India's Claim to Indo-Pacific Leadership: Will the US Courtship Pay Off for Washington?

Monday, June 19, 2023

During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US, he and US President Joe Biden will share perspectives on China, with which both countries have had difficult relations. In the context of its tensions with its neighbor, Delhi has a strong case to make to be the natural leader of the Indo-Pacific, writes Jabin T Jacob of Shiv Nadar University. Whether the Americans agree may shape the future of their partnership in the region.

India's Claim to Indo-Pacific Leadership: Will the US Courtship Pay Off for Washington?

In countering China, Having Modi on side might come in handy: Biden and the Indian prime minister at the G20 meeting in Bali, November 2022 (Credit: Prasetyo Utomo/G20 Media Center)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visit to the United States from June 21 to 24 at the invitation of US President Joe Biden is being viewed in Washington as a “great opportunity” to review the growing trade, investment and defense relations between the two nations, as well as to discuss fresh areas of cooperation. But in a May 1, 2023, Foreign Affairs article, India hand Ashley J Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who previously served in the US Department of State and National Security Council, called India “America’s bad bet”, arguing that “New Delhi won’t side with Washington against Beijing.” That could well be the inside view in the American capital that Indian officials will have to deal as Modi is welcomed lavishly at the White House.

Tellis’s argument – that India has its own view about its bilateral relations and foreign policy in Asia – should not be cause for any disappointment in the US. It is simply reality. India can hardly be expected to play second fiddle to US interests in Asia, a point Modi may once again make clear when he addresses a joint session of the US Congress. Perhaps Tellis's "bad bet" case is not so much about US frustration with India on the China front as much as it is about being mystified about the nature and purpose of India’s China policy.

Three years after the 2020 clashes on its border with China, India continues to have trouble putting together a coherent military and diplomatic response to Chinese transgressions. There are several reasons for this, including domestic politics, lack of diplomatic capacity and a poorly prepared military. No country today can engage in a conflict without a degree of international support, especially if its economy is a quarter the size of China’s – or at least that is the thinking within the corridors of power in India. This reality is driving Delhi’s calculations on its participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, the informal Indo-Pacific grouping that also includes Australia, Japan and the US, and on its relationship with Washington.

India and China come face-to-face in the Doklam border area: Delhi continues to have trouble putting together a coherent military and diplomatic response to Beijing's transgressions (Credit: PTI)

There is great doubt in New Delhi about the reliability of the Quad and the US regarding China. All it took for the first iteration of the Quad to fall apart was Chinese diplomatic pressure on the Australians in 2008. That the Quad, which was originally started in 2004 as a platform for humanitarian relief cooperation after the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, rose again suggests the security challenges posed by China could no longer be ignored. And yet, like India, its members continue to dither, individually and collectively, on how to respond credibly to China’s provocations.

While its salami-slicing tactics in the South China Sea are too well known to require detailing, China has also targeted Australian and Japanese citizens recently (in cases similar to the “Two Michaels” arbitrary arrests that roiled the China-Canada relationship in 2018). The Quad has responded to the provocations and international law violations in a roundabout way. This approach does not address the immediate security challenge from China. Its troops attempted to encroach again into Indian territory in late 2022 and Chinese surveillance balloons were found intruding into US airspace in February 2023.

China’s confidence has at least partly to do with it seeing the Quad as pulling in different directions with a general inability to achieve big-ticket strategic goals. Meanwhile, the decision by the US to start AUKUS, an alternative hard-security-focused grouping focused on supplying nuclear submarine technology to Australia and technology sharing with the Australians and the British, suggests a degree of American frustration with the Quad's progress. That the US did so despite the damage that it would do to its relations with close ally France, which had a nuclear submarine deal with Canberra, was significant.

From the Indian perspective, it also suggests the Americans cannot stick with it – the last Quad summit scheduled for May 2023 in Sydney had to be cancelled because Biden begged off to attend to American domestic politics and the pressing matter of the US debt ceiling. The four leaders did still convene in a hastily organized, much reduced evening meeting on the sidelines of the G7 in Hiroshima, Japan.

Given its physical proximity to China and an active boundary dispute, India is naturally cautious about making big moves against its neighbor including through the Quad. Other members of the Quad can more afford to blow hot and cold on China. Indeed, while Biden has continued the sharp China stance of the previous administration of Donald Trump, some of the decoupling heat has come down with Washington's emphasis on the more polite term of “derisking” and the arrival on June 18 of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing on a visit that was postponed after the “spy balloon” brouhaha in January. During his stay, Blinken met his counterpart Qin Gang, foreign policy chief Wang Yi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet at the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia (Credit: Foreign Ministry of the People's Republic of China)

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet at the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia (Credit: Foreign Ministry of the People's Republic of China)

In the US, greater bipartisan consensus on China is simultaneously accompanied by more domestic disarray, polarization and navel-gazing. In Japan and Australia, it is difficult to escape the impression that changes in policies on China are just an election away. The recent resumption of high-level economic dialogue between China and Australia is taken as a sign of improving relations. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for India to fully believe in the Quad’s intent to act against China.

In the meantime, the US (and the West at large) is unhappy with India's refusal to condemn Russia over the situation in Ukraine, a somewhat ironic position given the West's long unwillingness to heed Indian advice on Beijing's troubling behavior. India was the first to actively discourage Confucius Institutes, to warn about what it saw as the dangers of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and to ban Chinese apps on mobile phones, for example. India's lessons learnt from Chinese transgressions along their disputed boundary are also something the rest of the world has ignored.

Such experience gives India a claim to leadership over the Indo-Pacific, something the Quad partners are yet to acknowledge. Indian troops are also the only ones that have physically clashed with Chinese troops in recent years and might have to do so again in the not-distant future – even as the rest of the world engages in feverish speculation of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. India already feels short-changed by the international community because it is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council – support for its leadership of the Indo-Pacific should, therefore, be considered entirely appropriate.

Of all the Quad members, India stands to lose the most from equivocating on China. Empowering India to lead the region could be the soundest bet the Americans have made in decades – such an acknowledgement could spur the growth of the Quad and other security architecture in the region. Until then, India will continue to pursue its own agenda and at its own pace.

This article is published under Creative Commons with 360info.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Jabin T Jacob

Jabin T Jacob

Shiv Nadar University

Jabin T Jacob is associate professor in the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies and director of the Centre for Himalayan Studies at Shiv Nadar University in the Delhi National Capital Region, India

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