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Troubles Aplenty: Foreign policy challenges for Indian government

The author, who holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, analyzes how Indian foreign policy has to evolve in the next four years to realize its role on the global stage, increase its economic prosperity & technological capabilities and protect its physical security.

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Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed a string of foreign policy successes during his term in office, the new government that will be formed in New Delhi — will have to confront serious external challenges both around India’s periphery and farther beyond. Modi has displayed an extraordinary international activism ever since he was elected in 2014. Arguably not since former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s long tenure has India been so engaged in such a wide range of global issues ranging from climate change to strategic realignments—and in so conspicuous a fashion revolving around the sheer personality of the prime minister himself.

This activism and its underlying motivations are ultimately grounded in a vision of India as a leading power in the international system: both Nehru and Modi are united by their shared conviction that India is destined for greatness on the global stage, even if the wellsprings of that conception are quite different in each case.

Modi’s successes thus far have undoubtedly been impressive: sustaining the partnership with the United States during the convulsive early months of Donald Trump’s presidency; cementing the relationship with Japan to advance the intra-Asian balancing of China; new outreach toward the Sunni Arab states to realize meaningful forms of political and economic support for India while simultaneously strengthening ties with Israel and preserving relations with Iran; resolving long-standing irritants with Bangladesh to reset friendly ties with a country that India had a critical role in creating; and articulating a persuasive vision of order in the Indo-Pacific that not only binds the United States and India more closely but also opens doors for deeper Indian involvement in a vast swath of the globe from Africa at one end to northeast Asia at the other.

For all these achievements, however, not even Modi could overwhelm Machiavelli’s Fortuna. Even virtuoso leaders inevitably must be backed by the availability of material power if they are to enjoy enduring political success. The record of the last five years suggests that even when Modi did not falter, India’s strategic aims were often frustrated by both contextual constraints and the limitations of its national capabilities. The next government in India, accordingly, will continue to be taxed on both counts while the foreign policy challenges facing New Delhi remain serious and hard to resolve speedily.

Primary objective of Indian foreign policy within and around its subcontinent has been to translate its familiar dominance into a political hegemony that commands the consent, if not the obedience, of its smaller neighbors, that aim has been frequently frustrated by the simple reality that India does not as yet possess the requisite power to shape their strategic choices.

A successful Indian foreign policy, by definition, is one that creates the external circumstances conducive to realizing India’s fundamental aims, namely, protecting its physical security and its decisional autonomy, enlarging its economic prosperity and its technological capabilities, and realizing its status claims on the global stage.

Attaining these objectives requires New Delhi to engage at three different levels abroad: within the subcontinent and its immediate periphery, the intermediate level of the international system populated by various middle powers, and the core of the system where the great powers reside. The next government in India will be confronted by significant tests especially in the first and the last arenas—the most important domains affecting Indian interests—suggesting that the incoming prime minister will have his work cut out for him.

India and Its Immediate Periphery

India’s problems within the subcontinent and around its immediate periphery (excluding China) have always been significant — and fundamentally for structural reasons. New Delhi’s critics invariably point to its diplomatic missteps in explaining why India has never been able to vivify its natural primacy in South Asia. Such blunders have frequently occurred — and Modi has had his fair share as exemplified by the failures in Nepal — but they have only exacerbated, not produced, the essential problem

If the primary objective of Indian foreign policy within and around its subcontinent has been to translate its familiar dominance into a political hegemony that commands the consent, if not the obedience, of its smaller neighbors, that aim has been frequently frustrated by the simple reality that India does not as yet possess the requisite power to shape their strategic choices.

India’s political diffidence outside its borders, which has been described as strategic restraint, when combined with its material weaknesses, including its military limitations, have prevented New Delhi from being able to wield coercive power effectively.

India is undoubtedly more capable than every one of its neighbors (bar China) singly, but despite its remarkable economic growth in recent decades, it is still limited by the fact that it has not satisfied the development needs of large sections of its own population. The success of Indian democracy has only ensured that its national resources—no matter how considerable relative to the nearby countries—are predominantly allocated toward meeting internal needs, with only modest assets available for securing external influence.

The weaknesses of the Indian state have only complicated this problem: New Delhi has simply been unable to extract the resources necessary for power-political purposes even if these might be notionally available.

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India’s economic strategy, thus far, has only made things worse. Shallow reforms have produced weaker economic performance than might otherwise have been possible. Furthermore, by pursuing predominantly inward-looking growth, India has not underwritten the regional assimilation that might have bound its neighbors’ material progress and their political choices to its own success and political preferences as China’s outward integration has comparably succeeded in East and Southeast Asia.

Moreover, India’s political order, for all its achievements, is still marred by conspicuous weaknesses and as such has prevented New Delhi from enjoying the fruits of external allegiance that might have possibly accrued were India to have demonstrated an exemplary character. Finally, India’s political diffidence outside its borders, which has been described as strategic restraint, when combined with its material weaknesses, including its military limitations, have prevented New Delhi from being able to wield coercive power effectively.

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This has left it—despite its large size, significant potential power, and sometimes heavy-handed diplomacy—in the awkward situation of being unable to either overawe its neighbors or induce their submission without serious costs to India’s own well-being. These constraints are structural, in that they pertain to the underlying forces defining the relations between India and its adjacent states, and they are hard to overcome even if New Delhi consistently pursued the smartest foreign policies imaginable.

These limitations constitute the context within which two other factors constrain India’s foreign policy effectiveness further. First, India’s large size and nominal power advantage often unnerves its immediate neighbors and prompts them to look outside the subcontinent for sources of countervailing assistance and support. Second, India’s particular geography presents it with a border with every one of its smaller neighbors—even as these states share no borders with each other—thus making New Delhi the natural magnet for resentments from every corner.

The weakness of Indian hegemony, defined as a domination that impels others to accede to New Delhi’s preferences, is thus manifested by the fact the New Delhi has few enduring or overwhelming sources of leverage even in its own immediate region.

When the forces of nationalism and the convulsive domestic politics in each of these South Asian states interact with China’s growing power and its ability to use economic instruments to satisfy their desires for foreign investment and enhanced connectivity in ways that India either cannot or will not, it is not surprising that New Delhi—despite its greater strength—often cannot shape their destinies in ways that would effortlessly advance its own interests.

What has become amply clear by now is that the traditional Indian strategy of protecting its local primacy—seeking to insulate the subcontinent from external influences so that the weaker states would have to defer to superior Indian power—is well and truly dead. Between the realities of globalization, China’s rise as a political actor and economic provider within South Asia, Pakistan’s continuing resistance to Indian primacy, and even the strengthening of US ties with India’s smaller neighbors, these nations find themselves with diverse sources of external support and can undertake actions that may not always comport with India’s objectives.

To be sure, in each of these countries, there are constituencies that benefit from closer ties with New Delhi. The natural political contestation that occurs domestically within them, however, produces forces of reaction, thus making the ties with India frequently a subject of acute controversy.

Unfortunately, success does not yet accrue from a broad Indian penetration of their societies and their economies, which might make their populations actually dependent on India’s goodwill for their prosperity and security.

Because India often lacks the economic instruments of influence—deep trade links, significant financial investments, or extensive physical connectivity—and cannot easily utilize its military forces without putting at risk other national goals, New Delhi’s influence even within the Indian subcontinent and its immediate peripheries—in Afghanistan, Burma, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Indian Ocean island states—is largely dependent on which political forces are dominant within these countries at any given point in time.

When indigenous elements that are partial to India capture the highest offices, Indian fortunes improve; when the forces opposed to India are ascendant, Indian influence suddenly proves evanescent. The weakness of Indian hegemony, defined as a domination that impels others to accede to New Delhi’s preferences, is thus manifested by the fact the New Delhi has few enduring or overwhelming sources of leverage even in its own immediate region. It lacks both the economic surplus and the strong commercial bonds that would encourage dependency on the part of its smaller neighbors. It certainly remains a power that these states must always reckon with.

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But, because India’s military forces are blunt instruments and because India’s diplomatic capabilities often cannot by themselves be effective—either when anti-Indian elements capture power in these countries, or when alternative sources of economic assistance and political reassurance are available to them, or when domestic social transformations pull these nations away from India—the extent of Indian influence within its own immediate sphere of interest is often far more wobbly than the distribution of power between India and its neighbors might suggest

When the new government takes office in New Delhi later this month, it will have to confront this discomfiting reality in full measure. Of all of India’s immediate neighbors, the relationships with the Maldives, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Burma, and the Indian Ocean island states are currently comfortable, albeit with important qualifications in some cases. Ties with Sri Lanka and Nepal are tentative, and the relationship with Pakistan is downright frosty—with no transformation in sight.

In every case where India enjoys good relations with its neighbors, this outcome hinges largely on having friendly governments in place. Unfortunately, success does not yet accrue from a broad Indian penetration of their societies and their economies, which might make their populations actually dependent on India’s goodwill for their prosperity and security. This is true even in those countries where India has important societal links, such as Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

Invariably, even in these countries, as is true elsewhere in the region, their polities are deeply divided; consequently, India’s influence waxes and wanes depending on when elites friendly to New Delhi appear in office. Thus, for example, India’s current ease with the Maldives derives from the presidency of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who, in contrast to his predecessor Abdullah Yameen, has put distance between the Maldives and China and sought to rebuild ties with India instead.

The dominance of the Pakistan Army within the state has transferred the service’s embittered ethos to Pakistan’s relations with India as a whole: in the nuclear era, this has resulted in persistent efforts to weaken its larger neighbor through unending sub-conventional wars conducted under the mantle of plausible deniability.

Whether this change of fortunes will endure, however, remains an open question and will depend partly on whether New Delhi can assist economic development in the island without saddling it with the crushing financial liabilities that accompanied Chinese investments under Yameen. Success in Bangladesh derives from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s reelection: her brand of moderate Islam, her family’s history of friendship with India going back to the country’s founding, and her willingness to address Indian concerns about Islamist terrorism emanating from Bangladesh have elicited New Delhi’s support.

As a result of these considerations, India overlooked the tainted poll that returned her to office, perhaps setting itself up for future difficulties should her opponents capture power in the future. In any event, India has in the interim settled territorial differences on generous terms with Dhaka. This exemplifies a strategically sensible effort at cementing ties with a populous neighbor that is also heavily courted by Beijing, especially when China has become both a major investor and the chief foreign source of military supplies to Bangladesh.

India’s gains in Afghanistan have followed a similar pattern. Although India has invested heavily in reaching out to the Afghan people and enjoys extraordinary popular approval because of its development activities—in sharp contrast to Pakistan, which is viewed as an enemy because of its support to the Taliban—New Delhi’s influence ultimately derives from the moderate nationalist elites who are opposed both to Pakistan and to the Islamist insurgents (who also happen to be skeptical of, if not deeply uncomfortable with, India). All these gains, however, are now at risk because of the likelihood that the US exit from Afghanistan will leave behind a regime that permits the Taliban to, at the very least, share power in Kabul.

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New Delhi has managed to stabilize ties with Burma primarily by engaging the junta in Naypyitaw in an effort to limit Chinese influence with the regime. This policy has created awkward burdens because it has required India to overlook the Burmese attacks on the Rohingya population, which originally migrated from Bangladesh, now a close friend in South Asia. India has balanced these competing pressures uncomfortably, sacrificing its concerns about democracy and human rights in Burma in favor of preserving working relations with its military leadership.

This has enabled New Delhi to protect India’s eastern border against its own separatist movements operating in that vicinity and to utilize Burma as a conduit to continental Southeast Asia in the context of India’s larger “Great Game East” vis-à-vis China. Yet, the persistent success of Indian policy will depend fundamentally on the evolution of Burmese politics, which lies beyond New Delhi’s capacity to control.

As a result of these considerations, India overlooked the tainted poll that returned her to office, perhaps setting itself up for future difficulties should her opponents capture power in the future.

India’s successes in the Indian Ocean island states, such as Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles, have been remarkable in comparison to the challenges it faces closer to home. Despite China persistently wooing these countries and notwithstanding the fact that they will continue to play Beijing and New Delhi off each other, India has managed to secure preferential access in these far-flung territories.

The provision of modest military and economic assistance in the context of remarkably adroit diplomacy has enabled India to set up a variety of surveillance facilities intended to monitor Chinese military movements in the Indian Ocean. These are valuable gains, but they are certain to be contested by China given its own competing interests. This makes the struggle for influence in all the island states a long game where India simply cannot afford to rest on its laurels no matter how successful the results are at any given point in time.

Ties with Sri Lanka and Nepal are at the moment complicated and have borne fewer fruit. The current regime in Sri Lanka has sought to preserve decent relations with India, unlike the previous dispensation led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, which took Sri Lanka deeply into China’s orbit. But the political tensions between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe—linked as much to their personal ambitions as they are to Sino-Indian rivalry in Sri Lanka—have prevented Colombo from enjoying the political intimacy that New Delhi had hoped for after Rajapaksa’s defeat in the 2015 election.

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If, in fact, the Rajapaksa brothers were to return to power in the future, India’s interim gains would once again be at risk to China’s advantage. Similarly, India’s influence in Nepal today is significantly constrained because the political transition that brought a communist coalition to power in Kathmandu has marginalized India’s traditional partner, the Nepali Congress, and has taken the country into a closer partnership with China.

Although India played a critical intermediary role in ending Nepal’s civil war, Modi’s subsequent attempt at exercising coercive power to shape the Nepali constitution—in an effort to protect marginalized groups that have close links to India—ultimately failed. Today, Nepal, much to India’s dismay, seeks to revise the terms of the bilateral 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty, aiming to eliminate the standing constraints on its sovereignty.

The Nepali example again demonstrates that India’s foreign policy preferences, even in its own neighborhood, can be frustrated even by smaller powers because of their relatively autonomous internal political dynamics, their ability to rely on more powerful external entities such as China, and their ability to mobilize sections of their populations against India on occasion—all at a time when Indian economic, military and diplomatic influence cannot be applied easily.

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India’s problems with Pakistan remain an extreme example in this regard. Pakistan’s history of separation from India makes it an ideologically and politically obdurate rival. Despite its dismal history of failed confrontations with India, Pakistan is locked into an implacable resistance even though its opposition has cost it economically, politically, and socially.

The dominance of the Pakistan Army within the state has transferred the service’s embittered ethos to Pakistan’s relations with India as a whole: in the nuclear era, this has resulted in persistent efforts to weaken its larger neighbor through unending sub-conventional wars conducted under the mantle of plausible deniability. To date, India has not found a satisfactory solution to this conundrum.

Compared to its other neighbors in South Asia, India enjoys a much weaker power advantage over Pakistan, and that has not helped matters either. Neither Modi nor his predecessors have been able to resolve the problems posed by Pakistan’s nuclear-shadowed revisionism, in part because there are no significant domestic constituencies in Pakistan that could be utilized to build a partnership with New Delhi.

India’s partnership with Japan heads the list on all four counts, as growing Japanese investments in India, its injections of technology in critical sectors such as transportation, its partnership in support of permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

Although some Pakistani prime ministers interested in this outcome have episodically appeared on the scene—Nawaz Sharif being the most conspicuous, with Imran Khan currently providing some indications that he might be too—their ability to act constructively has always been impeded by the veto-wielding Pakistan Army. To his credit, Modi, like many Indian prime ministers before him, also attempted to forge a rapprochement with Islamabad but has fallen short because of the absence of an enlightened—and powerful enough partner—at the opposite end.

Consequently, short of a domestic transformation within Pakistan, it is unlikely that India will ever be able to decisively remedy this state of affairs, thus leaving the next government in New Delhi with only better or worse ways of managing a problem that will persist far into the future. It is almost certain that India will resuscitate the currently stalled diplomatic dialogue with Pakistan at some point after the current election, but even this process is unlikely to produce any lasting peace in the subcontinent.

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The evidence, on balance, thus suggests that even within and immediately around the Indian subcontinent, India’s natural preeminence does not translate into anything resembling hegemony. In the first instance, this incapacity derives from India’s material weaknesses and its failure to penetrate the societies and especially the economies of its neighbors.

The limitations of its military instruments and its diffidence in wielding coercive power act as further constraints, especially when the Indian political order does not yet suffice as an effective source of soft power. All these factors have combined to make India largely dependent on the support of neighboring elites—who either share its political vision or are drawn to it in pursuit of their own interests—for its geopolitical successes within the greater South Asian region.

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These structural problems cannot be remedied by spectacular symbolism, as Modi has repeatedly attempted throughout his tenure. These gestures may help on occasion to create new political opportunities or to reinforce some favorable underlying trends. But absent a decisive advantage in relative power and the ability to apply it in felicitous ways, even bold diplomatic gambles are likely to fall short in securing for India the local hegemony and global relevance that it has sought since its independence.

What is required, therefore, more than ever is a long-term effort that focuses on accelerating the growth of Indian power at home and deepening the webs of interdependence between India and its neighbors, which would serve common interests and ultimately enlarge New Delhi’s influence in a vitally important arena for India.

India and The Middle Powers

If India’s immediate environs are still challenging, because they host continuing threats as well as unrealized opportunities, the intermediate space in the international system has proven much kinder to New Delhi in recent years. India’s relations with most of the key middle powers have not only witnessed dramatic improvements, but the Modi government was also able to utilize these ties to advance perennial Indian goals: assisting its economic growth, improving its technological capabilities, boosting its quest for status, and securing support for geopolitical balancing.

India’s partnership with Japan heads the list on all four counts, as growing Japanese investments in India, its injections of technology in critical sectors such as transportation, its partnership in support of permanent membership of the UN Security Council, and its collaboration in creating an evolving intra-Asian balance to China demonstrate what India’s relations with the middle powers can yield when at their best.

India’s ties with Germany, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, similarly support New Delhi’s objectives in enhancing its economic and technological growth. Likewise, Modi’s successful outreach to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia has enhanced India’s quest for stable energy supplies and increased foreign investment while also limiting their traditional support for Pakistan, in fact eliminating that backing in the face of Rawalpindi’s continued terrorism against India.

Within the Indo-Pacific region, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia have proven important both for economic and geopolitical reasons, with Vietnam also rising insignificance because of its common concerns about China. For all these successes, however, India’s outreach to Pacific Asia has faltered because its economic policies have stymied its commercial integration with this region.

Unfortunately, the next government in India will have to cope with two different kinds of problems where the great powers are concerned: strategic threats posed by Beijing, which only promise to grow in intensity for a long time to come, and geopolitical fickleness on the part of the United States.

The curmudgeonly Indian attitude to the ongoing negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership has highlighted once again its diffidence about international trade—the currency of relevance in these parts—and its still modest power projection capabilities have prevented New Delhi from becoming relevant to mitigating the strategic threats posed by China in East and Southeast Asia.

Russia, Israel, and France play an outsize role in India’s search for advanced military technologies, but, much to India’s chagrin, Moscow today has ceased to be a reliable partner in balancing China within Asia. Indian commentators frequently criticize US policy for “pushing” Russia into China’s arms, but, irrespective of that criticism’s merits, Russia now views the relationship with China as being far more important than that with India.

The fundamental reality is that India has little to offer Russia today, apart from being a customer of Russian military technology for its conventional forces and its strategic programs. Both these dependencies are still significant and, as a consequence, Indian leaders have often struggled to find convergence with Moscow on peripheral issues such as the common quest for multipolarity or increasing the relevance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Union.

On the most important matters, however—such as the future of Afghanistan or the imperative of balancing China—New Delhi and Moscow are in fact far apart, and it is unlikely that even brilliant diplomacy by the next Indian government will be able to bridge the chasms that have now opened up in Indo-Russian relations.

The saving grace, however, is that India’s lackluster relations with Russia constitute perhaps the only significant weakness in its ties with the middle powers that really matter to India. But this cannot be great consolation where India’s foreign policy aims are concerned. After all, even robust relations with the middle powers—despite their importance—can not compensate for the weaknesses that hobble India’s effectiveness within South Asia nor can they overcome the hazards now posed by the great powers to India’s interests.

India and The Great Powers

There are only two great powers currently resident at the core of the global system, China, an emerging great power, and the United States, the long-established hegemon. Unfortunately, the next government in India will have to cope with two different kinds of problems where the great powers are concerned: strategic threats posed by Beijing, which only promise to grow in intensity for a long time to come, and geopolitical fickleness on the part of the United States, which will repeatedly call into question New Delhi’s gamble to rely on Washington for help with balancing China.

Hopefully, for India, the problems with the United States may be self-limiting, if Trump either chooses to treat India differently or is replaced by a more strategic leader once he departs from office. The challenges embodied by China, however, are more enduring because its rise, despite likely slowing, will make Beijing a formidable problem for New Delhi indefinitely.

China recognized, almost since the moment of its modern founding, that India represented one of the three major Asian threats to its quest for recovering continental, if not global, preeminence. Since Sino-Indian relations soured over territorial disputes in the 1950s, Beijing has consistently pursued the objective of containing India, which appeared most dangerous when it collaborated with more powerful Chinese rivals such as the United States or the Soviet Union.

Today, Nepal, much to India’s dismay, seeks to revise the terms of the bilateral 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty, aiming to eliminate the standing constraints on its sovereignty.

Accordingly, Chinese strategy toward India focused simply on limiting Indian power even as it consistently feigned indifference to New Delhi. The preferred instrument for that containment was Pakistan, which China has supported since the 1960s with economic and military assistance, to include eventually the transfer of nuclear weapon designs, materials, and technologies.

This last contribution was critical because it enabled Beijing to exploit Pakistan’s intense rivalry with India to lock New Delhi down in a local security competition on the subcontinent—a struggle that would sap India’s strength and prevent it from becoming the major Asian or global player to challenge China.

Even as Beijing covertly pursued this strategy of distracting India, it sought modest forms of bilateral cooperation with New Delhi whenever possible, in the process strengthening those constituencies within India who argued for rapprochement with China rather than efforts to balance it (if necessary, in cooperation with other great powers). India’s poor economic performance for most of its independent life and its ideological divisions at home played right into this Chinese strategy.

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Today, when China has become a global economic power and when India’s ascendency is also perceptible, Beijing has supplemented its traditional strategy centered on Pakistan by more intensely penetrating South Asia and the wider Indian Ocean region at large, seeking to build privileged relations with India’s smaller neighbors in ways that only diminish its local influence.

New Delhi’s inability to serve as an alternative font of economic integration and foreign assistance has made this newest turn in Chinese strategy vis-à-vis India more effective than it otherwise might have been.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, successive Indian governments have attempted to neutralize this Chinese strategy by adopting a multidimensional approach: implementing domestic economic reforms to underwrite internal balancing; modernizing the Indian military and enlarging its area of responsibility; conciliating the smaller neighbors both on the subcontinent and in its oceanic environs; and preserving a modicum of cooperation with Beijing even as New Delhi seeks to balance it externally by, most importantly, pursuing a new strategic partnership with Washington, supplemented by an Act East policy that seeks to deepen ties with the East and Southeast Asian states that also happen to be China’s neighbors. None of these elements, however, has come to full fruition as yet.

In a noticeable departure from the strategic altruism displayed by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations toward India, Trump has pursued a more transactional approach, attempting to coerce India into complying with US demands on a variety of issues ranging from market access to relations with third countries.

The relationship with the United States, in particular, still remains hostage to the anxieties in Indian domestic politics. All three prime ministers, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, and Narendra Modi—given their keen appreciation of China’s injurious strategy toward India—understood Washington’s centrality in New Delhi’s external balancing of Beijing. Singh, in particular, following in Vajpayee’s footsteps, laid the foundations for a deepened bilateral partnership with the United States.

Modi, for his part, skillfully navigated the last two years of Barack Obama’s administration to sustain that engagement in ways that brought great dividends for India in regard to both access to advanced technology and support for its great power ambitions. After the Sino-Indian crisis at Doklam—ironically when Washington offered New Delhi quiet but unstinted support—Modi became more cautious about visibly tilting toward the United States and publicly confronting China, partly because he wanted to avoid recurrent crises with Beijing in the lead up to the Indian elections.

The manner in which Modi has handled subsequent disputes with the United States over, for example, the S-400 purchase from Russia, Trump’s tariffs on Indian goods and his threat to end Indian privileges under the Generalized System of Preferences, Washington’s pressure on New Delhi to end its oil imports from Iran, and the threats posed by a possibly hasty US exit from Afghanistan suggest that Modi remains wedded to deepening ties with the United States in order to meet the major challenge posed by China and to advance long-standing Indian ambitions within South Asia and globally.

On this score, however, he has not received much help from his compatriots. It is in fact remarkable to see substantial sections of the Indian intellectual left pillorying Modi for his efforts at strengthening ties with the United States, despite the fact that India has been a beneficiary of extraordinary American generosity for close to two decades now. That India should avoid any alignment with the United States because it might compromise its strategic autonomy, inveigle India in possible US conflicts with China, or entrench Beijing as a permanent adversary are all arguments bandied about in New Delhi without reference to reality.

Moreover, they are often grounded oddly on the assumption that India can satisfactorily balance the rise of China independently (despite the absence of evidence), that India can better secure Chinese concessions on its core interests if its ties to the United States are minimized (when the historical record proves exactly the opposite), or that the United States threatens India’s long-term interests as much as China does (often doubting whether the latter does at all).

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Even the nationalist right often reaches similar conclusions but through different routes. Secular right-wing commentators argue, often with suspect corroboration, that India’s economic and technological capabilities are weighty enough to permit New Delhi to successfully balance against China through internal means alone, and hence a strategic partnership with the United States is unnecessary.

Meanwhile, some who lay stress on cultural constructs in international politics contend that China and India, being great civilizations, have the innate capacity to manage their differences bilaterally—since the disagreements are not axiological but only power-political—which therefore renders New Delhi’s necessity for external balancing, including with the United States, both dispensable and arguably even counterproductive.

For the moment, none of these claims have particularly impressed Modi, who has pursued his strategy of aligning with the United States undeterred by domestic criticism. Even left-leaning parties, like the Indian National Congress or its regional variants, are likely to pursue similar policies if they form the next government, though their ardor for resolute external balancing with US assistance remains an open question.

The unforgettable element underlying all these debates, however, is that the Indian body politic is deeply conflicted about entering into any kind of alignments with foreign powers, especially the United States. Whether this ambivalence is rooted in an exaggerated assessment of India’s own capabilities, an underestimation of the threats posed by China, a zealous desire to protect India’s freedom of action in international politics, a conviction that India’s strategic significance ensures that no great power would permit its loss to others, or a disinclination to treat strategic problems seriously in the face of competing domestic challenges, the end result is the same.

The impetus for a concerted strategic partnership with the United States invariably derives from the vision and personality of the leader at the apex—Vajpayee, Singh, or Modi—rather than from a felt need by the populace at large. In this respect, India is fundamentally different from countries like Israel or Pakistan.

Sustaining a meaningful geopolitical affiliation with Washington, therefore, hinges heavily on the personal choices of India’s prime ministers supported by a few trusted advisers—often against the weight of opposition emanating from vocal domestic constituencies. Trump’s America First foreign policy has been unhelpful to this effort. In a noticeable departure from the strategic altruism displayed by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations toward India, Trump has pursued a more transactional approach, attempting to coerce India into complying with US demands on a variety of issues ranging from market access to relations with third countries.

If India is to realize its great power ambitions in the decades to come, the next government will have to accelerate economic reforms domestically, strengthen India’s institutions, preserve its constitutional ethos, and protect the nation’s internal cohesion, all of which have floundered dangerously in recent years.

There is no doubt that India’s constrained trade openness has left it vulnerable to the often-justified American complaints about New Delhi’s economic policies. But the Trump administration’s targeting of India—which is of a piece with its larger trade war against the international community, including US allies—raises doubts in the minds of Indian leaders as to whether the United States can be a trusted confederate in India’s efforts to balance China if, despite all the valuable strategic engagement, it is simultaneously treated as a target of coercive US economic policies.

The current trade disputes with the United States, therefore, have the potential not only to undermine the developing bilateral intimacy necessary for the successful balancing of China but to actually embarrass the Indian prime ministers who have bet on Washington in the face of considerable domestic skepticism.

The uncomfortable reality, therefore, as far as India’s engagement with the core of the global system is concerned—the most important strategic arena for New Delhi outside its own neighborhood—is that the incoming government will find its ties with both Beijing and Washington to be unsettled concurrently. Restoring a desirable equilibrium will require the next Indian prime minister to continue to invest in a strong partnership with the United States despite the vagarious policies pursued by Washington, and that is a tall order, given the headwinds inherent in Indian domestic politics.

Moreover, preserving cooperative relations with China is also essential, if for no other reason than to reduce Beijing’s incentives to cause trouble for New Delhi in South Asia and beyond. Preserving this asymmetric balance, which involves deepening ties with Washington while simultaneously minimizing the offense to Beijing, will remain a continuing challenge for India’s new government, especially when China appears far more predictable and conciliatory than the United States.

That India’s external engagements have yielded important gains during the last five years remain a tribute to Modi’s international activism and the sterling efforts of the Indian Foreign Service, which, despite its small size, has usually managed to punch above its weight. Yet the environment around India remains unsettled in diverse ways. The evidence suggests that India is still unable to shape its surroundings, both near and afar, to suit its interests, sometimes because of failed initiatives but, more fundamentally, because it still lacks the material capacities and the appropriate kinds of penetration abroad that would induce greater support for its objectives by others.

Read more: SCO summit: Inflection point for Indian diplomacy

The limitations of India’s foreign policy are thus linked intimately to its weaknesses at home. If India is to realize its great power ambitions in the decades to come, the next government will have to accelerate economic reforms domestically, strengthen India’s institutions, preserve its constitutional ethos, and protect the nation’s internal cohesion, all of which have floundered dangerously in recent years.

At a time when India’s external environment has grown more precarious because of the weakening liberal international order, China’s continuing ascendancy and assertiveness, and the prevailing capriciousness in Washington, continued stumbles in New Delhi will end up being cumulatively costly and will subvert India’s larger ambitions even more consequentially. Today, when India’s claims to exceptionalism will not suffice to either protect its security or to increase its influence, its missteps within will have outsized impact abroad.

Ashley J. Tellis holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and US foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent. This article has been republished with author’s permission. It was first published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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