(The article was originally published by Indian Express on May 6, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s bi-weekly column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
During a recent visit to an East Asian country, I had the opportunity to meet a senior minister who asked me an interesting question: “Will India lead us?” This was an unusual question given the standing of that country. But it demonstrated the growing stature and relevance of India in the region.
India’s rise in significance as a pole in the Indian Ocean region, to which many regional countries would gravitate, is an important strategic development of the century. I politely told the minister that the era of the “leader and the led” was over.
India is not building any military alliances in the region. Yet, it has managed its foreign policy so diligently that it helped generate hope and confidence in the minds of many leaders in the neighbourhood. Even the two power blocs led by America and Russia-China want to maintain good relations with it.
The last century witnessed bipolar politics of military alliances led by the Soviet Union and the United States dominating the geostrategic landscape of the world. But the new century brought new realities. Bipolarity gave way to multipolarity and heteropolarity. Several states and minilaterals emerged as important poles. On the other hand, the growing influence of non-state powers like the big tech and global NGOs has led to the rise of a heteropolar world order.
The ruling establishment in Washington DC, from President Joe Biden to NSA Jake Sullivan to Secretary Antony Blinken, understands that India is an important regional power and a non-ally partner to manage this new heteropolar world order. But some in the think-tank circuit don’t seem to have come out of the bygone century syndrome. India’s independent stand on Russia–Ukraine war invited the hackles of some such pundits. They declared that India forfeited its claim to the Security Council seat by not opposing Russia. Citing ambiguity over India’s role in the South China Sea, some now decry the US-India relationship as America’s “bad bet on India”.
Over the last two decades, US–India relations overcame several hesitations of history and acquired a mature momentum. Credit for the initial combustion to rev up the relationship should go to the Vajpayee/Manmohan Singh, and George Bush Jr governments in the first decade of the century. A decisive acceleration has been provided to that by the Modi government in the last nine years.
From $20 billion in 2000 to $128 billion in this financial year, bilateral trade has grown more than six times in the last two decades. Bilateral defence trade crossed the $20-billion mark last year.
Some in the think-tank circles mistakenly interpret this as the US’s benevolence. It is a proper trade relationship between the two countries that benefits both. Abandoning Clinton-era sanctions, when the Bush regime moved to clinch a nuclear deal, the price that India was made to pay was the bifurcation of its nuclear establishment and providing access to US inspectors for some of the plants. Fifteen years later, India is acquiring high-tech weapon systems from America not as a charity but against payment.
The US is also benefiting from this relationship. Beyond IT services and the defence sector, India placed major investments with US companies in sectors like aviation. “Proudly” hailing the “historic agreement between Tata-owned airlines and Boeing”, for the purchase of 200 aircraft, President Biden claimed that “this purchase will support over one million American jobs across 44 states, and many will not require a four-year college degree”. As he pointed out, it reflected “the strength of the US-India economic partnership” that needs to be viewed from the prism of the new realities.
It is possible that there could be a divergence of views in the short term. From Doha to Ukraine, the US didn’t see the need to make India a stakeholder in the decision-making process and offered decisions rather as fait accompli. While there was no discussion with India when the democratic forces were dumped and Afghanistan was handed over to the Taliban, there is an obsessive expectation that India sides with the West in the name of protecting democracy in Ukraine.
India is a civilisational state with a distinct value system. Upholding national sovereignty and the rule of law, whether in Ukraine or Taiwan, is integral to that value system. But that also prevents India from becoming a party to any conflict. India believes in striving for peace on the principle of inclusivity. The US, with its rich tradition of constitutionalism and commitment to rule of law, is a natural partner for India in its endeavour to carry that value system forward.
India’s involvement with the Quad should also be understood from the proper perspective. A country that did not join a NATO or a CENTO in the last century would never join any “Indo-Pacific NATO” in this century. India is there in the Quad because it serves the shared long-term vision of building a liberal and inclusive world order that is facing a stiff challenge from the China-led aggressive manoeuvres to build an authoritarian and illiberal order.
The Indo-Pacific is not a single unit with a hegemonic power pecking order. It is a confluence of two important ocean regions — the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. While the US, Japan and Australia represent the Pacific Ocean (Perth in Australia is a remote Indian Ocean port), India is the sole Indian Ocean power in the Quad. India positively acknowledges the US’s imperatives in the Western Pacific including tensions in the South China Sea. The three Quad Pacific partners should also appreciate the fact that as the sole power representing the vast Indian Ocean region that is home to dozens of states, India has distinct priorities and preferences with regard to regional challenges.
China remains a common challenge in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. But the nature of countering that challenge varies from region to region. It is imperative that the US appreciates and upholds India’s primacy in managing the Indian Ocean priorities before expecting India to get involved in the imperatives of the Pacific region.
Bets are not always put based on short-term hypotheses. Sometimes they are put with a long-time vision.