The State visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States of America last month has been seen by many commentators as a personal and political success for a man who was denied a visa by the US because of his alleged role as the chief minister of Gujarat in the 2002 riots. A thick red carpet was laid out by the Democratic administration of President Joe Biden and the usual platitudes and bromides paraded to flatter Modi and appease his supporters. The substance from the visit was camouflaged in announcements that were impressive but a long way from fructifying. The visit was like a souffle, tall and puffed at that instant, but shrunk and flat a while later.
The souffle was soured by the persistent clamour about rising authoritarianism in Modi’s India, his government’s treatment of religious minorities and curbs on dissent and freedom of speech. All prominent newspapers carried reports and hard-hitting opinion pieces exposing the kind of leader Biden was courting. President Barack Obama used sharp words about Modi and his treatment of Muslims in India in a television interview, raising suspicions that this was a planned double act to support his former vice-president.
For Modi, the perigee of the visit was being forced to answer a question in a White House press conference. It again brought to light, this time globally, his inability to handle a free press and take questions from serious journalists. His team tried hard to dodge the press conference, but Modi couldn’t wriggle out of taking one question, instead of the customary two that all visiting foreign dignitaries answer at the White House. The question was about the treatment of religious minorities in India. Modi’s answer was a mix of clichés and platitudes about democracy, helped by either his notes or the teleprompter.
The reporter who posed the question, a Muslim woman of South Asian origin, was viciously attacked online by the gang of Modi’s Hindutva cult supporters. So nasty was the attack — it has not been condemned by Modi or any of his ministers since — that this newspaper was forced to put out a sturdy defence for her. Even the White House came out in her support. Other journalists of the White House pool later told me that whoever would have been picked to ask the question of Modi would have gone with one on similar lines. They said that Modi’s visit had ended up showcasing the democratic decline and the targeting of Muslims in India under his rule, underscoring the fact that the refrain of ‘shared values’ between the two countries no longer held true.
If shared values are no longer the glue underpinning the relationship, that leaves two other watchwords regularly voiced by US officials: ‘shared vision’ and ‘shared interests’. As a post-colonial country, India’s vision is to have a more equitable global order where the winners of the Second World War, led by the US, do not continue to wield disproportionate influence over the levers of global power. Be it the UN Security Council or the World Bank, India would want to upend the existing order, which gives primacy to the US and its Western allies.
Then comes the vision for the Indo-Pacific. “Today, the US-India partnership is a cornerstone of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” says the joint statement issued during Modi’s trip, but the idea of “free and open” is different for the two countries. In April 2021, the US navy issued an official statement about carrying out a freedom of navigation operation near India’s Lakshadweep Islands. India’s response was to express concern about this movement in its Exclusive Economic Zone, citing the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea. The US signed the UNCLOS in 1994 but has not ratified it. India, like China, has ratified the convention. The divergence is obvious, but everyone knows that the language of “free and open” is a euphemism for targeting China.
China is the unspoken dragon in the US-India meeting room. It feeds the third and final mantra, of ‘shared interests’ for the two countries. The two sides do not have shared interests on China. They have convergent interests on China that have become more aligned due to the ongoing Sino-India border crisis. India, as a neighbour, is worried about a strategic threat it can’t counter while the US wants to check China’s rise that threatens its position as the only global superpower.
The devil is in the details. One line of thought argues that a strong and powerful India, even if it is not fully aligned with the US, would counterbalance China in the region. Even if New Delhi asserts its strategic autonomy, the US should provide unstinted support to India. The counterargument doubts this premise. In its latest issue, The Economist posits a scenario where “India and China set their territorial dispute aside, as they did previously for over three decades” since “continued India-China detente would be in both countries’ interests.” If India wants economic growth, flourishing business with China is a necessary means to help it achieve that growth. For China, it will wean an important player in Asia away from a closer partnership with the US.
A peaceful and rewarding Sino-India relationship, when thousands of soldiers from both armies remain arrayed against each other on the border and China continues to deny India control over large swathes of territory in Ladakh, is largely in the realms of speculation. A Sino-India détente will be a huge disappointment for the US, but Washington should be prepared to be disappointed even otherwise unless it has a frank and honest conversation with Delhi. The two sides need to sit down and work out their expectations of each other, particularly in case of their respective military conflicts with China.
What is it that India expects from the US in case of a border war with China? Is it going to be limited to intelligence-sharing, military logistics supplies, diplomatic statements and positioning of maritime resources in the Indo-Pacific to divert China’s attention? Or will India be suddenly asking for, as it did during the 1962 border clash, a long list of modern military equipment, weapons and platforms, with supporting technicians and trainers? This paid limited returns in 1962 and, as the Ukraine experience shows, it will be much more difficult six decades later. In return for the US support in 1962, India agreed to work with the Central Intelligence Agency, whether it was to help the Tibetans, or to monitor Chinese nuclear testing by placing a nuclear-powered device on the Nanda Devi, or by allowing flights of U-2 spy planes over China from an airbase in Odisha. That collaboration stopped with Richard Nixon’s outreach to Beijing but Delhi should be clear about the price it will have to pay for seeking emergency military support from Washington.
India should also have clarity about the kind of support the US expects in case of a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Will it be limited to a diplomatic statement of support, or will Washington want refuelling, maintenance, repair and basing rights in India, including in the Andaman Islands? Will India be expected to provide some form of military support, by taking actions which force China to divert its forces towards the Line of Actual Control or will such help be limited to intelligence-sharing and maritime domain awareness missions?
Answers to these questions are not going to be easy or fully palatable but such things cannot be left for the final moment. It is about managing expectations, thereby reducing the risk of disappointment. Delhi has not made any watertight commitments to Washington so far but increasing hostility towards China in the US fuels an assumption that India will help it fight against China. It is critical for India to retain the freedom to choose its nature and degree of involvement in any American military conflict involving China. The price of that freedom cannot be the flattery of pomp and show around Modi’s visit to Washington.
Sushant Singh is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi