You would be aware that, though India did not agree with Russia’s decision to go to war with Ukraine, India decided not to condemn Russia publicly for its aggression. Many expected that this manifestation of India’s stance of neutrality would result in negative effects on India’s equations with the US and some other Western governments.
Instead, not surprisingly for strategic thinkers, India’s action has triggered a better understanding of India’s interests and actions among Western governments including the US.
This time we will be analyzing the relationship between India and the United States, especially the recent positive developments in the strategic partnership, which continues to grow even during testing times related to the Russia-Ukraine war, which is continuing for almost three months since it started.
The relationship between India and the United States is primarily based on shared core values, emanating from the fact that the United States is the world’s oldest democracy while India is the largest – in terms of the size of its population.
India is also aware that the US is the global leader in economic, technological, and military power. It is also the leader of the free world.
On the other hand, the US sees India as a beacon of democracy and pluralism, as also an antithesis of authoritarianism as practiced by countries like China and Russia.
Nonetheless, the India-US relationship has undergone major stresses and strains right from the time that India became independent, because India was never willing to join any US-led anti-Communist alliance, and the US responded by supplying India’s adversary Pakistan with frontline military equipment, as the latter joined these alliances, though superficially.
Nonetheless, the United States did start providing some weaponry to India too after India’s defeat at the hands of China in the 1962 War – but this stopped subsequently during the India-Pakistan War of 1965.
That is when India turned to the Soviet Union, which started supplying India with state-of-art armaments like T-55 tanks and MiG 21 fighter aircraft, as well as a number of other frontline military equipment, including anti-aircraft weapons, ships, and submarines.
Thereafter, over the years, the Soviet Union and later Russia became reliable suppliers of military equipment to India, including the lease of a nuclear-powered submarine.
More importantly, despite efforts in recent years to diversify sources of military procurement, India remains dependent on Russia for most of its armament needs.
Also, India and Russia cooperate in some other critical fields like oil supply, space technology, and nuclear energy.
The lowest ebb in the India-US relationship was in the Nixon-Kissinger era when the US Govt, in an effort to provide support to Pakistan during the Indo-Pak war of 1971, collaborated with China against India and even despatched the US Seventh Fleet in a coercive move against India during that war.
The nuclear tests by India in 1998 resulted in yet another dip in relations between the two countries.
Nonetheless, a clear positive turnaround in relations between India and the United States came about in 2008 after the signing that year of the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, also known as the 123 Agreement.
Relatedly, after India’s economic transformation of the 1990s, India had no longer been seen as a basket case, but instead, as a country with strong economic, human and military potential, which could make a positive mark in support of the rules-based world order.
Clearly, the signing of the nuclear agreement was indicative of much more than cooperation on civil nuclear issues by the United States.
It was more about the identification of India as a close strategic partner for the future, in the backdrop of the rise of authoritarian China, India’s military adversary, as a hegemon in Asia and a future challenger to US global interests.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD, with Australia, Japan, India and the United States, also referred to as the Asian NATO, is a security interaction with regard to the Indo-Pacific region, which takes place periodically, accompanied by annual joint military exercises between the member countries. Between 2016 and 2020, India and the US have followed up on the 123 Agreement by signing three foundational agreements related to military-to-military cooperation between the two countries.
To some extent, the new phase in the Indo-US relationship is also indicative of maturing of the partnership. and the related recognition that India had the right to take independent decisions in pursuit of its core national interests.
Thus, though India-Russia relations are an important facet that can impact Indo-US relations negatively, the US has been more mindful of India’s interests and sensitivities in recent years, as evidenced by its consideration of waivers of the CAATSA for India, in the wake of India’s purchase of the S-400 air-defense systems from Russia.
Both countries are well aware of the larger picture that, since the past decade, China’s economic rise and related military modernization has manifested in increased Chinese assertiveness against its neighbors and that the India-US relationship is central to meeting this regional challenge.
Incursions by the Chinese Army two years ago, across the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh, the disputed border between China and India, has emphasized to India that the threat from China cannot be wished away.
And in that context, there is a clear realization in India that, it is the United States, rather than Russia, which will be inclined to assist India in a substantial manner, to deal with such Chinese belligerence in the future.
This is more so after the strong bonds that have developed between China and Russia as a consequence of the Russia-Ukraine war.
It is in this context that the developments in India-US relations in the last few months, since the commencement of the Russia-Ukraine war, must be analyzed.
At a time that a powerful China is getting more assertive along its periphery, the war has resulted in the diversion of focus of the US and other Western countries from the Indo-Pacific region to Europe.
More significantly, China’s assistance to Russia to reduce the crippling effect of Western sanctions is also making China more powerful economically.
This has also to be seen in the backdrop that, for the US and other Western countries, events in Afghanistan have shown Pakistan, China’s close ally, to be a thoroughly unreliable partner.
On the other hand, India is seen to have considerable influence in many Asian and African countries, due to historically close relations, from the days of the anti-colonial movements.
The US and the West clearly recognize the criticality of India, at this point, towards influencing the balance of global power in favor of the US and Western powers, even if it means that India will remain overtly neutral towards Russia.
The West, on its part, is willing to be more supportive of India’s security interests.
Hence, there have been renewed efforts at engaging with India, in a variety of ways, a trend that is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.
India’s overt neutral position towards both sides in the Ukraine War should be acceptable to Western countries, keeping in view that India perceives that its security interests would be immensely disadvantaged if its relations with Russia are put through avoidable strain at this point. In any case, India’s stance towards the war is that there should be an immediate end to violence, a return to the path of dialogue and diplomacy, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states.
Significantly, there have been calls from a number of quarters for India to use its influence with Russia and Ukraine to bring an end to the war.
It was in the midst of these developments that the United States government announced its decision to host the annual 2+2 strategic dialogue between the defense and foreign ministers of India and the United States in Washington in April 2022.
There was a clear message for the world, especially China, in the timing and deliberations at the event, that, the larger issue of the strong India-US relationship could not be undermined by differences of opinion on peripheral issues.
Further, the MoU on Space Situational Awareness, which was signed during the event, was a signal that the strategic partnership had strengthened, not weakened.
While all these positive developments are taking place, there are some irritants in the India-US relationship, stemming from occasional US criticism of India for appearing to dilute its core values like freedom, pluralism, and respect for human rights.
Though these concerns end up being perceived by India as sore points that come in the way of a healthy relationship, India is mindful of the fact that the US values India as being an antithesis of countries like China and Russia, which are seen as models of authoritarianism within their borders and of belligerence towards their neighbors.
Moreover, India clearly believes in resolving its disputes in a benign and peaceful manner and understands that these shared values and beliefs are what is going to take the India-US relationship to grow stronger in the foreseeable future and beyond.
To summarise, the Indo-US strategic partnership appears strengthened despite India’s so-called neutral stance in the Russia-Ukraine war. Clearly, it is a signal with a positive portent for the future.