For the past two decades, Washington has made an enormous bet in the Indo-Pacific—that treating India as a key partner will help the United States in its geopolitical rivalry with China. From George W. Bush onward, successive U.S. presidents have bolstered India’s capabilities on the assumption that doing so automatically strengthens the forces that favor freedom in Asia.
The administration of President Joe Biden has enthusiastically embraced this playbook. In fact, it has taken it one step further: the administration has launched an ambitious new initiative to expand India’s access to cutting-edge technologies, further deepened defense cooperation, and made the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), which includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, a pillar of its regional strategy. It has also overlooked India’s democratic erosion and its unhelpful foreign policy choices, such as its refusal to condemn Moscow’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine. It has done all of this on the presumption that New Delhi will respond favorably when Washington calls in a favor during a regional crisis involving China.
Washington’s current expectations of India are misplaced. India’s significant weaknesses compared with China, and its inescapable proximity to it, guarantee that New Delhi will never involve itself in any U.S. confrontation with Beijing that does not directly threaten its own security. India values cooperation with Washington for the tangible benefits it brings but does not believe that it must, in turn, materially support the United States in any crisis—even one involving a common threat such as China.
The fundamental problem is that the United States and India have divergent ambitions for their security partnership. As it has done with allies across the globe, Washington has sought to strengthen India’s standing within the liberal international order and, when necessary, solicit its contributions toward coalition defense. Yet New Delhi sees things differently. It does not harbor any innate allegiance toward preserving the liberal international order and retains an enduring aversion toward participating in mutual defense. It seeks to acquire advanced technologies from the United States to bolster its own economic and military capabilities and thus facilitate its rise as a great power capable of balancing China independently, but it does not presume that American assistance imposes any further obligations on itself.
As the Biden administration proceeds to expand its investment in India, it should base its policies on a realistic assessment of Indian strategy and not on any delusions of New Delhi becoming a comrade-in-arms during some future crisis with Beijing.
For most of the Cold War, India and the United States did not engage in any serious conversations on national defense, as New Delhi attempted to escape the entanglements of joining either the U.S. or the Soviet bloc. The two countries’ security relationship only flourished after Bush offered India a transformative civil nuclear agreement.
Thanks to that breakthrough, U.S.-Indian security cooperation today is breathtaking in its intensity and scope. The first and most visible aspect is defense consultations. The two countries’ civilian leaders, as well as their bureaucracies, maintain a regular dialogue on a variety of topics, including China policy, India’s procurement of advanced U.S. military technologies, maritime surveillance, and undersea warfare. These conversations vary in quality and depth but are critical for reviewing strategic assessments, defining the parameters of desired cooperation, and devising tools for policy implementation. As a result, the United States and India work together in ways that would have been unimaginable during the Cold War. For example, they cooperate to monitor China’s economic and military activities throughout the wider Indian Ocean region and have recently invested in mechanisms to share near-real-time information about shipping movements in the Indo-Pacific region with other littoral states.
A second area of success has been military-to-military collaboration, much of which takes place outside public view. The programs for senior officer visits, bilateral or multilateral military exercises, and reciprocal military training have all expanded dramatically during the past two decades. High-profile exercises most visibly exemplify the scale and diversity of this expanded relationship: the annual Malabar exercises, which bring together the U.S. and Indian navies, have now expanded to permanently include Japan and Australia; the Cope India exercises provide an opportunity for the U.S. and Indian air forces to practice advanced air operations; and the Yudh Abhyas series involves the land forces in both command post and field training activities.
Finally, U.S. firms have enjoyed notable success in penetrating the Indian defense market. India’s military has gone from having virtually no U.S. weapons in its inventory some two decades ago to now featuring American transport and maritime aircraft, utility and combat helicopters, and antiship missiles and artillery guns. U.S.-Indian defense trade, which was negligible around the turn of the century, reached over $20 billion in 2020.
But the era of major platform acquisitions from the United States has probably run its course. U.S. companies remain contenders in several outstanding Indian procurement programs, but it seems unlikely that they will ever enjoy a dominant market share in India’s defense imports. The problems are entirely structural. For all of India’s intensifying security threats, its defense procurement budget is still modest in comparison with the overall Western market. The demands of economic development have prevented India’s elected governments from increasing defense expenditures in ways that might permit vastly expanded military acquisitions from the United States. The cost of U.S. defense systems is generally higher than that of other suppliers because of their advanced technology, an advantage that is not always sufficiently attractive for India. Finally, New Delhi’s demand that U.S. companies shift from selling equipment to producing it with local partners in India—requiring the transfer of intellectual property—often proves to be commercially unattractive, given the small Indian defense market.
Read the rest at Foreign Affairs.
Ashley Tellis is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institue.