Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Washington Has Blinders on When it Comes to India

In the current multipolar world, three superpowers stand out: the United States, China, and Russia. While New Delhi’s relationship with Beijing is marked by friction, its relations with Washington and the Kremlin have swung back and forth like a pendulum. Although India claims to have an independent foreign policy, its actions often reflect a bias that serves its own interests. As a result, there is a significant gulf between New Delhi and Washington.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been actively pursuing bilateral and multilateral relations on the international stage. This week, Modi is expected to visit Washington to strengthen ties between the two countries. However, President Biden and Modi face a number of areas of disagreement. The most obvious one is the war in Ukraine.

During the G7 summit in Japan, Modi had a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky has been pressing its allies and other countries for more military hardware to help dislodge Russia from Ukraine. In contrast, India has remained neutral despite diplomatic pressure. As a member of the Quad, G7, and other Western alliances, India has taken a divergent position. It is the only country that prioritizes its own interests over offering any criticisms of Russia and its decision to invade Ukraine.

In various UN meetings, India has refused to condemn Russian actions and has instead aligned itself with Russia due to their longstanding military and economic ties. Although India has not publicly declared support for Russia, its actions speak louder than words. Despite Western sanctions, India continues to purchase discounted oil and military equipment from Russia, including the S-400 missile system, thereby indirectly fueling the war.

While it is understandable that New Delhi wishes to maintain autonomy and avoid taking overt sides, this should not prevent India from taking steps to alleviate the ongoing conflict, which it has failed to do so far. If India desired to align itself with Western allies, it could have advocated for peace or even acted as a mediator. However, New Delhi has not made substantial contributions to ending the war. On the other hand, China has proposed a solution to the conflict, further highlighting India’s differing interests compared to those of the U.S. India’s stance demonstrates its preference for maintaining its relations with Russia over aligning with the West.

The war in Ukraine has put India’s reliability as an ally of the U.S. and the West to the test. Many commentators, including Ashley Tellis, have warned the Biden administration about the risks of relying too heavily on India given recent events.

According to the U.S. National Security Strategy unveiled in October 2022, India is considered a strategic ally. This designation is primarily aimed at countering China in the Indo-Pacific. However, this alignment of interests between the U.S. and India is the sole reason India enjoys significant international standing. Despite U.S. support in bolstering India’s defense capabilities and global status, India is unlikely to act as a bulwark against China. There are two main reasons for this: India’s trade deficit with China and its lack of direct interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

Firstly, India’s relations with China reached a recent low point during border clashes in May 2020. Although border standoffs with China have occurred in the past, the Galwan Valley clashes were the deadliest in 60 years, resulting in the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers. Surprisingly, trade between the two countries did not come to a halt. In fact, bilateral trade actually increased significantly after the incident. While India’s imports from China dipped to $3.32 billion in June 2020 due to COVID restrictions, they rebounded to $5.58 billion the following month as restrictions eased. India’s trade deficit with China has grown from $1 billion to $73 billion over the past two decades and is expected to continue rising as India becomes more industrialized. India relies on advanced machinery and spare parts from China to sustain its industries. Consequently, engaging in a conflict with China would be counterproductive to India’s economic growth.

Secondly, India does not have a direct stake in the Indo-Pacific, which sets it apart from the U.S. Although the Indian Navy has participated in defense drills and exercises in the Indo-Pacific with the U.S. and its allies, it still lags significantly behind the Chinese Navy in terms of size and capabilities. Between 2017 and 2019, China constructed more warships than Japan, Australia, France, the United States, and India combined. The Chinese Navy boasts modern capabilities, while the Indian Navy still has a long way to go to effectively counter China.

In a recent article by Arzan Tarapore, the argument for U.S. military support for India to counter China in the Indian Ocean is flawed. India is unwilling to engage in conflicts with China, especially in territories where its main interests lie. Expecting India to confront China in the Indian Ocean, where its stakes are significantly lower, demonstrates a misunderstanding of Indian foreign policy objectives. Due to its limited interests, India is unlikely to involve itself in any conflicts, whether in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific Ocean, unless absolutely necessary.

Additionally, Modi followed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his international tour, including a visit to Papua New Guinea. This small island nation has recently become a stage for the U.S.-China rivalry. Given India’s reluctance to counter China on its own borders, it remains uncertain if India would engage in countering China on a remote island with minimal relevance to its interests.

There is a significant gulf between New Delhi and Washington. Further exploration of Indian foreign policy would likely reveal more instances of these differences. Instead of aligning with the U.S. on the issue of the Russia-Ukraine war, India indirectly supports Russia’s actions. This highlights the greater convergence between Moscow and New Delhi. Russia is not only a close ally of India but also of China. In comparison, Russia has stronger diplomatic, political, and economic ties with India than it does with Beijing. This suggests that if India and the U.S. truly had converging interests, New Delhi could have reconsidered its relations with Moscow or, at the very least, played a role in mediating or stopping the war.

However, based on the current trend of Indian foreign policy, it seems that India is locked into a defense collaboration with Russia, which could pose risks such as espionage or the theft of U.S. defense technologies by Russia or vice versa. Furthermore, India’s questionable willingness and limited capability to contain China represent another area of divergence. Thus, India has primarily sought the support of the U.S. to advance its own national interests as a regional power rather than being a truly reliable ally, highlighting a clear divergence of interests between the two supposed allies.