A New Era of US-India Relations, Part II: Competing Together
14 June, 2023
Akhil Ramesh, Pacific Forum
Velina Tchakarova, FACE For A Conscious Experience
Elbridge Colby, The Marathon Initiative
Samir Kalra, Hindu American Foundation
Rob York, Pacific Forum
On June 14, 2023, Pacific Forum hosted a webinar that discussed the future of US-India bilateral relations in light of both countries competition with the People’s Republic of China. Expert panelists shared their insights and predictions regarding the history, opportunities, and future of the partnership. The session was moderated by Rob York and featured Akhil Ramesh (Pacific Forum), Velina Tchakarova (FACE), and Elbridge Colby (The Marathon Initiative). The following are key findings from the session.
The Vitality of US-India Relations
India’s role in security the “Indo” of the Indo-Pacific partnership, from the shores of Mozambique to the Malacca Strait, is a major force that aids the US in pushing against Chinese hegemony. By protecting its national interests and creating a sphere of influence over the Indian Ocean, India counters Chinese influence within the region, which makes the US-India relationship of vital strategic importance. To further and strengthen this partnership, the US must remain actively engaged and dedicated, especially since US partnerships with non-NATO nations often suffered to maintain partnerships with NATO states (i.e. Pakistan) during its presence in Afghanistan. To actively engage with India, the US must make a concerted effort to get past Cold War-era differences and make changes to its foreign policy agenda to shift away from secondary issues (e.g. Russo-Ukrainian War) to focus on primary issues: US-India’s anti-hegemonic coalition of joint interest in hedging China.
India’s population and workforce growth point to its emergence as the third-largest economy in the world by the end of the decade, a position that comes with considerable international leverage. While the US is looking forward to India’s development and the future economic and defense partnerships that will benefit both parties, India must still face issues closer to home such as its relations with Pakistan and Bangladesh. The US must also remain committed to upholding the same standards for its partner and non-partner countries alike, yet remain flexible in the face of multi-alignment and Indian national interest. Overall, India’s development will place it in a position for bridge-building and partnerships with nations in the Pacific Islands and Global South.
India as Bridge-Builder
India plays a key and unique role as a bridge between the two bloc formations of the US and China. The systemic competition, hedging strategies, and fluid ad-hoc geopolitical formations based on the interests of critical actors in the Indo-Pacific resemble a Cold War scenario. India has stepped in by involving itself with both sides, playing an active role in the geopolitical and geo-economical activities of the US, and engaging in defense partnerships such as AUKUS and the Quad. Supply chain reconfiguration and continuous geo-economic power projection have stoked US-China competition. Still, India remains a major member and influence on China-led initiatives such as the Shanghai Corporation Organization as well. India’s participation in both Western and Chinese formats protects Indian interests against a future of unipolar hegemony. They also minimize the possibility of military tensions by utilizing avenues for dialogue within the China-led format and keep the door open for future US-China dialogue. However, Indian leadership may realize the limitations of bridge-building efforts between the US and China as growing coordination between China and Russia proves detrimental to Indian interests, causing them to become more engaged in US-India relations.
India’s role in the US Indo-Pacific strategy will help direct much-needed focus on the First Island Chain, dividing labor between India & US in hedging China. India will also play a bigger role in the South Asian theater, presenting China with a two-front problem. The growing emphasis on India demonstrates an improvement in previous tunnel vision on great power politics and an update in presumed agendas of American unipolarity. The US now needs India more in facing China as a long-term competitor than India needs the US in its relationship with China. However, we may see that Indian leadership will realize the limitations of bridge-building efforts between the two countries. As growing coordination between China and Russia proves detrimental to Indian interests, Indian leadership may become more engaged in US-India relations. India, not guided by the West, will represent the interests of the Global South and take on a new role of supporting non-binary interests in the geopolitical sphere.
Areas of Cooperation and the Future of US-India Relations
The US-India partnership is full of potential areas of cooperation. India has changed since the ‘90s, occupying a more central role in the global market and manufacturing – with Apple and other major companies shifting their factories to India. Furthermore, India plays a major role in supply chain security and acts as a bridge to the Global South, with which the US has had a deficiency of relations and with which China has made considerable effort to engage through the Belt and Road Initiative. India’s role in the world has evolved since the Cold War, and the US approach to this partnership should evolve with it. The scope of this partnership should expand by finding new arenas for cooperation.
On the traditional security front, India sees the Quad as an extension of their deterrence measure, and that is not the only place where American and Indian interests overlap. In the public good aspect, India and the US share the common interest of securing the Indo-Pacific region economically. Both countries are interested in shifting manufacturing supply chain dependence away from China and toward the US. For sectors such as semiconductors, solar panels, or battery manufacturing that are critical to US security, the US can envision India as a manufacturing alternative to China. The US security apparatus are incentivized to secure deals with India to shift supply lines as a method of furthering national security.
The US and India should adopt a collaborative approach and take respective responsibility for the theaters about which the two states are concerned. Coordination between the two states should be improved through more consistent and conscious efforts at dialogue and engagement; each state should ask for assistance and coordinate to deter possible outcomes of military conflict within the Indo-Pacific region. India is more than ready to face its challenges, and it is one of the few states able and willing to use military force against China. For India to shift away from arms sales with Russia, the US partnership must replace Russia, and preparatory training must take place for India to participate in the foreign military sales process. Therefore, the US should work towards a more lenient approach to selling technology to friendly countries. Despite this crucial benefit to a strong partnership with India, when engaging with India (as well as other Pacific nations), the US should appeal primarily to the specific interests of the states it is engaging instead of solely focusing on China, as many states in the Indo-Pacific have to tread carefully to avoid antagonizing China.
The US-India relationship will be vital due to current geopolitical shifts and the imminent rise of China. A collaboration between the two countries is fated because the US and India share both a tactile and concrete interest in blocking Chinese influence in strategically critical geographic areas, namely the Indo-Pacific.
This document was prepared by Alice Qin and Hanah Park. For more information, please contact Rob York ([email protected]), Director of Regional Affairs at Pacific Forum. These preliminary findings provide a general summary of the discussion. This is not a consensus document. The views expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants. The speakers have approved this summation of their presentation.