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It is not often that Indian foreign policy gets praise — even backhanded — from China. In a longish editorial published in early September, the state-run Global Times newspaper summed up India’s enviable position in the unfolding great power rivalry. India, noted the article, is “one of the few major powers that can still gain advantages from both sides” in the current contested global environment.
The praise of India’s “multialignment” — a post-Cold War foreign policy mandate to accommodate two diametrically opposed institutions — is accompanied by caution. The Chinese newspaper insisted that India’s multialignment and strategic autonomy will not be sustainable if Delhi becomes Washington’s strategic pawn in Asia. Delhi of course is acutely conscious that its willingness to become a stronger partner of the U.S., following the frequent military crises on the border, irritates Beijing. Delhi also knows that it is its closer relationship with the U.S. that is persuading Beijing to take a milder tone towards India, given the rapidly deteriorating Sino-U.S. relations.
Underlying this tactical diplomatic play is a larger strategic factor that is shaping India’s triangular dynamic with China and the United States. It is the growing gap between the national power of India and China. Back in the late 1980s, the Indian and Chinese economies were roughly on par. Today the Chinese GDP of $18 trillion is nearly six times larger than that of India. Beijing’s annual defense spending at $200 billion is more than three times larger than Delhi's. Finding the means to deal with the consequences of this growing gap with China has become the principal national challenge for India.
Building deeper partnerships with the U.S. and the West, therefore, has become a high priority for India. Successive U.S. administrations in the 21st century have been eager to reciprocate. Delhi’s initial refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not dimmed Washington’s strategic enthusiasm for Delhi. As U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has put it, Washington is in the “long game” of engagement with India with a view to develop a stable balance in Asia that has been destabilized by China’s rise and geopolitical assertiveness.
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Delhi and Washington have a shared interest in preventing Asia from slipping under Chinese hegemony. This convergence has led to the growing consolidation of the Quad in the four summit level meetings to take place since Biden came to power. After years of slow starts, the Quad, which brings India together with the U.S. and its allies Australia and Japan to stabilize the Indo-Pacific region, has recently acquired greater momentum.
China and Russia — who have a brand new informal alliance of their own — are trying to expand the anti-U.S. coalition by widening the membership of the BRICS (a forum of the world’s fastest-growing economies that now includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). They are also trying to expand the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security and geopolitical organization comprising much of Central and South Asia. India is a member of both and Russia and China are eager to have a reluctant India join their quest to turn these forums into anti-Western coalitions.
‘A Significant Reorientation’
How is India navigating between the two superpowers given its growing role in the Quad and continuing engagement with the BRICS? Therein lies the tale of India’s new dynamic foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Before Modi was elected in 2014, the government was ideologically squeamish about joining any framework of strategic cooperation with the U.S. that seemed to put India in the “Western camp.” A legacy of anti-Americanism among previously ruling parties and the widespread consensus behind the vague notion of “strategic autonomy” meant there was no support for any alliance against China.
India’s relations with the U.S. — including in security cooperation — have steadily improved in the new millennium and there there has also been a significant reorientation of India’s great power relations in recent years.
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One of the most important factors in India’s multialignment approach has been the recurring military tension on the disputed border with China, with squirmishes breaking out in 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2020. Addressing the growing security challenge from Beijing has convinced Delhi of the need for closer ties with Washington. In the past, especially between the 1960s and 1980s, India had relied on Russia to balance the Chinese threat to its security.
Delhi would prefer to keep the long-standing relationship with Russia going, but Moscow’s deepening confrontation with the West and its growing reliance on Beijing has been a source of gathering discomfort for India. The Ukraine crisis has only made it more acute.
While India is reluctant to criticize Russian aggression in Ukraine, it has been quite vocal about affirming its interest in the basic principles of international order that Moscow has so brazenly violated — respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. While China seems to affirm this principle vis-à-vis the West, it has had no hesitation violating it in dealing with its Asian neighbors.
Non-use of force in addressing territorial disputes is of special interest to India, which has been at the receiving end of Chinese efforts to alter the territorial disposition on the contested border. It is no surprise then that Delhi backed its Quad partners in a resounding critique against China’s “unilateral attempt to change the status quo” in Asia. Finally, Modi has brought a fresh perspective to India's international relations and has been willing to take a fresh look at many of India's challenges, especially India’s growing power gap with China. India's first prime minister bet big on solidarity with China. Although Delhi and Beijing went to war in 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru’s successors were reluctant to confront China’s power and ambition.
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They repeated Nehru’s mistake in the 1990s by over-determining the threat from the West and underestimating the challenge from China. The BRICS was part of that calculus. When Modi came to power in 2014, he was determined to build a special relationship with China. But he has no illusions left after the unending military tensions between the neighbors. As a realist, Modi is ready to enhance India’s position with regards to China; that, in turn, has produced a revitalized Quad.
As China’s power and assertiveness grew rapidly in the last few years, the partnership with the U.S. has become a much higher priority for India. Some Chinese scholars have called Modi’s policy as “aligning with the far against the near” — it is a stratagem that has long lineage in Chinese statecraft. It is also a path that Beijing itself followed during the Cold War to navigate the rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Like China, India is a large entity and it is unlikely to ever abandon its independent foreign policy. But much like Beijing, Delhi too will make strategic adjustments to its posture to suit the circumstances that it finds itself in.
Throughout the Cold War, India’s non-alignment had a distinct bias toward the Soviet Union. Today, India’s strategic autonomy will have an unmistakable tilt towards the United States and the West. But unlike China, India does not make dramatic overnight changes in its foreign policy. It evolves slowly and organically. Modi has in fact accelerated the pace of change in India’s national security policies.
Any close look at Delhi’s diplomacy would suggest that the weight of the Quad is growing rapidly in India’s geopolitical calculus while that of BRICS is slowly eroding. Delhi’s unresolved territorial problems with Beijing, India’s deepening economic ties with the U.S., and Russia’s needless confrontation with the West make this trendline sharper over time.