The US focus on its rivalry with China served as a backdrop to the warm welcome reserved for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi by President Biden at the White House last week. He was given the rare honor of a full state visit and an invitation to address a joint session of the US Congress, a visible affirmation of India’s rise as an economic and diplomatic power. The visit reflected two parallel trends: i) India’s reshaping its privileged strategic partnership from Russia to the United States, and ii) the growing importance of India in the multilateral world of 2023. Criticism of Prime Minister Modi’s human rights record and his moves to reduce democracy in his country were barely audible.
US relations with India were in the past highly influenced by the off and on US relationship with India’s historical archrival, Pakistan. The US has been the principal source of Pakistan military equipment, just as India has worked principally with Russian equipment, and the US relied heavily on Pakistan’s assistance during the war in Afghanistan. Relations with Pakistan deteriorated during the first half of the Trump Administration, but the need to obtain Pakistan support in the war in Afghanistan led to improved relations, a trend pursued by the Biden Administration, even after ending the war in Afghanistan. However, the US cannot ignore that Pakistan has become a close partner of China in the last few years, suggesting that the logical partner for the US in this part of South Asia is India.
India’s relations with its neighbors has also undergone a profound shift in priorities, from what used to be a singular focus on the enmity with Pakistan to increasing emphasis on India’s conflict with China, with repeated military clashes between the two since 2020 in disputed areas on the country’s western border. China has supplanted Pakistan as India’s primary security threat, with the logical outcome to bring India closer to the US. Just last December India paraded a new ballistic missile dubbed the “China killer”. Beyond the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and efforts by the West to isolate Russia has accelerated the push by India to replace the military procurement relationship with Russia with one with the US.
However, India has not turned against Russia, its military is still nearly 50% dependent on Russian arms, and it has abstained from condemning Russia for the invasion of Ukraine in United Nations’ votes. India wants closer ties with the US, but in the complex of relationships between India, Russia, China and the US, India does not want to cut relations with Russia, does not want to accelerate the push of China towards closer cooperation with Russia and does not want to jeopardize its own major trade relation with China, which is India’s largest trading partner. In the multilateral world of 2023, India must maintain a balance in its relationships with all three major powers. Nevertheless, Modi’s trip to Washington clearly confirms his interest for a rapprochement with the US.
And the US is happy to respond to the desire for closer relations, including in the sale of military hardware, of course but not only hoping India can serve as a counter-balance to China in the Indo-Pacific. Biden’s interest in India should not be a surprise, he is a long-term friend having been involved in the US-India civil nuclear negotiations in 2008 and having named many Indian-Americans in his Administration, including Vice-President Kamala Harris. Also, Biden presents today’s geopolitical conflict as a struggle between democracy and autocracy. Even if Modi has reduced democracy in India, the country remains the largest electoral democracy in the world, and in his speech to Congress Modi wisely emphasized the profound sharing of democratic values between the two countries, another good reason Biden wants India solidly in the US democracy camp.
Yet many in US attacked Biden for not openly criticizing Modi’s human rights record and his multiple steps to reduce the independence of election authorities, the press and the judicial system, all objectively identified as reducing democracy in India. One has to sympathize with Biden, it is impossible to both publicly criticize and become closer to what is identified as a critical strategic partner. We cannot know how much pressure Biden put on Modi privately to improve his democracy record, but one can suspect the treatment was mild.
Biden has described the relationship between the US and India as the “defining relationship” of the 21st Century. Is he correct in his assessment of the importance of India in the coming years? India is already the country with the largest population in the world, with 1.4 billion people having passed China in 2023. The US bank Morgan Stanley predicts that India will by 2027 become the third largest economy in the world, surpassing Germany and Japan. It is expected to continue to grow faster than other major economies through much of the 21st Century, in part because of its large, young population (in contrast to older, declining populations in China, Europe, and possibly the US).
It is obviously in the geostrategic interest of the US to become closer to India, in part to balance the weight of China, but even though India will accept a closer relationship, for example agreeing to participate in the Quad alliance with the US, Japan, and Australia, India will not become a close ally of the US, similar to NATO members, it will want to maintain a large degree of independence. I agree with Biden’s description of the US-India relationship as one “defining” the 21st Century, but in the sense that it will test whether the US has the ability and the flexibility to work closely with major partners, particularly those with whom there is a convergence of interests, but without seeking to dominate them, without expecting them to be in all circumstances on the US side of a world divided into two camps, with the US leading their camp. Such a model of the world is, in my view, overly simplistic, we are and will continue to be in a world of shifting geo-strategic partnerships, with important countries and other entities playing significant and independent roles, without a single country being the leader in every domain. The relationship between the US and India can serve as a good test if future US Administrations can flourish in such a world.