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. 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 this on the presumption that New Delhi will respond favorably when Washington calls in favor during a regional crisis involving China.
Washington’s current expectations of India are misplaced. India’s significant weaknesses compared to 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. Still, it does not presume that American assistance imposes any further obligations on itself.
As the Biden administration expands 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 tough conversations for 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 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 and bureaucracies maintain regular dialogue on various 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 worked together in ways that would have been unimaginable during the Cold War. For example, they cooperate in monitoring China’s economic and military activities throughout the wider Indian Ocean region. They 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 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 notably penetrated 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 significant 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 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 compared to the 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.
India Goes It Alone
While U.S.-Indian security cooperation has enjoyed marked success, the more extensive defense partnership still faces significant challenges. Both nations seek to leverage their deepening ties to limit China’s assertiveness, but there is still a substantial divide in how they aim to accomplish that purpose.
The U.S. goal in military-to-military cooperation is interoperability: the Pentagon wants to integrate a foreign military in combined operations as part of coalition warfare. India, however, rejects the idea that its armed forces will participate in any combined military process outside of a UN umbrella. Consequently, it has resisted investing in meaningful operational integration, especially with the U.S. armed forces. It fears jeopardizing its political autonomy or signaling a shift toward a tight political alignment with Washington. As a result, the bilateral military exercises may improve the tactical proficiency of the units involved but not expand interoperability to the level required in primary combined operations against a capable adversary.
India’s view of military cooperation, which emphasizes nurturing diversified international ties, represents a further challenge. India treats military exercises more as political symbols than investments in increasing operational proficiency and, as a result, practices with numerous partners at varying levels of sophistication. On the other hand, the United States emphasizes relatively intense military exercises with a smaller set of counterparts.
American assistance in building up its national capabilities to deal with threats independently. The two sides have come a long way on this by, for example, bolstering India’s intelligence capabilities about Chinese military activities along the Himalayan border and in the Indian Ocean region. The existing intelligence-sharing arrangements are formally structured for reciprocity, and New Delhi shares whatever it believes to be helpful. But because U.S. collection capabilities are superior, the flow of usable information often ends up being one way.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has increasingly focused on defense-industrial cooperation as the key driver of its security partnership with the United States. Its underlying objective is to secure technological autonomy: ever since its founding as a modern state, India has sought to achieve mastery over all critical defense, dual-use, and civilian technologies and, toward that end, built up large public sector enterprises that were intended to become global leaders. Because this dream remains unrealized, New Delhi has prioritized Washington’s support for its defense industrial ambitions with similar partnerships forged with France, Israel, Russia, and other friendly states.
Washington has attempted to help India improve its defense technology base for over a decade, but these efforts have often proved futile. During President Obama’s administration, the two countries launched the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative to promote technology exchange and the coproduction of defense systems. Indian officials visualized the initiative as enabling them to procure many advanced U.S. military technologies, such as jet engines, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, and stealth capabilities so that they could be manufactured or co-developed in India. But Washington’s hesitation about clearing such transfers was matched by U.S. defense firms’ reluctance to part with their intellectual property. It made commercial investments for what were ultimately meager business opportunities.
Washington’s Big Bet
The Biden administration is now going to great lengths to reverse the failure of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative. Last year,it announced the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, which aims to fundamentally transform cooperation between the two countries’ governments, businesses, and research entities about technology development. This endeavor encompasses a wide range of fields, including semiconductors, space, artificial intelligence, next-generation telecommunications, high-performance computing, and quantum technologies, all of which have defense applications but are not restricted to them.
For all its potential, however, the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology does not guarantee any specific outcomes. The U.S. government can make or break the initiative, as it controls the release of the licenses that many joint ventures will require. Although the Biden administration seems inclined to be more liberal on this compared with its predecessors, only time will tell whether the initiative delivers on India’s aspirations for greater access to advanced U.S. technology in support of Modi’s “Make in India, Make for World” drive, which aims to transform India into a central global manufacturing hub that could one day compete with, if not supplant, China as the workshop of the world.
The bigger question, however, is whether Washington’s generosity toward India will help accomplish its strategic aims. During the Bush and Obama administrations, U.S. ambitions mainly centered on helping to build India’s power to prevent China from dominating Asia. As U.S.-China relations steadily deteriorated during the Trump administration—when Sino-Indian ties 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 more significant military role in containing China’s growing power.
There are reasons to believe it will not. India is willing to join the United States and its Quad partners in some areas of low politics, such as vaccine distribution, infrastructure investments, and supply chain diversification, even as it insists that none of these initiatives are directed against China. But on the most burdensome challenge facing Washington in the Indo-Pacific—securing meaningful military contributions to defeat any potential Chinese aggression—India will likely refuse to play a role in situations where its security is not directly threatened. In such circumstances, New Delhi may, at best, offer tacit support.
Although China is India’s most intimidating adversary, New Delhi still seeks to avoid doing anything that results in an irrevocable rupture with Beijing. Indian policymakers are acutely conscious of the stark disparity between Chinese and Indian national power, which will not be corrected soon. New Delhi’s relative weakness compels it to avoid provoking Beijing, as joining a U.S.-led military campaign against it certainly would. India also cannot escape its physical proximity to China. The two countries share a long border so Beijing can threaten Indian security significantly—a capability that has only increased in recent years.
Consequently, India’s security partnership with the United States will remain fundamentally asymmetrical for a long time. New Delhi desires American support in its confrontation with China while at the same time intending to shy away from any U.S.-China confrontation that does not directly affect its equities. India will undoubtedly want the United States to prevail if a significant conflict between Washington and Beijing erupts in East Asia or the South China Sea. But it is unlikely to embroil itself in the fight.
Therefore, New Delhi’s deepening defense ties with Washington must not be interpreted as driven by either strong support for the liberal international order or the desire to participate in the collective defense against Chinese aggression. Instead, the intensifying security relationship is conceived by Indian policymakers to bolster India’s national defense capabilities. Still, it does not include any obligation to support the United States in other global crises. Even as this partnership has grown by leaps and bounds, there remains an unbridgeable gap between the two countries, given India’s consistent desire to avoid becoming the junior partner—or even a confederate—of any great power.
The United States should undoubtedly help India to a degree compatible with American interests.But it should harbor no illusions that its support, no matter how generous, will entice India to join it in any military coalition against China. The relationship with India is fundamentally unlike those the United States enjoys with its allies. The Biden administration should recognize this reality rather than try to alter it.