When Indian prime minister Narendra Modi met with US president Joe Biden in the White House this month, many observers saw the makings of an evolving alliance against China.
But, such expectations are overwrought. As Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has made clear, a formal alliance is not in the cards, even if it is still possible to maintain long-term partnerships in a multipolar world of “frenemies”.
India has a long history of post-colonial mistrust of alliances. But it has also long been preoccupied with China, at least since the Himalayas border war the two countries fought in 1962.
While serving in president Jimmy Carter’s administration, I was sent to India to encourage prime minister Morarji Desai to support a South Asian nuclear-weapons-free zone, lest the burgeoning nuclear race between India and Pakistan got out of hand. As my Indian hosts told me at the time, they wanted to be compared not to Pakistan in South Asia, but to China in East Asia.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, the US and India began 20 years of annual “Track Two” talks between former diplomats who were still in close contact with those in government. (The American delegation, for example, included figures such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Holbrooke.)
The Indian participants shared their US counterparts’ concerns about al-Qaeda and other extremist threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they also made clear that they objected to the Americans’ tendency to think about India and Pakistan as “linked by a hyphen”.
The Indians were also concerned about China, but they wanted to maintain the appearance of good relations – and access to the Chinese market. China has long been one of India’s largest trading partners, but its economy has grown much more rapidly than India’s.
Using market exchange rates, China represented 3.6% of the world’s gross domestic product by the turn of this century, but India did not reach that level until the 2020s.
In the 2000s, as China’s growth far outpaced theirs, the Indians in the Track Two talks worried not just about China’s support for Pakistan, but also about its increasing global power.
As one Indian strategist put it, “We have decided we dislike you less than we dislike China” – and this was long before the 2020 skirmish on the disputed Himalayan border, where 20 Indian soldiers were killed.
The India-US alignment has since strengthened considerably. A decade ago, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) meetings between the US, Indian, Japanese, and Australian diplomats were downplayed; now, they are loudly publicised and held at the head-of-government level. India today holds more joint military exercises with the US than with any other country.
But this arrangement is a far cry from an alliance. India still imports over half its arms from Russia, is a major buyer of sanctioned Russian oil (alongside China), and frequently votes against the US at the United Nations.
Indeed, India has still refused to condemn Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, just as it failed to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. For all of India’s self-congratulation as the world’s largest democracy, it has not come to the defense of democratic Ukraine. Its top priorities are to maintain its access to arms and oil, and to avoid pushing Russia further into China’s arms.
Though Biden has invited Modi to both of his Summits for Democracy, there is no shortage of Western and Indian critics who have decried Modi’s illiberal turn towards Hindu nationalism.
Recent statements about the two largest democracies’ “shared values” may sound nice, but they, too, do not make an alliance. The key to Indo-US relations is the balance of power with China, and India’s place in it.
In this respect, India’s importance is growing. Earlier this year, it surpassed China as the world’s most populous country. As its population has grown to 1.4 billion, China has been experiencing demographic decline, with a labour force that peaked.
Moreover, India’s economy is on track to expand by 6% this year – faster than China’s – making it the world’s fifth-largest economy. If it continues at this rate, it could be the same size as the eurozone economy by mid-century.
With a huge population, nuclear weapons, a large army, a growing labour force, strong elite education, a culture of entrepreneurialism, and links to a large and influential diaspora, India will remain a significant factor in the global balance of power.
But one should not get carried away. India alone cannot balance China, which got a big head start in its development. China’s economy remains about five times larger, and poverty is still widespread in India.
Of India’s 900 million working-age people, only around half are in the labour force, and more than one-third of females are illiterate. For India’s growing population to be an economic asset, rather than a potential liability, it will have to be trained. Though China’s labour force has peaked, it rests on a higher average level of education.
Despite the selective decoupling of trade in key strategic sectors, India still does not want to forego access to the Chinese market. While it participates in the Quad, it also participates in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the periodic meetings of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
Although it no longer speaks of non-alignment, nor is it interested in restrictive alliances. Following the basic logic of balance-of-power politics, India and the US seem fated not for marriage but for a long-term partnership – one that might last only as long as both countries remain concerned about China.
Joseph S Nye Jr is a professor at Harvard University and a former US assistant secretary of defense.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.