India’s security ties with the United States have traditionally commanded attention within the broader context of India’s foreign affairs. Although Indo-US security cooperation has matured over the last two decades in quantitative and qualitative terms, it takes a few dull moments for commentators to write the obituary of India-US relations.
The oscillation between the extremes of “strong ties” and “frosty relations” makes it difficult to grasp the real-world complexities or the underlying phenomenon at play. To truly understand the gradations in contemporary India-US security ties, it is pertinent to grasp the simultaneous interplay of two concepts of International Relations role theory: compatibility in security role conceptions and convergence-divergence dynamics.
India and US Role Compatibility
Role conceptions refer to the policymakers’ perception of their country’s position vis-à-vis others (self-conception) in the broader international system in conjunction with external countries’ expectations (role prescription) from the country in question. In short, it is the interplay between a state’s self-conception and external expectations.
Every state possesses a range of foreign policy and security role conceptions that shape its external policy conduct and choices. Based on one’s self-conceptions, states have expectations from other actors. When there is compatibility between an actor’s self-conception and the expectation of an external actor, it can be described as role compatibility between the two sides.
This concept helps explain the trajectory of the Indo-US strategic relationship. Since the turn of the century, New Delhi has viewed itself as a major power, first responder, and security actor in the Indian Ocean Region. These conceptions shaped its global and regional security conduct. At the same time, Washington was keen to nurture India as a counterbalance to China’s influence in the region, opening the window for greater convergence of interests.
American expectations of India were influenced by a range of factors: China’s military rise, its own overstretched military commitments abroad and fiscal challenges at home, and India’s potential as an Asian security player. India’s security potential in the Indian Ocean Region fits well with the US’s search for like-minded partners that could share security responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific region.
One of the turning points was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It resulted in an ad-hoc partnership between the US, India, Japan, and Australia to address the aftermath of the natural calamity. The successful collaboration of resources and efforts between the countries sowed the seeds of the Quad. It was believed that the four democracies had the potential to come together to tackle the regional challenges, especially considering China’s side.
There was increasing compatibility between New Delhi’s security conceptions and the US’s role prescription vis-à-vis India. Washington also facilitated New Delhi’s improved ties with its allies, Japan and Australia. The growing bonhomie manifested in the birth of Quad 1.0 in 2007, but there was palpable reluctance in New Delhi and Canberra because of the concern that such a partnership would provoke Beijing and exacerbate the looming bilateral tensions. The group faded soon after Australia withdrew.
Nevertheless, over the next decade, India’s bilateral relations with the US, Japan, and Australia improved. As China’s military avatar grew increasingly assertive, especially after the 2008 global economic crisis, there was greater strategic clarity in New Delhi, Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo on the scale and severity of regional challenges posed by China’s rise. The leaderships also grew cognizant that no single country could manage the China challenge on its own.
New Delhi’s reluctance toward a Quad-type arrangement was reduced following the India-China 2017 Doklam standoff. On one hand, India embraced the Quad, leading to its resurrection in 2017, and the group evolved incrementally – from interaction at the Under-secretary level in 2017 to ministerial-level engagement in 2019. On the other hand, New Delhi continued to engage Beijing to find some degree of stability in their relationship, clearly discernable in the India-China reset and dialogues between the heads of state.
The 2020 bloody border clashes proved to be an inflection point, and India’s position vis-à-vis China hardened further. Not only did India accept Australia as a participant in the Malabar naval exercise (which previously included the US, Japan, and India) in late 2020, but it also elevated the Quad interaction to the summit level involving the highest leadership.
As a first, the 2021 Quad gathering released a joint statement, and its scope expanded to include more ambitious plans, including vaccine diplomacy, infrastructure development, maritime security, and critical technologies. In another first, the 2023 Quad joint statement referred to the Russa-Ukraine war and dissuaded “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons”.
‘Weakest link’ India
Even as the Quad 2.0 evolves, the grouping – often compared to the AUKUS alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US – has often been described by observers as less effective. As the only non-ally in a group with three formal allies, India’s reluctance to nurture a stronger security role for the Quad has led to its branding as the “weakest link” in some quarters, and its external conduct is considered discrepant.
New Delhi’s muted criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 expectedly led to some frustration in the West, raising questions over India’s credibility as a security partner. These areas of divergences within the broader equation of role compatibility denote the real-world complexities in bilateral and minilateral partnerships.
Within the broader umbrella of role compatibility, there are simultaneously occurring areas of shared interests and diverging viewpoints/priorities between countries or actors. This complex phenomenon is termed the convergence-divergence dynamic. It is natural for partners (and even allies) to have converging and diverging interests, and the ratio between the two reflects the strength or weakness of the relationship at any given point in time.
Even with converging Indo-US strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, there are differences in how Washington and New Delhi approach the region and seek to address the challenges therein. First, the US views the Indo-Pacific as a region where rules-based liberal international order needs to be preserved vis-à-vis China’s assertive rise and even the Russian threat.
By contrast, India does not see the Indo-Pacific as an exclusive group of actors in a region that is against any country (read China). New Delhi considers it an “inclusive” region and has, at times, even signaled the inclusion of China and Russia within its definition of the Indo-Pacific. This explains why India categorically states that the Quad is not directed against any one country, as it is wary of projecting it as an anti-China grouping.
Second, the US is open about the threat China poses to its interest and is ready to deter and even fight if required. India, on the other hand, is wary of balancing China directly and prefers maintaining the competition-cooperation model in its ties with China. New Delhi’s choice to deepen or soften engagement with the Quad is connected with how India wishes to deal with China at a given point in time, which can range from seeking a stable equation to pressurising it against acting in a particular manner. The tendency to indulge in periodic cost-benefit analysis vis-à-vis China determines India’s security involvement with the Quad or other joint activities with the US.
Third, although New Delhi has been tilting toward the West for the last two decades, it continues to balance multiple partnerships, at times with countries at odds with each other. This is evident in India’s decision to cooperate with the US and its allies on the Quad and other arrangements while maintaining ties with China and Russia (thus explaining Indian silence on Russia’s actions in Ukraine).
The multi-alignment posture relates to India’s obsession with “strategic autonomy” and its legacy of not depending on any of the competing countries or set of countries. So far, India has effectively managed to balance its relations with odd bedfellows, but the sustainability and success of this practice, in the long run, is debatable, particularly if China poses a more urgent threat.
Fourth, India’s traditional areas of interest lie in the Indian Ocean, while the US focus remains on the Pacific region. Regardless of the increased overlap between their areas and issues of interest more recently, New Delhi will likely remain less involved or enthusiastic about overtly addressing Chinese actions in regions that do not directly impinge on its security interests (case in point, Taiwan or even Ukraine as visible in the present context). This will naturally impact the trajectory of the Quad’s engagement on traditional security issues.
That differences exist within partnerships is not an anomaly and does not always denote a severe clash between actors. Instead, if there is sustained role compatibility, policymakers/diplomats develop the mechanisms to work effectively despite the problems and/or even socialise with each other on a specific issue over time.
To illustrate, India and the US have contrasting views on “maritime order” and “freedom of navigation”. India has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea while the US has not, and both have distinct interpretations of the law (India’s interpretation is closer to China’s understanding of the law). While Indian law is against freedom of navigation operation in its exclusive economic zone, these differences have been managed well at the diplomatic level and have not adversely affected maritime cooperation, indicating a silver lining in a dark cloud.
Overall, India-US strategic and security ties are not perfect and are unlikely to be so in the coming future. The specter of divergences will continue to exist within the role compatibility the two enjoy. This may also affect the orientation of the Quad from a security perspective. However, the differences are unlikely to impede the incremental progress of their bilateral ties or engagement in a quad arrangement, especially if China remains the glue keeping them closer. In short, Indo-US relations and their engagement is not black and white but shades of grey.
Aditi Malhotra is the Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Army Journal (CAJ) and a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. She is the author of Understanding Security Role Evolution of US, China and India: Setting the Stage and India in the Indo-Pacific: Understanding India’s Security Orientation Towards Southeast and East Asia.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views, position, or policy of the Government of Canada or the Canadian Armed Forces.
This article was first published on India in Transition, a publication of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.