India-US: Finally Friends? | By Vikrant Sharma

 India-US: Finally Friends? 

By Vikrant Sharma 

Founder-Editor, The Global Telescope 



The world is going through a bit of a transitional era. Major disease outbreaks throughout history are known to cause socio-political upheavals, and logically so. The Justinian plague from the 6th to the 8th century is speculated to be one of the primary causes that led to the weakening of the Roman Empire, and something that contributed to the eventual fall of the once-colossal empire. It is easy to imagine how pandemics that ravage entire continents can lead to social, economic and political changes; even upheavals.

The COVID-19 pandemic comes at an interesting point in time. The USA is increasingly wary of foreign military ventures like Iraq and Afghanistan that led to thousands of US deaths, an incomprehensible amount of public money that was spent in a foreign land, and that gave no immediate and tangible benefit to the average American citizen living in Texas. ‘Make America Great Again’ harks as at an erstwhile era in which USA believed in isolating itself from the rest of the world, before the Cold War. It does, however, recognise that the world isn’t what it was back then. Europe is no longer the centre of global political might and power struggles anymore- it is the Indo-Pacific. A resurgent Russia under a resolute leader, an aggressive China that continues to fund projects (through loans that such countries are practically bound to default on) in the developing world to increase its influence, and the economic and military behemoth that India has become with no signs of slowing down anytime soon- all these factors have significantly altered the world of recent past that was largely dominated by USA and its allies. Not to mention the instability of North Korea, and the established or growing power of Japan, Australia, South Korea and Indonesia.

The biggest shock to the global order this year has been the rise of Chinese power in the midst of the pandemic. Even though the outbreak started in China, official figures say that it managed to contain it much better than US, Europe (UK, Italy, Spain primarily), Russia, Brazil or India. China also avoided big nationwide lockdowns and was thus able to keep its economy on its feet, even though it did suffer major economic slowdown as well. Many countries felt that China could potentially use the chaos of the pandemic to its advantage, and were wary of it as a result.

The pandemic wiped out economic gains of the Trump presidency in the US, and US President Trump levied most of the blame for the viral pandemic on China. US realised the growing influence of China long ago, but the pandemic brought it into sharper focus. Soft power battle lines have been redrawn in 2020 and diplomatic rhetoric from US and its partners, and a subsequent reply from China, has become the norm.

Longer standing contentions between Washington and Beijing also become more prominent as a result, such as the South China Sea dispute, the question of Huawei operating in US and its allies, the status of Taiwan, freedom in Hong Kong, dollar dominance in the global financial system that China aims to substitute, and of course, the famous trade war.

Image by ‘skeeze’ from Pixabay

Amid all this, a fight broke out between Indian and Chinese troops high up in the Himalayas, when Chinese troops crossed the Line of Actual Control as well as started to build some infrastructure right alongside the provisional border. This led to 20 deaths on the Indian side, with casualties reported on the Chinese side that China refuses to comment on. This is the most visible form of violence between the two Asian military behemoths in decades, and will definitely mark a striking point in the relations of the two countries moving forward. In this scenario, does it make sense for India and US to finally become stronger allies in the Indo-Pacific region?

India has maintained a policy of non-alignment as a standard practice in its international engagements since Independence. Washington had offered India a US-made nuclear bomb for itself in late 1950’s that could be tested in India with help from USA, per former Foreign Secretary Maharajakrishna Rasgotra. Then-Prime Minister Nehru refused the offer after consultations with Dr Homi Bhabha and G.P. Parthasarathy. It is no secret that India sided more with the Soviet Union, rather that the US, in the decades following this. However, over the last couple of decades, USA-India partnership has increased significantly, to the point where USA is one of the largest trading partners of India (along with EU and China). India has also made significant defence purchases from the US. The two countries have steadily, if slowly, moved closer to each other. The rise of China provides healthy ground for this partnership to grow to counter the challenge posed by it.

However, India is still reluctant to side with one country or bloc. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has repeatedly been stating that India will not ally with anyone exclusively and that it would be a folly for China to look at India from a US lens. India has continued its close engagement with Russia as well, with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh recently visiting Moscow himself for the delayed Victory Day Parade. Russian President Putin is even scheduled to visit India in October this year.

A crucial aspect to consider in this complex dynamic is the growing importance of the Quad Group in Indo-Pacific. The Quad Group (India, USA, Japan, Australia) was initially formed as a relief operation in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that struck in the Indian Ocean. It gained renewed prominence a few years ago when these 4 countries began to cooperate more on security and defences. The Quad Group can be a major threat to China, as these 4 powers work together to protect their interests. India has already signed bilateral defence cooperation agreements with USA and Australia, and is expected to sign one with Japan in the near future. Australia, Japan and USA have recently performed naval exercises in the South China Sea, while India and USA have also collaborated in the region to send a message to China.

India, USA and Japan conduct the Malabar naval exercises every year in the Indian Ocean. Previously, Australia and Singapore have also been invited to participate. However, China had an objection with Australian participation, and thus Australia has not been involved in these exercises for years. Now, amid all three of these countries (India, Japan, USA) facing heightened tensions with China, India is considering inviting Australia to these exercises this year. A decision on this is expected very soon. Australia’s participation would be a very strong signal of Quad partnership at the international level, and a direct message to China.

Conversely, it is also important to consider that closer Quad partnership threatens to alienate Beijing and Moscow from New Delhi. While Beijing has shown no loyalty to New Delhi, Moscow can play a key role in maintaining peace in Asia and thus becomes an important partner. Completely alienating Russia would be a great folly on India’s part, something Indian diplomats seem to agree with.

And it is in these circumstances that India decides on its future with USA. Will India finally increase distance with Russia and embrace USA, and the Quad group, to counter China? Or will it hedge its interests and refuse to side with one power or bloc, instead choosing to increase bilateral agreements and cooperation with all? My bet is India takes the latter path, even though I cannot claim to know in good faith which is better for India’s interests.


Author: The force behind the blog, Vikrant Sharma is the Founder-Editor of The Global Telescope. A student of law, he is deeply passionate about history, political science, public international law, international relations, and diplomacy.


All views presented in the article belong solely to the writer. The editor does not support or condemn the views, and neither does The Global Telescope. The Global Telescope remains impartial and promotes every individual's right to freedom of speech and expression while not holding any responsibility for the views presented whatsoever.


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