In the year 2000, Russia started re-emerging as a great military power and China became an economic giant. The United States perceived such developments as a challenge to the established world order. The US prepared a comprehensive strategy to contest great-power competitions in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Capitalizing on the local dynamics in South Asia, the US picked India as its strategic partner to contain China. The US also hoped that it would eventually pull India out of the Russian camp and hence deprive Russia of a major defense client.
In 2005, United States consented to a civil nuclear deal with India and described it a pivotal moment for the beginning of a strategic relationship between India and the US. India became a strategic ally and partner in Asia. To appease India, as an immediate reward, the US turned a blind eye to Indian proxies against Pakistan.
In 2015, the US allowed India to have a Rapid Reaction Cell inside the Pentagon with seven officials representing various wings of the US Department of Defense to speed up defense deals, liaisons and sharing of intelligence. In 2017, US President Donald Trump went a step further and even changed the name of US Pacific command to Indo-Pacific Command to hint at a more prominent role for Indian armed forces.
The US believed India was fully aligned with its interests and was no longer in the Russian camp. However, over a period of time, it all proved an illusion. The US has appeared to be disappointed with hefty Indian defense deals with Russia and with Indian voting patterns in the United Nations General Assembly.
The US took 13 long years to understand that India is not its strategic partner. Consequently, this month the Pentagon moved the “India office” (Rapid Reaction Cell) out of the iconic building to some 10 kilometers away in another administrative building, and reduced its workforce. The immediate cause of this is not known. However, visible signs of non-alignment between US and Indian interests are quite distinct.
India’s spineless handling of the Doklam standoff with China was not a as significant a setback to the US perception of India as the subsequent Indian dealing with China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Wuhan summit in April not only ignored Chinese construction activity in the Hamelin region but sought a more conciliatory position with President Xi Jinping.
Modi has desperately tried to reset relations with China, which had soured after the Doklam standoff. Modi even invited Chinese companies to invest and collaborate with India. New Delhi saw it more advantageous to stand neutral instead of becoming Washington’s counterweight to Beijing.
The Indian leadership neither feels threatened by China, because of the intervening high mountains of the Tibetan Plateau, nor is it willing to contest China militarily because of the apparent disparity of military and economic resources. India actually wants to end “Chinese influence” in South Asia and wants to punish smaller neighbors cooperating with China.
Indians are optimistic that their country, one of the largest by population and seventh-largest by land area, will soon be a superpower in a multipolar world. Why should they then be a junior partner to the United States? Indians have developed far bigger ambitions in the region and beyond
The US was misled by the small convergence of interests in South Asia, forgetting that India is a competitor, not an ally. Indians are optimistic that their country, one of the largest by population and seventh-largest by land area, will soon be a superpower in a multipolar world. Why should they then be a junior partner to the United States? Indians have developed far bigger ambitions in the region and beyond.
The Indian government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also has a complicated relationship with Middle Eastern Muslim countries. India shares Israel’s perception that Muslims are a troubled community and a danger for world peace. The ruling party also grossly ill-treats its Muslim community at home; however, it also successfully manipulates a huge overseas employment quota from wealthy Middle Eastern Muslim countries.
India is the leading importer of Iranian oil, and a significant investor in Iran through its Chabahar Port project, so it has refused to give in to US demands vis-a-vis Iran. Likewise, the Indians have greatly benefited from the US presence in Afghanistan in trade, defense deals and diplomacy. However, when it comes to funding the war effort or contributing troops for peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan, it is always reluctant.
India does not intend to cease its arms imports from Russia. It is concluding a $5.5 billion purchase of the Russian S-400 long-range air-defense system despite US objections. Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said that India has “a time-tested relationship” with Russia and further reiterated that India only recognizes UN sanctions, not unilateral US sanctions. This clearly shows that the two countries’ interests are not aligned. Indians have also signed a memorandum of understanding for the purchase of five nuclear power plants from Russia.
Backing India to counter China is a flawed US policy. India has neither the political will nor the capacity to contest China militarily. India uses the China card to milk the US and West for support and uses it against Pakistan and smaller countries in the region. The India will project its true power potential after it attains its intermediate objectives of joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UN Security Council.
For Washington, the best bet is to improve relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan, as these are the countries that are natural partners to the US. Russia and China are also competitors to each other and not allies, and hence will pose no significant threat to the interests of the United States in the foreseeable future.
Considering the continuous conflict of interests between Washington and New Delhi, and partly because of greater preoccupation with conflicts in the Middle East and East Asia, the Trump administration seems to have crystalized its relationship with India. The administration’s increased engagement with Pakistan on the issue of Afghanistan might have also come at the expense of Indo-US ties and the ouster of the “India office” from the Pentagon.
India is not the natural ally of the US; it is as clear as a midsummer sky. The sooner the White House understands this, the better.