Opinion & Analysis

India & The US: Developing Relations

AMC's Graeme Acton attended last week's conference on "Security Alignments in the Indo-Pacific" held at Canterbury University. The conference featured speakers from across the region, and Associate Professor Andrea Benvenuti  took a look at the current state of relations between India and the USA, as both watch the rise of China 

It’s a question sometimes asked in Washington: “Is India a fair-weather friend to the US?”

Since India’s independence in 1947, the USA has looked upon its relationship with Delhi sometimes with an air of distrust and sometimes serious concern over issues like nuclear weapons.

The first visit by an Indian PM to the US was in 1949, when Jawaharlal Nehru met with his counterpart Harry S. Truman. Nehru arrived amid the lead-up to India declaring its neutrality in the then Cold War developing between the US and Russia.

India would go on to lead the “Non-Alignment” movement, attracting the ire of both sides.

Jump forward some 40 years and India again raised the hackles of the US (and many other western nations) with a series of nuclear weapons tests conducted close to the border with Pakistan.

The tests prompted Pakistan to conduct tests of its own, sparking concerns over a nuclear arms race in the region.

The US subsequently imposed sanctions on India and the relationship remained strained until President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000, the first by a US President since 1978.

Since then, it’s largely been a story of deepening and broadening ties, visiting presidents, defence pacts, trade deals, and exchange between the two on multiple levels.

It’s worth noting however that the overwhelmingly positive trend was derailed somewhat by President Trump, who sparked a trade spat out of thin air by removing India’s favoured trade status, whilst claiming India was denying access to US-made goods.

The retaliatory sanctions from Delhi followed a few weeks later and despite a visit by Trump in 2020, many of the trade disputes still remain unresolved even as US goods traded with India totalled $US130 billion in the 12 months to July 2022, up a significant 33 percent from the year before.

“The US wonders if India’s unshakeable commitment to its own strategic autonomy will ever actually allow it to become a real ally to Washington"

“It seems quite clear that China’s rise has provided the gravitational pull needed to bring the Indo-American relationship to the next level” says international relations expert Dr Andrea Benvenuti.  

Dr Benvenuti was speaking at Canterbury University last week, part of a line-up of IR specialists hosted by the Department of Political Science & International Relations for a one-day conference looking at current security alignments in the Indo-Pacific   

Based at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Dr Benvenuti believes the incentive for the US and India to ally over trade actually comes fundamentally from a stronger China, which is driving the India-US relationship to the next level.

Associate Professor Andrea Benvenuti, University of NSW/ photo UNSW

“Washington firmly sees China as intent on undermining a US led rules-based order, and the policy statements coming out of Washington under both Trump and Biden explicitly suggest China seeks to create a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific region which will assist it in becoming the world’s leading power.”

“India has never explicitly spelt out its security strategy like the US does,” says Dr Benvenuti, “but India still has a very clear-eyed view of Chinese behaviour.”

India views China’s transformation into a major power as a significant challenge to its security, and for Dr Benvenuti, there are several reasons behind that stance.

“China’s rise alters the military balance in the region, and its military spending was three times higher than India in 2021. That imbalance deeply worries India’s military policymakers.’ he says.  

“The second challenge is that China’s enduring relationship with Pakistan gives India a strategic headache, worrying about the possibility the two nations may in some way ally against India. Add to that the concerns India has about China getting involved in other neighbouring nations like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bangladesh, and you can appreciate India may start to feel a little encircled”

Lastly, Dr Benvenuti sees the periodic tensions across India's border region as another reason Delhi looks to Washington for support.

Chinese and Pakistani Border guards at the Khunjerab Pass border crossing in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir / Photo Wikimedia

“There is recognition China will in future play a more influential role in the region, but neither India nor the US want to see a reduction in their regional influence.”

But while both nations may have a common view on a rising China, in many ways they have had differing approaches. The US has focussed on international maritime issues like the South China Sea, while India has prioritised its own territorial defence.

“Perhaps because of its more limited military capability -compared to the US – India has hesitated to challenge China’s core interests in the Indo-Pacific,” says Andrea Benvenuti.

“India’s also been cautious in articulating its support for Taiwan, and careful in the way it talks about the QUAD arrangement with the US.”

“And without talking about it too much, India has moved to rectify the power imbalance with China, it tried to build the capacity to deter Chinese aggressive behaviour in the Himalayas, and to discreetly help to balance power in the Indo-Pacific.”

“I think there is also still a feeling in India about America’s reliability over China. I think Indian policymakers remain uncertain on how far Washington might go in balancing against China – they are worried the US might leave India in the lurch when push comes to shove.” he says.

In Washington of course, the Biden administration is doing all it can to keep India onside, promoting the increasing connections with the US.

India has also welcomed a return by the US to multilateralism, and is keen to be working on issue-based coalitions with the US and others, including in Asia.

Delhi still prefers to pick and choose its coalitions based on its strategic interests, such as joining groups focused on regional security (like the Quad) while largely avoiding trade pacts.

The desire to maintain a diversified portfolio of partners allows India to keep what it regards as possibly unreliable partners at arm’s length, while protecting its own strategic interest.

With the US embroiled in a domestic political crisis and Europe facing a hugely challenging winter amid the Ukraine conflict, India will be watching its western partners just as carefully as it is being watched.

Despite the travails of the west, Dr Benvenuti says he believes parts of the US administration still have their doubts on the ability of India to restrain China.

“The US wonders if India’s unshakeable commitment to its own strategic autonomy will every actually allow it to become a real ally to Washington.

Some can point to India’s failure to condemn Russia over the Ukraine invasion, the fact that while India remains a democracy, it chooses not to speak out when a democracy is threatened.”

Despite the road bumps, India’s relationship with the US has improved to a level unthinkable a few years ago

But despite the improvements, just how far India is willing to work with the US to counter the influence of China is a matter of debate.

The Bandra-Worli Sealink Bridge in modern Mumbai / photo Wikimedia

For Andrea Benvenuti, the possibility of India becoming a future formal member of a western security community remains slim, and he believes Delhi is unlikely to display a complete unity of purpose with Washington over China.

“The question remains in my mind – is India destined to be a fair-weather friend to the US, or can it become a dependable partner?”

While India may have what Andrea Benvenuti describes as “commitment problems”, the view from Delhi on China might be best described in a recent quote from Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, a visitor to our shores just last month:

“We have a difficult relationship with China, but we’re perfectly capable of managing it… I think I am one fifth of the world’s population, the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, I think I am entitled to have my own side, I am entitled to weigh my own interest, make my own choices.”

While India carves its own path, it remains a major defence partner to the US, with significant and growing networks across trade, defence, intelligence, cyberspace, education and healthcare. The two nations are part of the Quad, along with Australia and Japan.

Indian and US policies are converging over the same challenge. Economically both India and the US are trying to reduce their connections to China, and Washington is now looking beyond formal alliances.

India will continue to work in what it believes are its own strategic interests. Whether or not those interests immediately align with others is another matter.  

- Asia Media Centre