India’s security ties with the US have traditionally commanded attention within the broader context of India’s foreign affairs.
Since the turn of the century, New Delhi has viewed itself as a major power, first responder, and security actor in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). At the same time, Washington was keen to nurture India as a counterbalance to China’s influence in the region, opening the window for greater convergence of interests.
India’s security potential in the IOR fits well with the US’ search for like-minded partners that could share security responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific region.
One of the turning points was the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. It resulted in an ad-hoc partnership between the US, India, Japan, and Australia to address the aftermath of the natural calamity. The successful collaboration of resources and efforts between the countries sowed the seeds of the Quad. But there was palpable reluctance in New Delhi and Canberra because of the concern that such a partnership would provoke Beijing and exacerbate the looming bilateral tensions.
New Delhi’s reluctance towards a Quad-type arrangement was reduced following the India-China 2017 Doklam stand-off. The 2020 bloody border clashes proved to be an inflection point, and India’s position vis-à-vis China hardened further. Not only did India accept Australia as a participant in the Malabar naval exercise (which previously included the US, Japan, and India) in late 2020, but it also elevated the Quad interaction to the summit level involving the highest leadership.
As a first, the 2021 Quad gathering released a joint statement, and its scope expanded to include more ambitious plans, including vaccine diplomacy, infrastructure development, maritime security, and critical technologies. In another first, the 2023 Quad joint statement referred to the Russia-Ukraine war and dissuaded “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.”
New Delhi’s muted criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 expectedly led to some frustration in the West, raising questions over India’s credibility as a security partner. These areas of divergences within the broader equation of role compatibility denote the real-world complexities in bilateral and mini-lateral partnerships.
Even with converging Indo-US strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, differences persist between Washington and New Delhi.
First, the US views the Indo-Pacific as a region where rules-based liberal international order needs to be preserved vis-à-vis China’s assertive rise and even the Russian threat. By contrast, India does not see the Indo-Pacific as an exclusive group of actors in a region that is against any country (read China). New Delhi considers it an “inclusive” region and has, at times, even signalled the inclusion of China and Russia within its definition of the Indo-Pacific.
Second, the US is open about the threat China poses to its interest and is ready to deter and even fight if required. India, on the other hand, is wary of balancing China directly and prefers maintaining the competition-cooperation model in its ties with China. New Delhi’s choice to deepen or soften engagement with the Quad is connected with how India wishes to deal with China at a given point in time, which can range from seeking a stable equation to pressurising it against acting in a particular manner.
Third, although New Delhi has been tilting towards the West for the last two decades, it continues to balance multiple partnerships, at times with countries at odds with each other. This is evident in India’s decision to cooperate with the US and its allies on the Quad and other arrangements while maintaining ties with China and Russia (thus explaining Indian silence on Russia’s actions in Ukraine).
The multi-alignment posture relates to India’s obsession with “strategic autonomy” and its legacy of not depending on any of the competing countries. So far, India has effectively managed to balance its relations with odd bedfellows, but the sustainability and success of this practice, in the long run, is debatable, particularly if China poses a more urgent threat.
Fourth, India’s traditional areas of interest lie in the Indian Ocean, while the US’ focus remains on the Pacific region. Regardless of the increased overlap between their areas and issues of interest more recently, New Delhi will likely remain less involved or enthusiastic about overtly addressing Chinese actions in regions that do not directly impinge on its security interests (case in point, Taiwan or even Ukraine as visible in the present context).
That differences exist within partnerships is not an anomaly and does not always denote a severe clash between actors. Instead, if there is sustained role compatibility, policymakers/diplomats develop the mechanisms to work effectively despite the problems and/or even socialise with each other on a specific issue over time. To illustrate, India and the US have contrasting views on “maritime order” and “freedom of navigation.”
India has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) while the US has not, and both have distinct interpretations of the law (India’s interpretation is closer to China’s understanding of the law). While Indian law is against freedom of navigation operation in its exclusive economic zone, these differences have been managed well at the diplomatic level.
Overall, India-US strategic and security ties are not perfect and are unlikely to be so in the coming future. The spectre of divergences will continue to exist within the role compatibility the two enjoy. This may also affect the orientation of the Quad from a security perspective.
However, the differences are unlikely to impede the incremental progress of their bilateral ties or engagement in a Quad arrangement, especially if China remains the glue keeping them closer. In short, Indo-US relations and their engagement is not black and white but shades of grey.
The writer is the Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Army Journal and a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Views are personal. This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.