American strategic expert Ashley Tellis’ essay in the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine on May 1 created more than a ripple among India-US watchers when he argued that the United States strategy of courting India as a partner is a “bad bet” because New Delhi will not follow Washington’s lead in confronting China during a regional crisis. The piece highlighted a long discussion in foreign policy circles: what exactly should a US-India relationship look like in the age of Great Power rivalry between Washington and Beijing?

The United States has increasingly supported India when it comes to defence, hoping that Delhi will reciprocate with military help in case of a confrontation with China. However, Tellis has joined some other scholars to argue that India would not intervene in any such conflict and would instead maintain its strategic autonomy.

However, other experts maintain that Delhi, even if not agreeable to a mutual defence arrangement, is still a good bet for Washington. They argue that India may eventually come around to helping the United States militarily in order to protect its own interests.

The ‘enormous bet’ on India

Michael Schuman, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, an American think tank, suggests that India is a key element of Washington’s China strategy. “India [is] the world’s ultimate swing state,” Schuman suggests.

To this end, in recent years, the United States has increasingly assisted India by granting it access to advanced American technologies and real-time geospatial intelligence. This backing was evident during the China-India clashes in eastern Ladakh in 2020 when Washington reportedly provided Delhi diplomatic and material support.

Similarly, US News & World Report reported in March, citing an unidentified person familiar with the matter, that real-time intelligence shared by the United States military had helped India stall a Chinese incursion in Arunachal Pradesh in December. This possibly refers to the India-China clash in Tawang.

Washington has also placed the Quad – a security dialogue between India, the United States, Australia and Japan – at the heart of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Beijing accuses the Quad of being an “Asian NATO” aimed at China. Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a mutual defence alliance built during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, agree to defend each other against armed aggression by third parties.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting United States President Joe Biden at the White House. Credit: Narendra Modi/Twitter
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting United States President Joe Biden at the White House. Credit: Narendra Modi/Twitter

This support is an “enormous bet” that the United States has placed on India, presuming that Delhi will “respond favourably” when Washington seeks its support during a crisis involving China, Tellis argued in his article.

Tellis wrote that expectations of some in Washington about India’s role vis-à-vis China have evolved. Over the past two decades, Delhi had gone from being an economic counterweight against Beijing to being a military partner for Washington, Tellis said. “As US-China relations steadily deteriorated during the Trump administration – when Sino-Indian relations hit rock bottom as well – Washington began to entertain the more expansive notion that its support for New Delhi would gradually induce India to play a greater military role in containing China’s growing power,” Tellis wrote.

Consequently, Tellis argued, Washington has bent over backwards to accommodate India’s divergent positions over matters such as sanctions against Russia.

Delhi’s aversion to mutual defence

However, America’s expectations of India are misplaced and Washington needs to exercise caution, Tellis argued. “Delhi will never involve itself in any US confrontation with Beijing that does not directly threaten its own security,” he wrote. “The Biden administration … 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.”

Tellis argued that the United States and India have divergent ambitions for their security partnership, with Delhi averse to participating in mutual defence deals. He suggested that India does not believe it must materially support the United States in any crisis, including with mutual threat China, in return for Washington’s support. This is because of India’s relative weaknesses against and proximity to China, and to avoid irreparably rupturing ties with Beijing.

Scholars suggest that Tellis expressing concerns about Washington’s expectations from Delhi are significant because he has been a “longest-standing champion” of their bilateral ties. Tellis was closely involved in the 2005 India-United States civil nuclear deal that is seen as a turning point for their bilateral relations. There are others who have been making similar arguments.

Experts such as Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute, have emphasised that it is a a widely-accepted notion. that India would not get involved in a potential United States-China confrontation.

Citing Delhi’s emphasis on strategic autonomy and historical distrust between India and the United States, Schuman had similarly pointed out that Washington faces challenges in getting Delhi onboard its China strategy.

Whether India can be counted on to support the US is an open question,” Schuman wrote in March. “[The legacy of earlier frosty ties] weighs on the relationship to this day, but more important is the mercurial nature of Indian foreign policy, which has been a hallmark of the nation’s sense of its place in the world since its formation in 1947.”

Ashok Kantha, a former Indian ambassador to China, has also suggested that a military pact was unlikely. “On some issues we might be closer to the USA, but we will not join a military alliance,” Kantha had told Newsweek in April.

Tanvi Madan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, had similarly argued in October that the United States and India’s other partners should approach it with pragmatism. “[The United States] should have realistic expectations about what New Delhi might be able to do in the Indo-Pacific, given its border-related, regional and domestic priorities,” she said.

Indian and United States Army soldiers during the Yudh Abhyas military exercise in 2022. Credit: ADGPI Indian Army/Twitter
Indian and United States Army soldiers during the Yudh Abhyas military exercise in 2022. Credit: ADGPI Indian Army/Twitter

Still not a bad bet

There are other experts who argue that the United States’ bet on India is not a bad one after all, despite their varying strategic interests.

Ian Hall, the deputy director for research of the Griffith Asia Institute, agrees that India has neither signed up to defend the liberal international order nor fight alongside the United States in East Asia against China. “Liberal international order” refers to the prevailing set of global laws and institutions sculpted under the United States’ dominance since the late 1940s.

However, unlike Tellis, Hall argues that this does not mean that Washington’s engagement with Delhi needs caution. “There is no question that a strong India complicates China’s strategic calculus – which is why the US wants India to get stronger,” Hall told Scroll.

Hall argued that India, in fact, also needs military partnership with the United States to face China’s “full-spectrum challenge”. “For that reason, India abandoned non-alignment to form a partnership with the Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s and today it has done the same with the US and its allies,” Hall said.

In similar vein, Madan, who had suggested that Washington should court India pragmatically, says that the metrics to assess the utility of the India-United States partnership cannot solely be seen in terms of whether India will fight alongside the United States against China or if the United States will deploy boots on ground if China attacks India.

In fact, contrary to suggestions that Washington expects Delhi to join its alliance system, Madan cited earlier comments by American officials to argue that India being a military ally of Washington is not a dominant view in the United States administration. “I don’t think [the] Biden administration expects India to engage in collective defence or defend liberal international order,” Madan tweeted.

Shashi Tharoor, an MP and India’s former minister of state for external affairs, argued that while Delhi is cautious of officially participating in such partnerships, it has every reason to forge one given China’s increasing belligerence. “We, too, need to really have partners with an eye on China,” Tharoor told The Atlantic in March.

By accommodating Delhi’s caution, Tharoor said, “America seems to have the patience to let the Indians find their comfort level, which have certainly been progressing in the direction the US would like.”

India may come around

More importantly, experts such as Hall argue that India’s position of not supporting the United States militarily may itself change. “It is certainly possible that India could be involved militarily in a future crisis, for example securing sea lines of communication in the South China Sea,” Hall suggests. “But right now, India lacks the capability to do that, and it may not have that capability until well into the 2040s.”

Similarly, former Indian diplomat Yogesh Gupta argues that helping the United States militarily in its confrontation with China is in India’s interest. “If China is able to forcibly occupy Taiwan, it will change the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region completely,” Gupta said. “This would also threaten trade in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait from where a lot of India’s trade also passes.”

Gupta told Scroll that the United States being forced to concede Taiwan will boost China’s influence in Asia and its “expansionary behaviour” towards its neighbours will pose a threat to India’s territorial integrity.

Therefore, Gupta rejected Tellis’ argument saying it is a “myopic view”. “No country will tell in advance that they intend to take a certain stand or do so and so,” Gupta said. “But, to say that India won’t help the US in case of a conflict with China is a complete travesty. India will act according to its own interest, but it will help the US. The form of this support will depend on the situation.”

Gupta added that help does not necessarily mean sending troops to Taiwan. “India can apply diversionary pressure on China,” he said. “India can also let the US use Indian military bases. This is a possibility.”

Asked if irreparable damage to ties with Beijing will be a consideration for Delhi, Gupta argued that China was “already antagonised”. “They don’t treat India as an equal,” he said. “But, no country wants a two-front war. If there is a conflict over Taiwan in the East, China won’t want a conflict with India on its western border.”

Similarly, Madan suggests Delhi will play some role in possible confrontations such as Taiwan anyway. “Let’s also be clear – India won’t be unaffected by such a contingency and won’t be able to stay aloof,” Madan argued. “[This is] not because of US pressure. But because geography and interdependence matters.”