The U.S. government recently awarded Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the Medal of Merit in recognition of his Modi’s “leading role in enhancing the strategic partnership between the United States and India”. Not long ago, a US military official revealed that he was “preparing to train with the Indian army in the Himalayas” to improve the combat level of soldiers in cold environments. Although the Indian military has not made any response to this so far, it somewhat means that the United States and India may join forces to take action against China in the Himalayas in the future. So then, with the United States about to usher in a transfer of power, after Biden assumes office, will the current “intimate” relationship between the United States and India continue?
Taking advantage of the tension on the Sino-Indian border, India has gone further and further down the road of “pulling America against China”. This will not be sustainable in the future. The two sides could not wait for the US general election to be over, and signed the “Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation” on October 27, one week before the polling day. This will enable India to obtain accurate geospatial data provided by the United States and improve the accuracy of its missile and drone strikes. It also means that the Indian defense system will be monitored and manipulated by the United States. On the surface, this is India “sacrificing” its own strategic autonomy and defense autonomy to balance the so-called “China threat”. However, this is essentially nothing but New Delhi’s attempt to “pull the chestnuts out of the fire” in the strategic competition between China and the United States.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly stressed that the rights and wrongs of the developments along the India-China border are clear and that the responsibility lies entirely with the Indian side. However, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense of India has been trying to “fish in troubled waters” recently, claiming that India was subjected to China’s “aggression” because of its deploying troops to the border “without provocation”. For those who do not understand the situation on the Sino-Indian border, the above lies may deceive. But the root cause of the tensions along India’s borders with neighboring countries can be seen in India’s unilateral change of its administrative boundaries in 2019 by promulgating a new political map that puts all the disputed areas on its side of the border, thus triggering a rise in border disagreements and tensions with China, Pakistan and Nepal.
At the beginning of the new epidemic, India’s strategic elites, with their continued hostility toward China, mistakenly believed that “China would be in internal and external difficulties” and that this would provide India with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to replace China”. To this end, India has gone to great lengths to follow the U.S. and the West in smearing China over the epidemic, pushing for economic “decoupling”, committing massive violations along the Sino-Indian border and ignoring China’s representations. However, New Delhi’s wishful thinking failed once again. China not only successfully contained the epidemic, but also became the only major economy that achieved positive economic growth. And New Delhi’s original attempt to “take in” companies that had moved out of China has remained unfulfilled.
Plus, after the dust settles down on the U.S. elections, will the Biden administration be as irrationally anti-Chinese as the Trump Administration in the future? India is always a little overwhelmed in regard to the answer to this question.
The top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party have long admitted that the Biden-Harris combination may be detrimental to India-US relations. The root cause lies in the difference in “values”. The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom issued by the US State Department has been been critical of the Modi government for stirring up domestic divisions in recent years, but the Trump administration’s “double standards” did not take these issues into account, and so it did not become a point of friction in India-U.S. relations. But the Biden administration, which wants to “reclaim the soul of America,” should bluntly express its dissatisfaction with India on these issues.
Precisely because of their emphasis on values, Biden and Harris have long long been critical of the Modi government’s approach during the election. For example, Biden and Harris have been vocal critics of India’s abrupt repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution, various strict control measures in the Indian-controlled Kashmir region, and the implementation of the Citizenship Law (amendment) and the new citizenship registration system that are obviously religiously discriminatory. That is why Dhruva Jaishankar, a Foreign Policy Fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently wrote that “India and the United States both pride themselves on being democracies, but that is not enough to bring them closer because there are structural differences between Indian and American democracy, and for that reason India and the United States need to engage in a dialogue about democracy”. Likewise, Indian officials expect Harris’ Indian-origin status as an “important advantage” for good relations with the Biden administration. However, the real situation may be that although Harris did not evade her Indian identity, she considered herself a representative of black Americans and minorities.
Apart from differences in values, the economic and trade relationship is not destined to be a bright spot for the Modi and Biden administrations. More importantly, there is a hidden “mine” that has yet to be detonated in the most important aspect of the relationship, namely, defense cooperation. NATO has imposed severe sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems. What will happen to India, which has also purchased the S-400 system? Pompeo, who puts anti-China first, may have given India the green light, but the Biden administration does not seem to have enough reason to give India such “immunity”.
In addition to continuing to pull the plug on the U.S., India itself has been releasing tougher signals against China, such as reorganizing the Indian naval fleet, increasing its military procurement budget, improving hardware and software equipment of fighter aircraft and building helipads at the border. At the same time, it is also censoring Chinese telecom providers, banning apps with Chinese background, reducing dependence on Chinese goods, etc. All these can only satisfy Indian nationalism a little but hardly give India additional leverage in its claims on border negotiations.
India sometimes overestimates its own ability, especially its strategic planning ability. But the question is what kind of leverage can New Delhi offer to make the United States a “pawn” in India’s strategy? Returning to reason and moving in the same direction as China is another viable path. After all, China has repeatedly stressed that its policy toward India remains unchanged despite the border conflict.
(The author is a researcher at the Institute of International Studies of Fudan University)