Tensions stemming from the war in Ukraine and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan have strained the strategic partnership between the US and India. But President Joe Biden cannot afford to alienate America’s most important partner in countering China’s rise.
The strategic partnership between the United States and India is pivotal to maintaining the balance of power in the vast Indo-Pacific region and counterbalancing China’s hegemonic ambitions. The US is India’s second-largest trading partner, and deepening the ties between the two countries is one of the rare bipartisan foreign policies that exists in Washington today.
The upcoming October 18-31 joint military exercise known as Yudh Abhyas (War Practice), in a high-altitude area less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from India’s border with China, highlights the partnership’s growing strategic importance. India holds more annual military exercises with the US than any other country, as the two powers seek to improve their forces’ interoperability. As Admiral Michael M. Gilday, the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, put it recently, India is a “crucial partner” in countering China’s rise.
But President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan and effectively surrender the country to a Pakistan-reared terrorist militia, in addition to tensions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have strained the relationship between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies.
Like many other countries, including US allies such as Israel and Turkey, India has taken a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine. Much to the chagrin of the US and Europe, the country has continued to purchase discounted oil from Russia, rebuffing the Biden administration’s offer to replace Russian oil with US supplies. Instead, India has increased its imports of Russian crude.
At the heart of India’s decision is fear of losing out to China. Since 2019, the US has used the sanctions on Iran’s oil exports to deprive India of cheaper Iranian oil, thereby turning it into the largest market for US energy exporters. The main beneficiary of the sanctions is China, which has increased its purchases of Iranian oil at a discount and developed a security partnership with the Islamic Republic without facing US reprisal.
While the US has already surpassed Russia as India’s largest weapons supplier, the American defense sector views the war in Ukraine as a “great opportunity” for arms sales to India to “surge.” Moreover, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has urged Indian officials to avoid buying Russian equipment and purchase US-made weapons from now on.
Yet Biden’s overriding focus on punishing Russia could exacerbate India’s security challenges, especially if the international efforts to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin inadvertently empower an expansionist China. The US-led sanctions and Europe’s shift away from Russian energy effectively put Russia – the world’s most resource-rich country – in the pocket of the resource-hungry Chinese. Its alliance with Russia has allowed China to build an energy safety net through an increase in land-based imports, which, unlike sea-borne deliveries, cannot be blockaded if Chinese President Xi Jinping decides to invade Taiwan.
Meanwhile, America’s recent $450 million deal to modernize Pakistan’s F-16 fleet – unveiled days after the US helped the country stave off an imminent debt default through an International Monetary Fund bailout – has evoked bitter memories of the US arming Pakistan against India and supporting the initial development of the Pakistani nuclear-weapons program during the Cold War.
The Biden administration’s disingenuous claim that upgrading Pakistan’s US-supplied F-16 fleet would advance counterterrorism has prompted a sharp response from India. During a recent visit to Washington, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar publicly condemned the deal, saying that the American explanation “is not fooling anyone”: Pakistan would undoubtedly deploy the upgraded fighter jets against India.
Against this backdrop, some observers have revived the old theory that US-India ties fare better under Republican administrations. Bilateral relations thrived during President Donald Trump’s administration, which relied heavily on India in developing its Indo-Pacific strategy. Trump instituted new US policies on China and Pakistan, whose increasingly close partnership has raised the prospect of India fighting a two-front war. In a major policy shift, Trump ended the 45-year US policy of aiding China’s rise. He also cut off security aid to Pakistan for not severing its ties with terrorist groups.
Biden, on the other hand, has resumed America’s coddling of Pakistan, made outreach to Beijing a high priority, and said nothing about China’s encroachments on Indian territory in the Himalayas. But by locking horns with China in a 30-month military standoff, India has openly challenged Chinese power in a way no other world power has done in this century.
Nothing better illustrates Biden’s neglect of the relationship with India than the fact that, since he took office, there has been no US ambassador in New Delhi. Meanwhile, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Donald Blome, caused an uproar during a visit to the Pakistani-held part of Kashmir, which he called by its Pakistani name – “Azad [Liberated] Jammu and Kashmir” – instead of “Pakistan-administered Kashmir,” as the United Nations calls it.
Moreover, the Biden administration has been trying to leverage human-rights issues against India. In April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken alleged a “rise in human-rights abuses” in the country, prompting Jaishankar to counter that India is similarly concerned about the state of human rights in the US. Likewise, prominent members of the US Democratic Party can barely conceal their hostility to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his brand of Hindu nationalism.
Given that the US and India are both bitterly polarized democracies, officials should avoid statements that could inflame domestic tensions. If the US wishes to shift strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific, it must improve relations with its most important strategic ally in Asia. To that end, Biden must not squander the historic opportunity to forge a “soft” alliance with India. If the US is to prevail in its escalating rivalry with China and Russia and avoid strategic overreach, it needs India more than ever. But without mutual respect, the bilateral partnership is doomed.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.