This piece is part of the series, India@75: Aspirations, Ambitions, and Approaches
How should one view India’s emerging role in the international system and its growing contributions to the vitality and stability of the global world order? What issues and challenges confront India’s growing international profile, and what opportunities might it exploit as it continues to evolve as a significant global player? The strategic state of relations between India and the United States (US) provides a useful lens for considering these questions.
The Contours of the India–US Relationship
Despite India’s undeniable regional and global importance to American interests, for decades, the US was unwilling to consider key areas for deepening bilateral and regional cooperation, largely due to India’s possession of nuclear weapons. In the early 2000s, however, Washington began to view an active and constructive relationship with India as essential to making progress in a range of issues. The US’ global war on terror, for example, aligned with India’s efforts to combat its own organised terrorism threats; it gave both countries a practical platform for increased cooperation in intelligence, law enforcement and military relations. In recent years, cybersecurity cooperation has steadily increased between the two nations. Moreover, the US has realised that enhanced cooperation with India is essential to counter a rising China, which is already well-underway in exercising its considerable economic and political clout regionally and beyond.
For its part, India has long understood China’s principal strategic aim to replace the US as the most consequential security power in Asia and, more importantly, to challenge the prevailing international global order underwritten by the US. At the same time, India understands the continuing and strong regional and global position of the US as crucial to curbing Beijing’s strategic aspirations. As Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis have written in the October 2019 edition of Foreign Affairs
“Where China was concerned, U.S. and Indian national interests intersected. Washington sought to maintain stability in Asia through an order based not on Chinese supremacy but on security and autonomy for all states in the region. India, driven by its own fears of Chinese domination, supported Washington’s vision over Beijing’s.”
Over the past two decades, the India–US relationship has expanded in almost every conceivable dimension—political, diplomatic, economic and military—albeit not as allies but as fellow travellers on parallel journeys. One might fairly say the India–US relationship in the 21st
century has been characterised by a pragmatic realism that recognises the major points of divergence and, at times, open friction that remain ever-present. However, in 2020, two major factors have accounted for the current heightened cooperation between India and the US: i) the global COVID-19 pandemic, and ii) China’s moves, both its domestic actions on the COVID-19 pandemic and in Hong Kong and what appears to be increasingly provocative regional behaviour.
Washington sought to maintain stability in Asia through an order based not on Chinese supremacy but on security and autonomy for all states in the region.
India’s Role in the International System
Observers of India have long anticipated the country’s growing importance on the world stage. The country is rightly touted as the world’s largest democracy: Massively populous, immensely resource-rich, fiercely proud, and unquestionably successful in continuing to advance the circumstances of its more than 1.3 billion citizens. Its tradition of independence on global issues has served it well over the decades since the Cold War. India occupies a prominent place in the vital issues facing the world community today: Climate change; sustainable development; closing inequality gaps; and the challenges to a robust global economy to support, educate, employ, and elevate the growing global population. Internationally, India has served as a perennial force in the United Nations and in other international fora. It has skilfully navigated the often-fraught waters of the US–Russia relationship, negotiated countless developing world challenges, and emerged as a major voice wrestling with the paradoxical promise and peril of the cyber age. All this, even as it continues to deal with its preoccupations with Pakistan and China on issues closer to home.
Internally, India’s challenges remain not only immense but also, at times, obstructive to its designs to assert a more powerful international profile. Its democratic processes have been bedevilled by significant sectarian animosities, and its institutions of governance remain chronically weak in the face of their heavy political, economic and social responsibilities. Moreover, India has to contend with persistent rural poverty and an increasingly educated and mobile urban population churning out over a million new workers looking for work into the economy every month. These challenges, along with countless others, hinder India’s ability to assert confidence in the kind of role it wants and deserves to play internationally.
India has to contend with persistent rural poverty and an increasingly educated and mobile urban population churning out over a million new workers looking for work into the economy every month.
In many respects, India’s challenges mirror those that all strong players eventually face: Whether to accept fully the responsibilities that vast power and potential entail. These responsibilities demand making hard choices at home as well as abroad. Indeed, every government today is facing the challenge to take into account accelerating social expectations, fuelled by widespread access to information and connectivity that empowers people everywhere. Nowhere is this reality truer than in India. To move forward, India must confront its approach to international leadership, which has traditionally been more passive than assertive, more reactive than active. Here, India’s greatest resource is its people. In today’s world where, statistically, people are healthier, wealthier, more educated, more mobile, and more politically active than at any point in human history, India stands on an equal footing with any country that aspires to leadership.
The US’ position as world leader notwithstanding, it is unmistakable that the challenges facing today’s world are such that no country can do all that needs doing, and all that needs doing cannot be done alone. The unprecedented global contagion that is the COVID-19 pandemic serves as Exhibit A. Wither the India–US relationship? The US has always valued a capable partner. It is time for India to step up, with purpose and pride, to take up its share of the leader’s mantel.
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