Bouquet of Thorns and Roses: Comprehending the Past, the Present and the Future of the India-US Relations

Harmonious relations between India and the United States is inevitable, but the US must not take India for granted and respect its sovereignty and integrity unconditionally.
  • India and the US are strategic partners, not seeking a complete convergence but managing differences by ensuring a continuous dialogue and crafting new opportunities.
  • While Indian and American policies are at variance in countries such as Myanmar, Iran, and Afghanistan, China is the one interest that brings the two countries together.
  • There is no doubt that the degree of rapprochement between India and the United States, especially from New Delhi, will largely depend on the situation in China−India relations.
  • Russia’s increased alignment with China as a result of the Ukraine crisis only complicates India’s ability to rely on Russia as it balances China.

Relations between the Republic of India and the United States, if we mean their almost 75-year-long history, can be represented as a rather changeable line. For the most part, especially in the past century, it was sluggish and, according to the definition of the experts of the US Council on Foreign Relations, resembled “estrangement”. There were individual bursts, which were demonstratively multidirectional. For example, in 1962, the United States was on the side of “nonaligned” India in the border war with China but did not support it in 1971 in the Third Indo−Pakistani War. New tensions arose after the Indian nuclear tests in 1998 and the American sanctions announced in this context.

Ascending Dynamics

Between 2014 and 2020, Narendra Modi made six visits to the United States, and the head of the White House officially visited India twice. In 2020–2021, Modi and President Joe Biden held telephone conversations at least three times and participated in joint online events, including the virtual Quad summit in March 2021. Six months later in Washington, on the sidelines of the first in-person meeting of the top leaders of the countries of this group, the first personal negotiations between the current leaders of the United States and India took place, culminating in the signing of another Joint Statement.

Formal moments are also a sign of ascending dynamics. Since February 2020, when Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump visited the Indian capital, the relations between the two countries began to be called a “comprehensive global strategic partnership”, thus their official status, previously defined as “partnership for prosperity” was raised. It is not by chance that after this visit, authoritative analysts of the Foreign Affairs magazine stated that Trump and Modi had managed to rebuild bilateral relations seriously, which have consistently been strengthened In the updated Indo–Pacific Strategy of the United States, adopted on February 11, 2022, Washington calls New Delhi “a steadfast regional ally”.

Mutual Interests: Internal and External Aspects

Bilateral factors are trade and investment, including prospects for cooperation in the energy sector, including nuclear energy. For India, which has only an unofficial nuclear status, interaction with the United States means facilitating access to the markets of nuclear raw materials and technologies, making it possible to mitigate restrictions from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and generally consolidates India’s position as a nuclear state. The United States, in turn, expects to facilitate its access to the Indian nuclear power plant market, the capacity of which is estimated at $100 billion. India buys from the United States significant volumes of oil (10.7 million tons in 2020; from the Russian Federation, 2.6 million) and LNG (3.3 billion cubic meters in 2020; from the Russian Federation, 0.7 billion).

The interests of the developing bilateral military−technical ties are also reciprocal, where the value of contracts for the supply of weapons from the United States by 2021 exceeded $20 billion. The Americans receive large incomes, while India diversifies the sources of arms imports, which makes it possible to bargain with other suppliers. However, equally important for the rapprochement of the two countries are external factors.

The China Factor

Each of the countries fears China in its own way. The United States proceeds from considerations of maintaining its global leadership and openly seeks to make India an ally in the confrontation with China, including by involving it in its own strategy on the Indo–Pacific region, put forward in 2017, with its dominance of military components. India is guided here by more complex considerations due to the long-standing territorial dispute between Delhi and Beijing: the two countries compete for regional influence, primarily in the Indian Ocean basin.

At the level of official contacts, Washington and New Delhi shy away from openly mentioning the “Chinese threat.” Most often, in joint Indian−American political statements, the attitude towards the “Chinese factor” is defined as the intention to promote common interests in the Indo–Pacific region and ensure regional stability and freedom of navigation. Often, especially in the context of the situation in the South China Sea, the parties declare universal calls to respect “the legitimate rights and interests of all nations according to international law”, which is perceived as a rather obvious signal to China. In addition, India highly appreciates the position of the United States in support of its full-fledged membership in the UN Security Council, which has been consistently confirmed, including in joint documents of recent years. The Russian factor cannot but influence the agenda of the dialogue between Washington and New Delhi. It is not by chance that India recently experienced serious pressure from the United States in connection with the acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defence system. In April 2022, against the backdrop of the events in Ukraine, Washington warned India “of serious risks” associated with an increase in oil purchases from Russia ]. Moreover, according to the Director of the National Economic Council B. Deese, Washington directly told the Indian leadership that in the case of closer strategic cooperation with Moscow, the consequences would be serious and long-term.

With all this, it is no secret that US−Indian ties are having a rebound effect on New Delhi’s relations with Beijing and Moscow. Against the backdrop of Washington’s increased pressure on China and Russia in recent years, the United States is rather concerned about the growth of these ties. In this respect, the dialogue between Washington and New Delhi has long been perceived by many experts as part of a much more complex quadrangular structure.

Unique Foreign Policy of India

However, limitations and zones of divergence, especially characteristic of New Delhi’s approaches, will also remain. While interested in developing a strategic dialogue with the United States, India is striving to preserve its traditional “strategic autonomy,” which it reinforces by diversifying its global and regional policies as much as possible. Note that, in recent years, New Delhi has seemed to be striving increasingly to expand such autonomy to the economic sphere, emphasizing its strengths. Let us also bear in mind the frictions directly in the bilateral agenda, which sometimes, for example, in trade, turn into open squabbles.

As Foreign Affairs observers have recently recalled, in 2019 the United States denied duty-free access to India’s products to the American market, which it provides to developing countries; this move was motivated by the fact that India had not given the United States equal access to its market. The issue has been discussed since then, but to no avail thus far. In addition, India is on the US list of countries where, according to the United States, human rights violations take place. In particular, Secretary of State A. Blinken spoke about this at the press conference on April 11, 2022, and the quick answer to him was the statement of the head of the Indian diplomacy, who recalled that India has its own idea of human rights 

There is no doubt that the degree of rapprochement between India and the United States, especially from New Delhi, will largely depend on the situation in China−India relations.

As for the mutual influence of the Indian−American dialogue and Russian−Indian relations, a certain balance should be expected here too. However, the Ukrainian events in the spring of 2022 inserted new challenges into the situation in the United States−Russia−India triangle. Assessing the possible scenarios here, one should keep in mind the position of clear neutrality regarding Ukraine, which was immediately taken by India, just as in 2014, distancing itself from anti-Russian sanctions.

Impact of India-Russia Relations

Indicatively, along with the diplomatic formulations of official New Delhi about its interest in relations with all countries, about the task of achieving peace as soon as possible, many in Indian media, including the blogosphere, clearly spoke for Russia as a proven, long-term, and reliable friend of India, which had supported it more than once. On the contrary, doubts were expressed about the allied strength of the United States, which, using the example of Hussein, had more than once betrayed those whom it called friends. Attention was also drawn to the mercenary nature of the US attitude towards India: the United States, unlike Russia, is moving away, for example, from the transfer of defence technologies and seeking to put India in a dependent position.

India’s parallel dialogue with Moscow and the United States and other Western countries, including Quad members, can be considered one of the most likely scenarios for the near future. It seems much less likely that New Delhi’s policy of “autonomy and equidistance” will abruptly change to a formal union with Washington, the possibility of which was recently analyzed by some researchers.

This was again indicated by the results of the regular online meeting of Biden and Modi on April 11, 2022, and the subsequent face-to-face talks between the Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs (2 + 2 format), when the parties continued the dialogue on security and other areas of cooperation, but the Indian leaders again refrained from criticizing Russia in the Ukrainian context and avoided any commitment to reduce cooperation with the Russian Federation. For similar reasons, and despite the current difficulties in Sino−Indian relations, the Russia−India−China (RIC) dialogue format remains relevant. This format was not too much affected by the Ukrainian events, which was facilitated by the fact that both India and China assessed it from similar, neutral, positions, refraining from criticizing and condemning Russia and fencing off anti-Russian sanctions. The RIC continues to be considered important in Moscow and Beijing. New Delhi shows no intention of leaving it either.

Recall that on November 21, 2021, the Foreign Ministers of the Russian Federation, China, and India held a regular annual event—trilateral negotiations (held since 2002; the last two years, in an online format), culminating in the adoption of a joint communiqué. The need to promote trilateral cooperation further was once again recorded in the Joint Russian Statement following the December (2021) visit of the President of the Russian Federation to India. The same approach was confirmed during the above-mentioned talks of Lavrov in New Delhi in the spring of 2022. Let us note that, having arrived in the Indian capital from Beijing, where he had previously met with Minister Wang Yi, the head of the Russian diplomacy, among other things, referred to a positive opinion about the prospects of the RIC, again expressed by the Chinese side. India today can once again use the benefits of the beneficiary, when, in connection with the events in Ukraine, its international position is important to both Russia and the West. The above-mentioned abundance of visits to the Indian capital by leaders of various countries is good evidence of this.

As some observers reasonably emphasize, the United States, not wanting to lose the “Indian resource” in its confrontation with China, refrains from quarrelling with India because of its unique position in the Ukraine crisis. However, India’s position is important for Russia as well. It was the opinion of India, according to the same experts, that was taken into account, for example, in the communiqué following the second Quad summit, which “failed to condemn Russia”.

What Could Drift the US Away?

Russia is not a new factor in this relationship. India has chosen to increase rather than reduce the import of its meagre crude oil supplies from Russia, which are being offered at a discount. The India-Russia defence relationship has also been an irritant in the India-US relationship. The CAATSA law has been part of the discussion on India’s purchase of the S-400 Triumf missile defence system from Russia for a long time. However, there is a clear recognition in the US that any move to sanction India would take the relationship back by decades.

Despite a warning by the U.S. about the “consequences to countries that actively attempt to circumvent or backfill the sanctions,” India and Russia are exploring ways of conducting bilateral trade by bypassing the dollar-based financial system.

In recent years, China had looked at Indian moves in the region through the prism of their U.S. policy, but India’s stance on Ukraine has triggered a rethink in Beijing. The Chinese Foreign Minister’s recent visit to India was an exploratory step towards a larger strategic reset with the latter, driven by the need to wean India away from the Quad. During his visit, China offered to create a virtual G-2 in Asia by protecting India’s traditional role and collaborating on developmental projects such as “China-India Plus” in South Asia.

While Indian and American policies are at variance in countries such as Myanmar, Iran, and Afghanistan, China is the one interest that brings the two countries together. If this moment provides for a reset of India’s ties with China, it will alter India’s relationship with the U.S. and raise questions about the effectiveness of the Quad.

The Way Forward

The US Secretary of State for Political Affairs, during her recent visit to India, acknowledged that “India’s dependence on Russia for defence supplies is crucial” and that this was “a legacy of security support from the Soviet Union and Russia at a time when the US was less generous with India.” India is emerging as a leading player in an international system that is undergoing an unprecedented transformation. It shall use its present situation to explore opportunities to further its vital interests.

India and the US are strategic partners today in the true sense of the term—a partnership among mature major powers that are not seeking a complete convergence but managing differences by ensuring a continuous dialogue and channelling these differences into crafting new opportunities.

Russia’s increased alignment with China as a result of the Ukraine crisis only complicates India’s ability to rely on Russia as it balances China. Hence, continuing cooperation in other security areas is in the interest of both countries. However, with the new realities of today shaping the trajectory of this bilateral engagement, it is time for the US to help India build its defence manufacturing base through technology transfer as well as co-production and co-development.

(The author is a post-graduate student in International Relations at Kalinga university, Raipur. The opinions expressed are the author’s own)


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