Recently, India has been making continuous moves to “tie up with the United States to contain China”. First, it is using the United States Secretary of Defense Stephen Esper to raise the so-called human rights and national reconciliation issues, pressuring Sri Lanka to acquire the right to develop and operate the Eastern container terminal at the Colombo Port in an attempt to curb China’s influence in Sri Lanka. The second is that the Indian media are making a lot of hype about the proposed second dialogue meeting of the QUAD (United States-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral Dialogue) to be held in October, claiming that India will work to forge an alliance based on common values, promote the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and clamp down on China’s influence. “expansionism” and maritime activities.
In addition to the diplomatic level, India is also trying to further promote the four-nation dialogue mechanism at the military level, not only to increase efforts to acquire sensitive military technology from the US and hold high-level defense talks but also, since June this year, to have its Navy join the United States, Japan, Australia and other countries in four large-scale military exercises.
Objectively speaking, it is not as if there is no common basis, in terms of realism and interests, for India and the United States to come together. Some United States politicians with ulterior motives hope that India, playing according to its geopolitical script, will act as a pawn to check China. However, is India really willing to act as a pawn? Looking back at the history of United States-India cooperation since 1947, the answer is in the negative. For India itself, there is no realistic basis for deepening the current United States-India “partnership” into a “military alliance”.
First of all, India’s domestic epidemic is out of control and economic collapse keeps it too preoccupied to make far-reaching adjustments in strategic direction. The neo-corona epidemic in India shows no sign of slowing down. The Modi government’s epidemic-prevention strategy has been questioned and criticized by the Opposition, including the Congress Party, as well as by public opinion in the country. India’s market demand is weak, there are company closures and a tide of layoffs, employment is in a serious crisis and the prospect of economic recovery is uncertain. According to India’s official data, the second quarter of this year’s gross domestic product plummeted 23.9% over the same period last year, the most serious quarterly contraction since 1996 when data was first released. Services, manufacturing, tourism, real estate and other industry indicators have performed close to the worst level in history, government debt as a percentage of GDP in fiscal 2020 reached a peak of about 90%, forcing the government to sell State assets for financing, which has drawn further criticism. The Modi government’s performance on the economic level has shattered expectations of another “Gujarat miracle”, forcing Modi to abandon his economic slogans when seeking re-election, and instead play the “national security” and “anti-terrorism” cards. With a changing domestic and external situation, the presence of military forces on the border has been strengthened with great fanfare, and “small moves” everywhere are tantamount to taking a walk in the night and blowing a whistle to embolden oneself, which can only divert conflicts and attention in the short term. India can’t afford the cost of a large-scale external conflict, so the government’s top priority at the moment has to be on development, boosting the domestic economy and avoiding further deterioration of people’s livelihoods.
Secondly, Modi’s style of governance does not meet the expectations of the United States and other Western countries, and his personal standing in the Western world is not high. Although India claims to be “the world’s largest democracy”, a review of Modi’s performance in the past six years, shows that, at the ideological level, the “Hindu identity” that he and the Hindutva forces have been advocating is essentially a mix of Hindu ethics and modern nationalism. The creation of a State that is fully committed to Hindu ideology. At the level of law enforcement, the Government’s misuse of vague concepts, leaving people with no recourse for remedial action and suppressing public opinion and arresting dissenters without proper regard for Constitutional provisions has given it a poor image among Western liberal groups. To the point that some argue that India is at best 40 per cent democratic and that the current situation is “worse than Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in the mid-1970s”.
Thirdly, India’s tradition of an independent and autonomous foreign policy and the reality of insufficient trust between the United States and India pose numerous obstacles to India’s unreserved embarkation on a path of “alliance with the United States to contain China”. Indian nationalists are opposed to any weakening of India’s strategic autonomy. So far, the so-called “alliance” is only a word of individual scholars or the media, India’s official discourse has never explicitly stated its position on allying with any country. A senior Indian diplomatic official explained to me in this regard: “India’s official documentation has never put forward the idea of an alliance with the United States. It has never been, nor will it ever be. India wants to continue to pursue an independent and autonomous foreign policy”. Earlier this month, at a meeting organized by the “U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum”, India’s External Affairs Minister Jaishankar told U.S. Vice President Pence that considering the long history and culture of China and India, as well as their respective populations of over 1 billion,”it is very important to reach some kind of understanding and equilibrium between the two countries”, suggesting that the Indian government is not willing to become a geopolitical tool of the US. In fact, it isn’t the Indian side only that is hesitant to abandon an independent and autonomous foreign policy, the US side is not falling over India either. In 2019, the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs had published an article, “The India Dividend,” co-authored by former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which made it clear that India is not an ally of the US. The United States and India are merely using each other in the Asia-Pacific region, but these ways of India and the US will not be conducive for stable long-term cooperation.
Looking back at the history of U.S.-India cooperation, it is not difficult to see that India can not be a stable and reliable “partner” of the United States, and will not make any explicit security commitments to the United States, but will weigh the costs and benefits of a comprehensive approach based on its own interests. India and the United States may improve relations, but only in a pragmatic and expedient manner as a matter of diplomatic strategy. The United States cannot presume that it can use India as a pawn to check China. As early as the late 19th century, the American poet Walt Whitman wrote with great emotion in his Passage to India in soulful terms. In his book, The Most Dangerous Place: the History of the United States in South Asia, Srinath Raghavan, an eminent Indian historian, mentions, “Despite South Asia having been accorded an important place in U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades, with tens of billions of dollars invested and thousands of lives sacrificed, the U.S. seems to have gained little or nothing”.
China has always adhered to the path of peaceful development and hopes to achieve good-neighborly friendship with India without endangering India’s development. India’s current tough measures against China are by no means wise, nor are any political and economic underpinnings to support their long-term sustainability evident.
(The author is a South Asia fellow at the Hainan Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies)