Home / Opinion / India’s American conundrum

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an interesting observation in a recent interview which went largely unnoticed. He said “…my trip to the United States of America, my speech in their Congress and the respect shown towards India created a lot of hype. Had it not been hyped so much, there would not have been so much criticism on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) issue. Government is being criticized not for any mishandling of the NSG issue but because we were so successful over there (in the USA)." Modi was putting his finger on something very interesting. The obsession of Indian elites with the US remains a focal point in their analyses of the success or failure of Indian diplomacy.

India’s unsuccessful bid to secure a seat at the NSG last month has led to a volley of attacks on the Modi government. The political ones can be readily dismissed. But there are some from sections of the foreign policy establishment and intelligentsia which are intriguing. Apart from blaming the government for what they view as lack of adequate groundwork, fingers are being pointed at the usual suspect: the US. While some have blamed the US for not supporting India adequately this time, others have gone to the extent of portraying India’s NSG bid as a master conspiracy by Washington to pit India against China.

China can continue to scuttle India’s rise at all levels. Yet, sections of the Indian establishment always demonstrate a unique sympathy for Beijing and the need to keep its concerns in mind. But the US can never win. When it offered India the civil nuclear deal, it was viewed by sections of both the Indian left and right as an attempt to contain India’s nuclear programme. When those dire warnings came to nothing, claims were made that the US will never share strategic technologies with India. Today, India and the US are collaborating on a range of high-end technologies from aircraft carriers to submarines. So now, the argument is about how those vile Americans are trying their best to constrain India’s much vaunted “strategic autonomy"—as if China’s unprecedented rise hasn’t already made India’s autonomy redundant.

America has its own interests in furthering its ties with India, but to deny Indian foreign policy all agency is to do great disservice to India’s growing heft in global politics. Paradoxical though it may sound to many in India, New Delhi primarily wants to enhance its strategic autonomy by deepening its security ties with the US. The biggest challenge to Indian strategic interests today comes from China and India doesn’t have much leverage vis-a-vis it. A strong relationship with the US is the most potent way to ward off the China challenge in the short to medium term. In the long term, this will allow India to develop its comprehensive national power.

India finds itself at a critical juncture today. China’s rise and assertiveness as a regional and global power and the simultaneous rise of middle powers in the region means that this balancing act is at once increasing in complexity and importance. China’s growth presents great opportunities for positive engagement, but territorial disputes and a forward policy in the region raise concerns for New Delhi, particularly in the Indian Ocean and with Pakistan. The larger Indo-Pacific itself is riddled with rivalries; a desire to balance China may push states together while other issues divide them. This is true on the global level as well, as noted by a degree of unpredictability in Sino-US relations.

Distrust of the US tends to lead Indian strategists to recommend handling the changing global system by pursuing friendship with, but keeping a safe distance from, major powers. In reality, India stands to benefit from being more assertive. Already, cooperation with regional players is aiding India’s economy and defence capabilities, and as a pillar of the US pivot to Asia, India is finding support for an increased role as a regional powerbroker. These growing partnerships do not need to bar engagement with China; rather, assertiveness in regional and global relations may actually carve more room for India to pursue the strategic autonomy it values.

India’s rising global profile is reshaping New Delhi’s approach to its major partnerships in the changing global order. New Delhi is showing signs of pursuing strategic autonomy separately from non-alignment under Narendra Modi. This separation is overdue in India’s foreign policy, and the country stands to benefit from leveraging partnerships rather than shunning them. Under the Modi government, India is charting new territory in its foreign policy, predicated on the belief that rather than proclaiming non-alignment as an end in itself, India needs deeper engagement with its friends and partners if it is to develop leverage in its dealings with its adversaries and competitors. India is today well positioned to define its bilateral relationships on its own terms and would do well to continue engaging more closely with those countries that can facilitate its rise to regional and global prominence.

Prime Minister Modi is right: burgeoning Indo-US ties under his watch are an important reason why he is facing such a backlash on the NSG bid. But this vehemence is also a reflection of the new reality: reflexive anti-Americanism is rapidly losing ground and its proponents no longer have credible arguments. A rising India is increasingly capable of making foreign policy decisions on merits. It doesn’t need ideological crutches.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London.

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