One of the outcomes of the June 15 clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Eastern Ladakh that led to the first deaths along the Line of Actual Control in 40 years, was for many to all on New Delhi to tighten its embrace with the United States of America as a way of countering Beijing’s economic and military might. But will India actually go down this road? spoke to Tanvi Madan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped US-India Relations During the Cold War, about how the latest incident with China might shape ties between India and America going forward and whether Washington understands New Delhi’s need to maintain close relationships with other countries, like Russia.

In your book, and in a recent piece for the Times of India, you argue that Indian policymakers have always believed they have time to deal with Beijing, which has often proven to be untrue. Do you believe that this conflict is a big enough jolt to change that perspective?
It’s too soon to tell. It’s been enough of a jolt that we have seen a hardening of views on China, and not just in the public. The [Indian] foreign minister has told his Chinese counterpart that the Galwan clash will have a “serious impact” on the bilateral relationship. There’s been a remarkable convergence among a number of India’s former diplomats who have served in Beijing – engaged with it – that China is primarily a challenge, this is watershed moment that will have serious repercussions, and that the relationship and the architecture of boundary agreements need to be reassessed. We have even seen some steps on the economic side, which might be a preview of further restrictions to come or a signal to China.

Whether it results in a timely national effort to confront the challenge remains to be seen. As then Defence Minister George Fernandes pointed out in 1998, the “reluctance to face the reality” that China is a problem – and not a distant one – is “primarily rooted in having to face the challenges which accepting this situation or this reality will kind of confront you with.”

Governments have had other priorities – some very understandable ones. And accepting that China is a major challenge – one that is only increasing – will require making trade-offs that are not easy, including between how much you spend on defense versus development, prioritising prosperity or economic self-reliance, the resources devoted to China versus Pakistan, and the desire for autonomy versus the necessity of alignment with partners. And each of these trade-offs involves a domestic politics versus security/prosperity trade-off.

It’s not yet clear whether the jolt is sufficient enough to make leaders and the people willing to make the hard choices – even sacrifices – required. These choices are even tougher to make as India faces a trifecta of crises: a national security crisis, a health crisis, and an economic one. But they are not impossible. In fact, making one set of trade-offs can make another set easier. If you can expand your economic pie, for instance, it gives you more resources to spend on both development and defense.

Tanvi Madan, author of 'Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped US-India Relations During the Cold War.'

Some believe India should now ally much more closely with the US. Others worry that the Trump administration is too inconsistent for that to happen. You argue in the book that certain conditions have to be met for India and the US to tackle the China challenge together. Are those conditions in place right now?
First, I’d note that this is not about alliance versus non-alignment. For one, the US is not offering or asking for a traditional alliance of the NATO sort. Second, you can’t think about non-alignment between China and the US the same way India thought about it between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War. This time, one of the major power competitors is an Indian adversary, to put it bluntly. So non-alignment is not an option overall.

My book notes that an India-US alignment requires the two countries to agree on the nature of the China challenge, as well as its urgency and how to approach it. I think today you see convergence on many of those aspects, which is why there is already a fair degree of alignment between the two countries – as well as some other common partners.

As long as those conditions sustain, I think the question ahead is how much closer this alignment will get i.e. the decision will not be about whether or not India will align with the US, but about the terms and extent of that alignment.

One caution: India and the US will not align on every issue. Indeed, even in terms of approach toward the China challenge, there are differences, including whether Russia is part of the solution or problem. But if those differences are managed well, they will not be insurmountable obstacles.

Through much of the last decade, India was actively pushed by Washington as a counter to Beijing. But with India struggling to raise its economic stature under Modi (indeed, not matching the GDP growth of the 2000s), has India become less important to the US as a factor in China relations?
For a number of reasons, India has actually become more important for Washington in the China context.

For one, the rise of China and particularly its assertive global and regional behavior have made Washington more focused on the China challenge. It is seen from a more competitive prism than in previous decades – and not just by Republicans but by Democrats as well.

Second, the US has been looking for countries to burden share, and India has been willing to do more, especially in the region. Third, over the last two decades, Delhi has shown an increasing willingness and desire to work with the US and its allies and partners. Finally, even with slower growth than in the 2000s, India is a partner that can still bring a lot to the table.

Nonetheless, it is worth keeping in mind that it is the vision of India as a strong, prosperous or growing, democratic power that makes it attractive to the US as a counterbalance and a contrast vis-à-vis China – but also more broadly. If India falters over time across those three dimensions, Washington will get disillusioned. As my book shows, that is part of what led to the unraveling of the India-US alignment in the 1960s.

You’ve argued that Washington needs to better understand India’s need for diversification, despite a common view of China as a challenge. Do you believe there is sufficient understanding of this in policy circles in the US and the broader West?
I think there is more understanding among American policymakers of India’s diversification approach of maintaining multiple partnerships, and that it does not mean that India has equidistant relationships with every partner. However, it can still pose difficulties at the operational level – the Russia/S400 saga [when Washington took issue with India’s insistence on buying missile defence systems from Moscow] is a prime example. So while in general terms, Washington might comprehend why Delhi maintains a relationship with Moscow, American officials believe that India’s acquisition of this platform will complicate or limit greater interoperability between the American and Indian militaries in the future.

In broader policy circles, there can still be a perception of non-alignment as an ideological concept rather than a diversification strategy. That can indeed lead to observers not recognizing how far Delhi and Washington have come as partners – and indeed what might be possible in the future.

Having said that, I suspect we’ll see more understanding across the world of diversification. Many countries seem to be choosing a similar strategy in this more uncertain era and faced with competition between two countries (China and the US) with whom they have relationships.

Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said in December that he “cannot overstate the importance of the flow of talent for Indo-American ties.” How do you read the latest decision on H-1B visas and how that might affect Indo-US ties?
I read it as a domestic political decision, one that will be debated over the next year or so. One reason why trade and immigration policy choices can be tougher to tackle in the bilateral relationship is because they involve domestic constituencies and politics. The H-1B announcement does complicate private sector decisions and public perceptions.

These are not minor issues in the India-US relationship because business and people-to-people ties are an important part of it. However, I do not think it will be a deal-breaker for the relationship and I do not think the Indian government will make it one. The US is too important to them for other reasons –including strategic ones. Stakeholder on both sides will continue to make the case that Indian talent can help create jobs, and contribute to America’s post-Covid recovery.

What does everyone – the media, the public, even other experts – get wrong about India-US relations or the India-US-China triangle?
Not wrong per se, but I think many continue to believe that China’s role in shaping the US-India relationship is a recent post-2000 phenomenon.

What was one thing you didn’t know before you began research for Fateful Triangle?
There are many things I did not know, which is what made the book interesting to research and write.

But I did gain a better understanding from particularly my archival research, that policymakers are (1) operating under a series of constraints (e.g. resources, capacity, politics), and (2) often faced with sub-optimal choices from which to pick.

What 3 books/podcasts/papers/articles should we read on the current moment or on the subject in general?