India Sees Opportunity as U.S. Remakes Its Alliances

India Sees Opportunity as U.S. Remakes Its Alliances

Modi's team prepares for a Trump visit while preserving Russia ties and trying to not anger China

Supporters react during a 'Howdy, Modi' rally celebrating Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas last September. REUTERS
Supporters react during a 'Howdy, Modi' rally celebrating Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas last September. REUTERS

India sees the Trump administration's reassessment of America's traditional alliances as a strategic opportunity--a shift that allows New Delhi to deepen ties with Washington without provoking retribution from China or destroying a longstanding partnership with Russia.

That is a vision outlined by India's foreign minister as officials plan a visit to New Delhi by President Trump that could take place in the coming weeks and introduce a limited trade agreement between the U.S. and the world's fifth-largest economy.

"This repositioning, recalibration, realignment of the United States would allow the U.S. to look at countries like India very differently from the way it did in the past," External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said in an interview. "In the past, the U.S. said--listen, we are the world's No. 1, we run an alliance, it's global, there is one way of doing business and it's our way, so if you want to do business with us, sign here."

Now, he said, the U.S. is "much more open-minded beyond alliances."

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has gravitated closer to the U.S., a relationship fueled by mutual suspicion of China and by burgeoning trade and military links. That process accelerated under Mr. Trump--just as America's relationships with fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization members such as Germany and France and with allies such as South Korea, have become more contentious.

Mr. Jaishankar sees these shifts as the result of historic changes in the international order, where power is increasingly dispersed and where formal alliances such as NATO are losing their salience.

As an example, he held up Mr. Trump's complaints that NATO members don't pay their fair share and demands that they reimburse Washington for spending on their security. That issue doesn't arise in the U.S.-India relationship, even as the two nations make their militaries increasingly interoperable.

"We agree on a lot of things, we have similar values and aspirations and organizational principles," Mr. Jaishankar said. "But at the end of the day there is looseness and flexibility."

India, a nuclear-armed power of 1.37 billion people, has always sought to preserve an independent foreign policy--starting from it championing the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. After losing the 1962 border war with China, however, India moved much closer to Moscow, relying on the Soviet Union for much of its weaponry.

It was only well after the Soviet Union's collapse, at the end of the 20th century, that New Delhi's relationship with Washington began to improve. Though Russia still accounts for the majority of India's defense procurement, India is ramping up its purchases of sophisticated American weapons, as well as equipment from Israel and France.

India and the U.S. signed in 2016 a logistics agreement on access to each other's military bases; a deal in 2018 that allows Indian and U.S. forces to share encrypted communications; and an agreement last year that permits each other's private companies to transfer classified defense technologies. In November, the U.S. military held its first joint exercises with all three of India's military branches--the army, the navy and the air force.

"To ensure peace, security and economic progress, it is critical for India to cooperate closely with the U.S.A.," India's Defense Secretary Ajay Kumar told the Journal. "As the two largest democracies, India and the U.S.A. are natural partners."

Despite this growing alignment, India has been reluctant to fully embrace Washington's push to contain Chinese influence in Asia, a priority for the Trump administration.

While Indian officials aren't shy about discussing their fears of China and their desire to limit China's expansion in the Indian Ocean, they have toned down public criticism of Beijing since Mr. Modi's summit with President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in 2018. "We seek good relations with China," Mr. Kumar said. "It is important that we must not allow our differences to become disputes."

This outward softness on China stems in part from an understanding that India must first garner strength at home--where economic growth, lagging behind China's in recent decades, has begun to slow.

"Every generation of Indian policy makers has been pretty conscious that China is far closer to us physically than America, that we have the world's longest unresolved frontier dispute, and that China was once an economy the same size as ours, in 1978, but is now five times our size. Therefore, one doesn't footle around making an enemy out of China because we could end up with a very bloody nose, as we did in 1962," said opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor, a writer and India's former minister of state for foreign affairs.

That desire to accommodate China can only go so far, Mr. Tharoor added. "The Chinese have made a very clear strategic choice, pro-Pakistan and anti-India, which surely should send a signal to Indian decision makers: You may not want to antagonize the Chinese, but the Chinese are already pretty antagonistic."

One of these top policy makers, Mr. Jaishankar, painted a complex picture of India's interactions with its giant neighbor.

"Indian-Chinese relations are still very much a relationship in the making. Both are very dynamic, both of us are growing…. The challenge for me is to create and sustain a stable equilibrium," he said. "As two rising powers in the same time frame, there are elements of competition in our relationship."

While many Indians are upset with the unbalanced nature of their nation's trade with China--China's exports to India are more than four times its imports--Mr. Jaishankar urged to view the glass as half-full. "The good news is I am trading with China, and I haven't traded with China for many many years. The fundamental civilized activity between two nation-states in the modern world is going on, and that is very important."

India has allowed Chinese technology companies ZTE Corp. and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to participate in trials of its 5G system, while the U.S. has lobbied allies to forestall Chinese dominance of the mobile technology. Mr. Jaishankar said the Chinese role in the trials was only a preliminary step without prejudice to a broader policy on how to manage the country's sensitive communications infrastructure.

India has also steadily raised its level of participation in the Quad, a grouping of four democracies with the U.S., Australia and Japan--though New Delhi, cautious not to provoke Beijing, continues to insist that the grouping isn't military in nature and isn't aimed at China.

In parallel, New Delhi has embraced the concept of an open "Indo-Pacific"--a geopolitical construct that is shared by the U.S. but is viewed by China as directed against it.

These moves by India have begun to affect New Delhi's historically warm ties with Moscow, as Russia and China rapidly increase cooperation, including in defense.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov implicitly chided India for adopting the Indo-Pacific concept, describing it at a conference in New Delhi this month as a "terminology that looks very benign but may mean something else."

India's connections with Russia, meanwhile, limit how closely New Delhi could cooperate on defense with the U.S.

Despite these tensions, India is determined to preserve ties with Moscow, including by signing a deal to buy the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. "We have a long history of multiple sourcing, of multiple relationships, of getting value from this multiplicity. Russia has been a remarkably steady strategic partner for India," Mr. Jaishankar said. "I will evaluate my Russia relationship on my terms, not on how some other country thinks about it."

Though many officials in New Delhi worry about Russia's drift closer to China, they believe it can be reversed, or at least slowed down.

"We don't want to abandon an old friend," said Indian foreign-policy expert Raja Mohan, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. "And we hope that at some point the U.S. and Russia will make up because as long as they fight, the Chinese have a pass."

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