Indian military attachés will no longer need a U.S. escort to move about the Pentagon. This is a courtesy traditionally extended only to allies and very close security partners. Also, in October, the U.S. Army will join Indian forces in joint exercises less than 100 kilometers from India’s contested border with China.
Does New Delhi deserve this very significant American support? On paper, the answer is yes. India is the world’s most populous democracy with 1.42 billion people. It is likely to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation in 2023 or 2024 because China faces a demographic crisis. As India’s economy grows, its young population will be a major destination for high-value U.S. exports. That means more American jobs and prosperity — far more than the $40 billion in U.S. goods exports to India in 2021.
American and Indian democratic values join with shared concerns over China’s militarist expansionism. From the South China Sea to the East China Sea, from East Africa to the Himalayas, China’s People’s Liberation Army is exerting unilateral control over territory, sea, and air. It aims to secure the political fealty or at least concessionary stance of foreign governments. Beijing also seeks to secure China’s dominance of rich energy reserves and trade transit routes. But as with Taiwan, China’s military strategy in the Himalayas also carries a simpler, more profound purpose: the subjugation of a democratic nation’s sovereignty.
In June 2020, dozens of Indian and PLA soldiers were killed in a clash along the disputed Himalayan “line of control” border area. Although both sides have sought to defuse tensions since then, the PLA continues to take steady if more calibrated steps to assert control over this contested territory. This has understandably upset New Delhi, perhaps motivating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to fly the Dalai Lama by military helicopter near to the line of control last week. China despises the Buddhist religious leader, recognizing his promotion of freedom of thought and Tibetan rights as an obstacle to its dominance.
Shared U.S.-Indian concerns over China’s aggressive expansionism led Modi to join the “Quad” partnership alongside the U.S., Australia, and Japan. Benefiting from military export relaxations introduced by the Trump administration, India is also increasing its purchase of U.S. arms and related equipment. Yet even as this cooperation might seem like proof positive of a budding U.S.-Indian alliance, other factors undermine that consideration.
For a start, India fails the reciprocity test when it comes to supporting U.S. security concerns.
The Pentagon has not responded to my query as to whether the U.S. military attachés in New Delhi are to be afforded the same access to the Indian Ministry of Defense as India will now receive at the Pentagon. Regardless, where the U.S. is now sending ground forces to conduct exercises right next to China’s border, India has done nothing of the sort to show unity with the U.S. over the South China Sea or Taiwan. Considering the sensitivity with which China views its borders, the U.S. Army’s looming arrival in that area is a major show of U.S. support to India. It passes the critical test of any true international partnership — the willingness to incur significant risks in support of another. But when it comes to India, the U.S. is providing a lot more friendship than it is receiving.
For an additional example, take India’s strange continuing deference to Russia. Even though India’s economy is far stronger and the U.S. has expressed repeated concerns over Russian arms exports (notwithstanding the embarrassing performance of many of those weapons systems in Ukraine), India continues to provide Moscow with a key source of foreign capital and prestige. Senior Russian security officials, including Moscow’s No. 1 anti-American hawk, Nikolai Patrushev, continue to be feted by Modi’s government. India has also broken with the vast majority of democracies by refusing even to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These choices matter. Modi’s actions here undermine the central interests of U.S. foreign policy: fostering cooperation against preeminent U.S. adversaries, and supporting democratic governments, international stability, and individual freedom.
The U.S. should seek a very close partnership with India, perhaps one day even forging a formal alliance. But as the U.S. has learned the hard way in Europe that alliance without reciprocity is a bad ingredient for foreign relations in the U.S. interest. Washington must demand more of New Delhi if its recent shows of kinship are to continue.