Since the high point of its relationship with the West in the early 2010s, India has underperformed on its economic potential, backslid on democratic values, and remained unwilling to commit to more formal security arrangements. This year, India’s diplomatic response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine further dashed hopes in many Western capitals that New Delhi was moving inexorably toward full membership in the Western security community. But this does not mean the West should give up strengthening its partnership with India. Rather, it provides an opportunity for the West to engage with India on more realistic terms.
India’s non-alignment is not, as some policymakers hoped, simply a relic of the Cold War. Rather, it represents a fundamental and enduring aspect of New Delhi’s worldview. By taking India’s status as a global swing state into account and acknowledging its security preferences, the West can still cooperate with it on a mutually productive footing.
This begins with helping India wean itself away from Russian technology, while recognizing that this will not lead India to abandon its commitment to strategic autonomy. Western states should continue to integrate India into loose security arrangements in the Indo-Pacific. These can help New Delhi offset China’s military superiority and offer Western states greater influence, access, and defense integration in India’s maritime neighborhood. Western partners should also embrace India’s role as a continental power and support its deterrence capabilities on the Sino-Indian border. Maintaining the status quo there is a crucial part of any Western strategy to contain China. Finally, India can help Western economies diversify their manufacturing and supply chains away from China. New Delhi does not want to hurt its economy by sanctioning Russia, but this does not mean it wouldn’t willingly participate in policies that strengthen its economy at China’s expense.
Befriending a Swing State
Taking India’s position as a “global swing state” seriously requires understanding New Delhi’s deep-rooted commitment to the principle of strategic autonomy. This principle is not specific to the Cold War or simply desire for neutrality. Instead, it is fundamental to the way India understands and manages risk in international politics.
NATO represents a trans-Atlantic approach to collective security that prioritizes clearly signaling commitments and taking firm stances against rivals. Indian policymakers have resisted applying a similar approach to China. They see bloc-like formations as narrowing the strategic options for middle and regional powers like theirs. For these reasons, ambiguity has been an asset for India in managing many of its difficult relationships. While India has been called the “weakest link in the Quad,” its resistance to any form of alliance-like language or commitments that would unsettle Beijing has allowed it to maintain economic ties with China since the 1990s. These have not only contributed to a relative peace between the two rivals for decades but also helped India advance its unique development goals. Even today, India and China continue to maintain strong trade relations despite the border clashes of June 2020.
For the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, nonalignment was a moral choice and an opportunity for managing great power conflict and creating conditions for peace. The current Bharatiya Janata Party’s government does not consider strategic autonomy in similar terms, but it still thinks of flexibility in decision-making as crucial to Indian security, especially at a time when the world order is shifting. Modi has not endeavored to use India’s neutral position to broker peace between warring factions, as Nehru did during the Korean crisis in 1950. Instead, he has been trying to manage the negative implications of the War in Ukraine on India’s economy and its global reputation. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s vision of strategic autonomy is inward-looking and unapologetically self-interested. This means that, contrary to some Western expectations, India does not want its rivalry with China to be subsumed into the U.S.-China strategic rivalry, nor does it want to subordinate its relationship with Russia in favor of U.S. interests. But that does not mean there are no opportunities for cooperation.
The Limits of Leaving Moscow
In the short term, Western partners can help lessen India’s defense dependency on Russia, but they should not expect this to lead India to abandon Moscow. With the twin threats of China and Pakistan on its northern frontiers, this would be too risky. The Russian-Indian defense relationship is deep and time-tested. It is reinforced by market forces and mutual trust between policymakers. Moreover, Moscow offers India affordable military equipment and respects its desire for technology sharing and domestic capacity building. Indeed, the affordability of Russian defense supplies, along with Moscow’s willingness to aid Indian manufacturing, has been an important part of the relationship.
Even if Western partners are looking to disrupt Russia’s defense trade, they would have to overcome issues of interoperability with India’s current Russian equipment. Sameer Lalwani of the Stimson Center estimated that the share of Russian-origin weapons and platforms (including conventional and nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, and fighter jets) across Indian armed forces was as high as 85 percent. As Vasabjit Banerjee and Benjamin Tkach predict, this means India will “[seek] out countries that manufacture spares and upgrades for Russian-origin weapons.” It is unclear how willing Western partners would be to help India modernize its current stock of Russian-origin weapons and platforms.
Additionally, Western partners are only slowly overcoming their reticence to share sensitive defense technology with a non-NATO ally. For instance, U.S. efforts to co-produce the javelin missile with India under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative failed in 2010 due to American reservations over intellectual property. However, Lockheed Martin has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with an Indian Company Bharat Dynamics to revive this process, indicating a newfound readiness to share technology with India. But whether Lockheed Martin’s agreement with Bharat Dynamics will bear fruit and become a precedent for defense trade more generally remains to be seen. The United States and its allies certainly “can offer India more — diplomatically, financially, and militarily — than can Russia.” But the West will need to match the tenor and nature of India’s defense ties with Russia to do so. In any case, defense exports represent a limited opportunity to positively affect India’s security preferences.
Collective Security in the Indo-Pacific
The West can also engage India while respecting its desire for autonomy by continuing to integrate it into loose or minilateral security arrangements such as the Quad. New Delhi has shown that it is unwilling to declare China an enemy or join a NATO-like security arrangement. However, its participation in a growing number of joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean region shows that India is prepared to join Western countries in protecting its maritime interests.
In this narrower geographical scope, where its interests are more closely affected, New Delhi can help Western partners protect important maritime chokepoints. In case of a war with China, India is unlikely to send ships to the Taiwan strait. However, India and the United States have had a logistics agreement in place since 2017 that has facilitated the refueling of ships and tankers. Partnership with India can also provide Western states access to the Indian Ocean Region, where New Delhi now welcomes involvement from extra-regional powers to offset China. Historically, India has sought to deny great powers access to its neighborhood. However, as New Delhi finally confronts its inability to match China’s maritime strengths and economic heft, this is beginning to change. Japan and India are already collaborating to counter Chinese influence in Sri Lanka — similar models could bring this form of cooperation to other parts of the Indo-Pacific.
Opportunities for strategic collaboration also exist along India’s 2100-mile-long disputed border with China. Any Western strategy of containment should seek to bolster India’s standing here. Not only is stopping the Chinese from changing the status quo on the Sino-Indian border important to upholding the norm of territorial sovereignty generally, but the prospect of a two-front war would also deter Chinese adventurism across the Taiwan Strait. Indo-U.S. forces will carry out joint defense exercises in Alaska later this year to increase “jointness, interoperability, and coalition interoperability.” Similar efforts to help India counter China’s infrastructure upgrades and growing military capacity in the Tibetan plateau would simultaneously enhance the Indo-U.S. partnership and strengthen U.S. containment.
The program for Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness announced at the Quad leaders’ May 2022 meeting is an important step toward further cooperation. It seeks to provide a “near-real-time, integrated, and cost-effective maritime domain awareness picture” in order to allow Quad members and partners to “fully monitor the waters on their shores and, in turn, to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific.” The initiative is likely to support greater transparency in the region and shine a light on illegal Chinese fishing as well as aggressive naval expansion. As Zack Cooper and Gregory Poling wrote for War on the Rocks, the “maritime domain awareness initiative combines public goods provision with the Quad’s natural strengths: security cooperation and capacity building”.
However, New Delhi still worries that the initiative reflects Washington’s Pacific-focused vision of the Indo-Pacific, rather than India’s concern with the Western Indian Ocean. Additionally, while India is prepared to work with the United States, it is hesitant about having this cooperation described in overly securitized or anti-Chinese terms. For instance, Gen. Charles Flynn, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Army, said that India could become a useful military “counterweight” to China in the region. U.S. State Department Secretary for South and Central Asia, Donald Lu, in a recent interview suggested that India becoming a “global security power” was “in the interest of the United States”. He further described his vision of India being “militarily ready … to project that power far beyond India’s borders” in defense of the “common view of the security of Asia.” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said that the United States is playing the “long game” with India and would judge it “over the fullness of time.” Such comments by American diplomats and military officials continue to suggest an inevitable alignment of Western security interests with India rather than reflecting India’s own desire for autonomy.
Trade and Supply Chain Resilience
Since the United States is already one of India’s largest trading partners, strengthening relations on this front is a productive avenue for India-U.S. engagement. India has favored an “Act East Policy” to build closer economic ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other important Southeast Asian countries. Its withdrawal from Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, however, shows that this approach has failed. India has, however, recently abandoned its earlier skepticism toward free trade agreements and begun tilting Westward in its trade ties. India is currently negotiating bilateral free trade agreements with the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates. Throughout these negotiations, India has also been more willing to align its domestic industry standards to global benchmarks on compliance, transparency, market access, labor, and the environment. The rhetoric of self-sufficiency notwithstanding, economic partnership with the West now has unprecedented support in New Delhi.
That said, a comprehensive agreement on free trade with Washington has remained elusive. Talks failed in 2020, and since then the United States has made an executive decision not to sign any other new free trade agreements. Claiming that India did not allow sufficient access to the agricultural and dairy sector and also levied prohibitively high tariffs on the import of medical devices, the Trump administration also revoked India’s eligibility for concessions under the Generalized System of Preferences. This is a missed opportunity since trade is one area where India’s “swing” westwards is most apparent. Citing India’s existing Free Trade Agreement with Japan and ongoing talks with Australia, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has urged the Biden administration to reflect on the potential value of stronger trade relations between both countries.
The benefit of deeper trade ties with India from a strategic standpoint is clear. This would allow Western democracies, businesses, and their supply chains to diversify and build greater resilience. One of the key lessons of the war in Ukraine is that Western dependence on belligerent actors can be weaponized to blunt the effect of sanctions, as the West has been forced to belatedly scramble to find alternatives for Russian oil. The United States should be more proactive in seeking alternatives to China as the “world’s factory”. Countries like India, which have a young and extensive labor force and large domestic markets, offer many of the advantages that China did in the 1990s. Moreover, if this shift was framed in terms of putting a premium on democracy and transparency, it would allow the West to speak to India more openly about concerns over authoritarianism and protectionism. India may be willing to join such a counter-coalition to reduce dependence on China and prevent the weaponization of economic statecraft in the Indo-Pacific, because, unlike with sanctions on Russia, it would be a direct beneficiary.
The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework launched at the last Quad Summit is another step in the right direction. The framework came about as a strategy to replace the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership that the United States withdrew from under President Trump. The Biden Administration hopes the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework will provide flexibility of choice for its 13 members, which constitute 40 percent of the global GDP. Members will launch separate bilateral negotiations with each other based on an “à la carte approach” under the framework. Sullivan clarified that this was “not a traditional free trade agreement” and therefore would not require congressional approval.
At first glance, this may seem to accommodate India’s economic preferences as a developing economy and its general dislike for collective trading agreements. But on closer inspection, there are some evident limitations. Since the Biden administration has promised to protect domestic workers and producers, which requires shielding them from foreign competition, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework offers no direct market access to the United States. Indeed, Washington could not offer or demand market access without congressional approval. It expects participants “to adjust their economies in lines with a range of new rules on clean energy, taxes, data protection etc. without offering increased market access in return.” As a result, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework lacks the tangible rewards of a traditional free trade agreement and risks being seen in the region as a tool of U.S. hegemony. India remains enthusiastic about a mutually beneficial economic initiative to counter Chinese influence. But it is unclear how well the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework would serve this goal.
The war in Ukraine has shown that, when it comes to India’s ties with the West, a revision of expectations is overdue. India’s importance for maintaining the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific makes it impossible to overlook as a partner. Additionally, despite underperforming over the last decade due to global headwinds, India is expected to be the world’s fastest-growing big economy this year. As a result, Western partners should focus on those aspects of trade and continental and maritime security where shared interests offer a strong foundation for cooperation, rather than hope India will continue on a mythical, teleological journey toward becoming Japan. India can be expected to tacitly help balance China’s rise. But it is likely to collaborate with its Western partners as a global swing state, in ways that align with its own geographic and security concerns.
Dr. Sharinee L. Jagtiani is the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung Visiting Research Fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies and an associate at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, where she completed her doctorate in International Relations. She is currently based in Berlin.
Ameya Pratap Singh is a doctoral candidate in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford and the managing editor of Statecraft, a global-affairs daily.