Last week, I joined my colleagues Paul Stares, Dan Markey, and Micah Zenko in Delhi for a few days of discussions with senior Indian officials, experts, and journalists. We covered a fair amount of the U.S.-India political waterfront, including bilateral relations, China, Pakistan, and broader Asia. The discussions were quite lively: a great thing about foreign policy experts in India is that there are as many opinions expressed as there are people—a breath of fresh air after more constrained or sometimes just strained discussions with Chinese counterparts. While the variety of views we heard makes it hard to generalize, some common themes emerged. Put in rather stark terms, they boil down to:
Beijing is not trustworthy
An overarching theme was China’s growing “confidence, hubris, and economic ascension.” Some Indians argued that China is challenging the existing power equation and trying to limit the extent of any other power in the region, particularly the United States and India. Not surprisingly, worry over China’s intentions in South and Southeast Asia was paramount—and continued Chinese territorial claims to Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India were a central source of concern. (India has reportedly just sited missiles in the region.)
At the same time, the Indians with whom we met generally admired China’s ability to get things done, particularly in terms of modernizing the country and developing the infrastructure. They would like to benefit more from China’s market (wouldn’t we all?) and are pushing hard to get the Chinese to open their doors to Indian pharmaceuticals and IT industries. Trade with China is booming, but India is rapidly looking at the same type of trade imbalance that the United States suffers with China. The Indians apparently spend as much time as we in the United States do in WTO adjudication over Chinese intellectual property rights infringement.
The United States is also untrustworthy
Generally, our Indian interlocutors—many of whom have spent significant time living in the United States—appreciate the free and frank dialogue that they have with their U.S. counterparts. They recognize the shared value of democracy as a key component of the relationship and see cooperating to advance common ideals such as freedom of navigation, transparency, etc.
They worry greatly, however, about the steadfastness of America’s commitment to India, particularly if the United States is forced to choose between India and China. President Obama’s failure to meet with the Dalai Lama before his trip to Beijing in 2009 was cited as one example in which the United States sacrificed principle (and presumably India) in order to improve relations with China. They also wanted to know the U.S. position on Arunachal Pradesh, and whether Washington would be willing to take on Beijing on this issue. Some of the calls for greater demonstrations of U.S. fealty to India may well have been a bit of political gamesmanship, but there was a core of not unreasonable concern over the extent to which the United States is a dependable political partner.
Ergo India will find its own way forward
Not surprisingly, the end-game is that India will chart its own course, relying overwhelmingly on no-one but itself. It is true that much of Indian foreign policy allies nicely with U.S. aims at the moment. For example, India is expanding its relations with countries throughout Asia, such as Australia and Japan (apparently a favorite of PM Singh), as well as advancing ties with more politically sensitive players, such as Taiwan and North Korea. Such a strengthening of relations among various Asian nations is precisely what the United States is seeking to keep Chinese assertiveness at bay. At the same time, on issues that cross business with politics, such as Iran, Sudan, and Burma/Myanmar, India is far more inclined to see common interest with China. India, unlike China, might support democratic transition in Burma, but unlike the United States has strong reservations about breaching sovereignty to promote democracy. In the United Nations, for example, India is far more likely to ally with China’s position on sanctions and sovereignty than with that of the United States.
All of this suggests to me that however much Washington would like to partner with India in much the same way that it cooperates with Australia, Japan, and South Korea, that scenario is probably wishful thinking. Instead, Washington can take advantage of where interests with Delhi overlap—on China for example—but move cautiously on issues such as advancing India’s desire for a seat on the UN Security Council, where our interests diverge far more than coincide.