacy will attempt to balance these two areas, supplementing them by establishing new multilateral structures in South Asia and in the Middle East to work on the specific issues present in these regions. New Delhi’s decision to refrain for the time being from participating in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that includes ASEAN nations, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand hardly allows to conclude that this priority has decisively been put to rest.

Pessimists claim that Russia’s significance as one of India’s principal partners is dwindling. This view does not hold universal sway in either Moscow or New Delhi. Yet, even if we suppose this is the case, we should not forget the significant cooperation momentum accumulated over seven decades of successful partnership between Moscow and New Delhi. This is particularly relevant for military-technical cooperation, where Russia remains India’s principal partner.

It is crucial for Russia and India alike not to lose their traditional partners in Asia as the two promote their cooperation with China. Yet, there is every reason to believe that it will be easier for Moscow in this matter to find common ground with Beijing than for New Delhi to reach certain understanding with Washington. This can be evidenced by the simple fact that Beijing is far more restrained than Washington in imposing unilateral sanctions and that China’s sanctions, unlike those of the U.S., are not explicitly extra-territorial. Nonetheless, seeking to strike and maintain the optimum balances between the diverse directions of bilateral relations remains an important objective for Russia’s foreign policy in Eurasia and one that has not fully been attained.

How reliable are U.S. security guarantees?

Recently, especially in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, there have been growing doubts in Asia, let alone in India, over how reliable are the security guarantees Washington offers to its allies and partners. There is reason to believe that the U.S. will not be willing to come to the aid of its friends amid a major crisis, particularly if this entailed significant risks and potential costs for the U.S.

Even if U.S.–India relations were upgraded to the level of an allied partnership, it is far from apparent that Washington would be ready to extend direct military support to New Delhi in the event of another escalation of the India–China border conflict. An even less likely scenario is that the U.S. would decisively endorse India should it a military confrontation with Pakistan play out. As an example of America’s “low profile” in such matters, we could cite its extremely cautious reaction to the acute crisis between Russia and Turkey in November 2015 after the Turkish Air Forces downed a Russian ground attack aircraft over the Syrian-Turkish border.

In the meantime, if Beijing somehow succeeds in resolving the long-standing problem of “unification with Taiwan” on terms acceptable to Beijing, China will have additional capabilities to put pressure on India—both along the lines of China–India confrontation in the East and at the “Pakistani theater” in the West. The balance of power in the U.S.–China confrontation in East Asia is evolving over time, and not in Washington’s favor. This means that the “final solution” to the Taiwan issue, when and if it so happens, will undermine the credibility of U.S. security guarantees in the Indian and Pacific oceans all the more. Therefore, if India were seeking allied relations with Washington at this stage, it would be forced to relinquish part of its sovereignty without receiving any adequate compensation in return.

In this respect, we should note that Russia tends to associate the notion of “the Indo-Pacific” with U.S. endeavors to preserve its strategic hegemony in the Pacific and Indian oceans in the face of China’s growing power. However, India has a somewhat different perspective on this, believing “the Indo-Pacific” to be an opportunity to expand its political and economic presence east of the Strait of Malacca. As far as this standpoint goes, the central place in the emergent mega-region is assigned to the ASEAN nations rather than to the U.S. Obviously, India will not give up on fostering closer ties with its numerous partners in the Asia-Pacific, ranging from Japan and South Korea to the north up to Australia and New Zealand to the south, and this will be the case regardless of developments and the final outcome of the U.S.–China confrontation. This cooperation follows its own logic and has its own dynamics, which is independent of external factors.

Unlike New Delhi, Moscow needs no external security guarantees as it is quite capable of maintaining strategic parity with the U.S. or any other potential adversary on its own. For this reason, the issue of how reliable China’s security guarantees could be has never been on the agenda of Russia–China relations; consequently, the position Moscow enjoys in its relations with Beijing is preferable to that of New Delhi in its relations with Washington.

China is no less important a partner for India than the U.S.

Economic confrontation between the United States and China as well as enhanced state control of China’s economy present, as the moment arises, additional opportunities for Indian businesses. Yet, no matter how important India–U.S. trade and economic relations are for New Delhi, they remain far from serene. There are a number of problems here, stemming from the fact that India is essentially a rather closed economy. These were first broached by the Trump Administration, and they remain on President Biden’s agenda. India has its own grievances in trade and investment vis-a-vis the U.S., with New Delhi preferring to seek arrangements with the EU rather than the U.S. in some of the areas important for India. In this regard, Indian authors note that the current U.S. strategy in India provides no operational alternatives to economic cooperation between India and China and entails no significant programs for the U.S. to assist in modernizing India’s economy. During Trump’s presidency, U.S.–India relations were supposed to be rendered “self-repaying,” and this has not changed under Joe Biden in any principal terms.

At the same time, trade turnover between India and China is growing rapidly, as are China’s investments in India. For sure, India limits the access that Chinese companies may have to sensitive sectors of India’s economy (for instance, to the new generation of telecommunication networks). On the whole, though, the volume of economic ties between China and India is comparable to that between India and the U.S. In 2020, India exported $49bn worth of goods to the U.S. (17.9% of its total exports) and $19bn worth to China (6.89%). Yet, this year’s imports from China totaled $58bn (15.9%), while those from the U.S. stood at $26bn (7.23% of all Indian imports). In many aspects, India’s and China’s economies organically complement each other, which means that economic rapprochement between the two great Asian powers will subsist, even if political tensions between New Delhi and Beijing are still there.

India has to interact with China in the “shared neighborhood” countries, in one way or another. Although these interactions are primarily those of rivalry, there are pockets of cooperation in them, too. India’s leadership cannot but be apprehensive about China’s large-scale military aid programs to the neighboring Myanmar and Bangladesh as well as about China’s increasingly visible presence in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal. However, this is exactly the kind of Eurasian reality that has to be reckoned with. The U.S. can no longer replace China as the principal economic actor in South and Southeast Asia, nor can Washington reverse China’s expanding military-technical cooperation with many countries in the region. Therefore, India will inevitably have to account for China’s presence in subregions that are of crucial importance to New Delhi.

A settlement of India–China border disputes in the foreseeable future appears quite unlikely. We cannot, however, rule out the possibility of a stabilized situation and eased tensions, with a range of confidence-building measures implemented in the military area. If this happens, the current incentives to reinforce India–U.S. military cooperation will inevitably lose momentum. A broader détente or a reset in India–China relations cannot entirely be left out of account, and these developments would launch a de-fragmentation of the Eurasian continent that would be bound to end in a radical shrinking of America’s role as an arbiter and a balancer in Eurasian affairs.

For Russia, the economic heft of the U.S., its main strategic opponent, is far less considerable as compared to that of China vis-a-vis India. The share of trade with the U.S. in Russia’s overall foreign trade has never been significant, and it has been the European Union, not the U.S., that has served as the principal source of FDI, new technologies and practices. What this probably means is that China should outweigh the United States in its capabilities to use economic leverage. Once again, we would like to stress that China tends to more restrained than the U.S. in using unilateral sanctions, although this instrument is still present in China’s foreign policy toolbox as has been demonstrated by Beijing’s refusal to purchase Australian coal. It should also be noted that Moscow is forced to reckon with Washington’s significant influence in its neighboring states (Ukraine and Georgia), just as India has to take into account Beijing’s standing in the states of South Asia (Sri Lanka and Myanmar).

What does this mean for Russia?

The above prompts the conclusion that India will have to take careful stock of its foreign policy priorities in the near future, revising the relations with regional and global partners and rivals that have been shaped over the last two decades or even longer. This process will primarily be informed by how the U.S.–China confrontation evolves as well as by developments in China’s policies towards India. Still, New Delhi’s foreign strategy will increasingly be influenced by the country’s domestic agenda—above all, by the new ideology under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

What does all this mean for Russia? Most importantly, Russia does not have to panic as the India–U.S. cooperation is expanding in a number of areas. So far, this has not posed immediate threats to Moscow as it is largely a challenge for Beijing. The U.S. has been rather understanding in its attitude to Russia–India military-technical collaboration, believing it to be a form of balancing China’s dominance in Asia. Naturally, competition will further intensify on the markets that Russia prioritizes in India, with this competition not limited to military equipment, which is something Russia should be prepared for.

The changing rules of the global geopolitical game and the current diversification of New Delhi’s foreign policy priorities make it all the more urgent to explore new avenues in Russia–India partnership. Experts have long stressed that the current foundation for these relations is too narrow to create a solid fabric of social collaboration between the two nations. Biotechnologies, new energy, digital economy, higher education, transport logistics and tourism are but a partial list of the new opportunities that need to be carefully considered.

In a geopolitical sense, Moscow and New Delhi could lend each other a helping hand: New Delhi could do so in the India–U.S.–Russia triangle to become Moscow’s guide in the Indo-Pacific, while Moscow could do so in the Russia–China–India triangle by advancing the involvement of the other two in multilateral security and development projects in Eurasia. The international system slipping down towards a rigid bipolarity cannot align with the strategic interests of either Moscow or New Delhi while pushing them towards much closer collaboration. Provided both sides demonstrate due political will, patience and empathy, the Russia–India partnership could come to be one of the pillars of the continental and global order in the years to come.

From our partner RIAC

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council.