Whenever American policymakers talk about India, they sing praises of its cultural diversity, hailing it as the world’s oldest and largest democracy. The euphoria of shared values of common democratic principles has been the bedrock of an enduring US-Indian relationship.
The US views India as a counterweight to China. India’s stance is non-committal in this cold-war rivalry, and it watches its economic and strategic interests more than democratic values as a basis of partnership.
American expectations from India are a bit optimistic. During the cold war, India was considered a natural partner to stand against communist Russia on grounds of shared democratic values with the US. But India disappointed time and again by refusing to align with Washington, fostering warm relations with Moscow instead.
When the cold war ended, New Delhi maintained strong connections with Moscow. The subsequent regimes – from Bush to Clinton and Obama to Biden – considered it vital for the US to support a democratic India, take initiatives to reinforce ties, and dispense generous economic assistance.
Like its predecessors, the current Biden Administration has continued to push for closer ties with India for obvious gains. Modi was invited to two democracy summits. He also had his official state visit to America in June 2023 and became the third-ever Indian leader invited to the US on a visit of this protocol after Manmohan Singh in 2009.
The visit indicated the level of commitment by the US to enable this partnership to scale new heights. It was an opportunity for the US to pursue ‘friendshoring’ – a strategy where it moves away from China and taps the potential of other countries in the region. For India it was a prospect of attaining critical technologies for its defence production, securing deals in artificial intelligence, minerals and semiconductors. The US became India’s largest trading partner with a total bilateral trade value of $128.78 billion in FY2023.
Making democratic values the cornerstone of the US-India relationship has put this rose-coloured prism of claim to severe test. The Biden Administration, being an ardent advocate of democratic ideals, finds itself on shaky grounds when India’s democratic credentials are doomed. The world’s largest democracy has seen a surge in violence against minorities, muting opposition, silencing press, academia and civil society.
A few months back, the Indian government declared an outright ban on a 2023 BBC documentary ‘India – The Modi Question’, which highlighted Modi’s role in the state of Gujarat’s deadly 2002 communal riots. New Delhi has frustrated the White House on democratic values yet again; it sold weapons to the military regime that ousted Myanmar’s democratic government in 2021, refused to work with the US on Iran, and refused to entertain economic restrictions against Russia and began purchasing more Russian oil after the invasion began.
India’s behaviour is a clear signal that it is not an ally of Washington – like a Nato member – and the US should know that too much dependence on New Delhi will not help develop a deeper relationship that it expects.
More than democratic values, the US-India relationship can best be described in terms of shared interest. Both see in each other an opportunity of great economic prospects. Yet both have a common challenge – China. Unlike the US, India is not potentially threatened by the autocracy. It is not geared up to strategically manoeuvre the increasing Chinese aggression in the region.
However, during the border clashes between India and China in 2020, when the air was rife with mistrust, the US found an opportune moment for winning Indian alignment by stepping up its defence cooperation. The tables could not be turned. Even though India banned Chinese apps, launched tax raids on Chinese companies, curbed bilateral trade and beefed up security on borders, trade between the two grew with momentum.
India is not oblivious to its security concerns and continues to build its defence against China, but it sees rapid economic growth as an essential condition for its might and business with China will help achieve that economic growth. Therefore, it will not take sides with the US at the cost of its economic interests with China.
In the case of the Taiwan conflict, India is not likely to support the US because it prefers a multipolar world and freedom to navigate flexible relationships with powers.
India and China share similar aspirations, challenges and opportunities. Both aspire for a big role in global governance; both reject Western criticism on human rights and climate change and refuse to condemn the Russia invasion of Ukraine. Both are part of multilateral groups critical of the US and the West – such as BRICS, which includes Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa – and both look up to each other for markets and investment opportunities.
India depends on China for industrial inputs, infrastructure and manufacturing. China’s slowing economy has underlined the need for India’s vast domestic market. China needs to be mindful that antagonism on the borders would achieve nothing substantial but strengthen Indian security ties with the US. Detente is in both countries’ interests.
India – being the world’s most populous state, the second largest military and the fifth largest economy – is a massive pivotal power in Asia. It is an invaluable partner for Washington and Beijing.
A peaceful India-China relationship will bring huge benefit to its population and the region and should not be a case to weaken US-India ties. The US should be mindful that India’s desire to work with the US will not make it an ally like the countries part of AUKUS and Five Eyes. It will be a partnership driven by economic interests, not democratic values.
The writer holds an LLM degree in international economic law from the University of Warwick. She can be reached at:
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