The U.S.-Japan-India-Australia video Summit and the upcoming visit of the U.S. Defense Secretary to India have brought the issue of India’s positioning in the Indo-Pacific and even global strategic landscape into focus again. Those familiar with India’s history know that India has never been short of dreams of being a great power, from being “a great power with a voice” to “a leading global force”, all revealing India’s ambition of great powerhood. India is also not short of political figures with dreams of great power, from Prime Minister Nehru to Modi. They are typical (of Indian thinking). However, those who understand India’s national development process can hardly deny that India has from time to time experienced strategic overdraft and even strategic disorientation/losses due to lack of accurate grasp of the country’s development problematique and deviation from the pragmatic path of realizing the dream of a great power. The most obvious symptom of this is the blind pursuit of strategic adventurism and speculation, while failing to achieve stable domestic economic and social development.
The ideologization of India’s foreign policy in the past few years seems to be repeating the same mistakes it has made in its history. Over the past few years, India has been actively exaggerating its status and identity as a “democratic country” and has taken the initiative to cling to and even join the so-called “democratic camp” led by the United States, while exaggerating its ideological competition with China. Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. sharply and significantly escalated its strategic competition with China, characterizing the U.S.-China rivalry as a dispute between “two systems” and conducting “political warfare” against the Chinese system and Chinese model, and using the so-called “democracy” and ” values and rules based order” arguments as an excuse to win over other countries to jointly check and balance China. India responded to this, and even tilted towards the “values based camp” led by the United States in an obvious way.
The sharp deterioration of India-China relations in 2020 has further stimulated some in Indian strategic circles to discredit the Chinese system. Former Indian Foreign Secretaries Vijay Gokhale, Shyam Saran, and other former high-ranking civilian officials have also clamored for an “ideological war” against China, which is quite shocking. After taking office, the Biden Administration has placed more emphasis on the U.S. as the leader of the democratic world than during the Trump era, and is planning to invite India to the “Global Democracy Summit” and attach importance to the role of the U.S.-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral mechanism in maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, indicating that the U.S. still hopes to draw India into its “democracy camp.
However, such an ideological foreign strategy is not conducive for India to rise.
First, “Indian democracy” is by no means the same as “Western democracy,” and the “democratic rift” between the U.S. and India is difficult to conceal. Democratic values were once considered an important driving force in U.S.-India relations, and both governments and public opinion repeatedly proclaimed the “like-mindedness” between the “most powerful democracy” and the “largest democracy. “. However, as domestic politics in the United States and India have changed, the differences in perception of “democracy” between the United States and India have increased.
In particular, since the Modi government’s second term, the strong push for the ruling party’s agenda and the strong suppression of opposition forces have raised concerns within the United States about the “authenticity” of India’s democratic system. India’s strong control over Indian-held Kashmir since August 2019, the nationwide demonstrations triggered by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in late 2019, and the farmers’ protests stretching to the end of 2020 are some of the most typical examples. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Global Democracy Index 2020, India’s ranking has fallen to 53rd from 27th at the start of Modi’s term in office. It is also reported that India is the world’s most frequent and longest disconnected country, and its 213 days of (I-net) disconnection in parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir is a world record for the longest disconnection in the world.
Not long ago, in response to farmers’ demonstrations in India, a number of heavyweight members of the U.S. Congressional “India Group” met with the Indian Ambassador to the U.S., stressing that “democratic norms must be maintained and farmers must be able to exercise their right to peaceful demonstrations and access to the Internet. In the first call with Modi since Biden came to power, the White House Press Release highlighted the joint statement of the “two leaders,” except that it said that “the President of the United States underscored his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world, noting that a shared commitment to democratic values is a cornerstone of the U.S.-India relationship”, without making a reference to Modi’s statement. The implication is noteworthy. Time magazine recently carried an article titled “How long can Biden pretend that Modi’s India is a democratic ally?” The article pointed out that “if India cannot arrest the decline of democracy under Modi, the U.S.-India relationship may be as Kissinger described it, like a couple that can’t separate but also can’t get along”.
Second, development is the primary task facing India, and China is one of India’s most important development partners. From the end of the Cold War until Modi came to power in 2014, India positioned its identity attributes more from the perspective of economic development, i.e., India is a large developing country, an emerging economy, and an important force in a multipolar world, hoping to push the existing international system in a direction favorable to developing countries.
China regards economic and trade cooperation as an important instrument for stabilizing Sino-Indian relations, and when President Xi Jinping visited India in 2014, the two sides clearly emphasized that “closer development partnership is the core element of the strategic partnership between the two countries”. Since then, Chinese investment in India has grown significantly, especially in Internet technology companies, which has played a positive role in promoting India’s economic development. Data show that Chinese investment in Indian startups jumped 12-fold between 2016 and 2019, from $381 million to $4.6 billion. At the second informal leaders’ meeting in 2019, the two leaders also agreed to establish a high-level economic and trade dialogue mechanism and explore the establishment of a “manufacturing partnership”, amongst other things.
However, with the rise of domestic economic nationalism and deepening strategic doubts about China, India has gradually deviated from the development cooperation track with China and even adopted many discriminatory economic and trade policies toward China. However, the structure of China-India economic and trade relations determines that the Indian side is more dependent and vulnerable, and India’s discriminatory policies are tantamount to lifting stones to smash its own feet, and will make it simply impossible for India to achieve the desired effect.
Finally, the “democracy card” may be India’s “calling card” for knocking at the door of the United States, but it is difficult to make it serve a the basis for a US “commitment” to strategic support of India. Except for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” period, India has been what it defines as a “democracy” for most of the post-independence period, but the fact that U.S.-India relations have not always been harmonious speaks volumes. Indeed, India’s greatest strategic value to the United States is its place in U.S. strategy toward China, not India’s own democratic system. In contrast, China is one of India’s irreplaceable neighbors and most important economic and trade partners, and a closer development partnership with China will help India’s rise.
Former Indian National Security Adviser Menon pointed out that “India can only become a world power if it becomes a strong, prosperous and modern India; otherwise it will be putting the cart before the horse. There is no point in being a so-called world power when people at home are living in misery”. Therefore, the best foreign policy for India is an economic growth rate of 8%”.
(The author is Deputy Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, China Institute of Modern International Relations)