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India’s Growing Global Importance

India has crucial relationships with all the major powers, and may be becoming one itself.

Words: Elizabeth Threlkeld, Sania Shahid, Andrew Latham, Amrita Jash
Pictures: Julian Yu

Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with The Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy program. The series stems from the group’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. It aims to give you a peek into their Zoom room and a deep understanding of the issue at hand in less than the time it takes to sip your morning coffee without the jargon, acronyms, and stuffiness that often come with expertise.

While the US-China rivalry is the most talked about issue in geopolitics, there is another major player that deserves significant attention. India has the largest population in the world, a gargantuan economy, and a growing military with a nuclear arsenal. Its relationships with other major powers like the United States, China, and Russia are complex and do not clearly fall into the categories of ally or enemy. While there is growing recognition among US policymakers of the strategic importance of India, there remain significant assumptions about how India sees itself and the role it seeks in its region and the world. 

March’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy roundtable discussion brought members of the foreign policy community together to discuss India’s changing role in the world. Members of the group debated the extent to which India aligns with the United States and the role India might play if China were to attempt an invasion of Taiwan. The group also discussed India’s relationship with Russia, which has been significant in recent years as India remained neutral on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, continuing to purchase weapons and natural gas from Russia. Some participants argued that India has significant leverage over Russia that the United States should try to take advantage of, while others cautioned that India would be loath to potentially jeopardize its relationship with its main defense supplier. 

Below, four participants from the roundtable provide their perspectives on India’s relationships with China, the United States, and Russia, and how its geopolitical role is changing.

Elizabeth Threlkeld, Senior Fellow and Director of the South Asia Program, Stimson Center
Sania Shahid, Junior Fellow with the South Asia Program, Stimson Center

India is clear-eyed about its interests at a moment when the geopolitical stars have aligned to help it achieve them. The threat of Chinese incursions has galvanized cooperation with the US and other partners, though its main focus is developing capacity to minimize foreign dependencies. It similarly seeks to preserve its strategic autonomy in geopolitics, maintaining ties to Moscow while elevating the Quad, holding its place in BRICS, and standing as a leader of the Global South. Whether and for how long New Delhi can keep up this multi-aligned balancing act remains to be seen, though the shared threat of a revisionist China is a powerful motivator for closer US-India cooperation.

India now acknowledges China as its major threat, largely driven by recent military confrontations. The first, at the China-India-Bhutan trijunction area of Doklam, saw 270 Indian troops cross into Doklam to halt Chinese construction in disputed territory, which overlooks India’s vulnerable Siliguri Corridor. A 73-day standoff ensued, ending just before China’s hosting of the BRICS summit. The second saw fighting at various points along the Line of Actual Control, the disputed India-China border, including a brawl at Galwan that killed 20 Indian and at least four Chinese troops. Importantly, India leaned on the US for intelligence and cold weather gear during the second confrontation. India’s Defense Secretary recently offered a rare acknowledgment of this cooperation, raising eyebrows in New Delhi for speaking publicly on the issue.

The US and India are Major Defense Partners — not allies — a status that is unlikely to change given India’s enduring focus on maintaining its strategic autonomy. Nevertheless, their relationship has both broadened and deepened of late, driven both by shared opportunities and threats. The two sides have signed all four foundational agreements (the final one soon after the 2020 border clashes); elevated the Quad to the leader level; undertaken a flurry of high-level visits; pursued defense industrial cooperation, including co-development and co-production technology; and reinvigorated their engagement through the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET). The recent agreement to co-produce GE-F414 jet engines with Hindustan Aeronautics in India represents a major step in the US technology transfer and with it a new level of cooperation.

For all this progress, geopolitical challenges remain for both sides to navigate as they seek to minimize differences. For New Delhi, the watchword will remain strategic autonomy. This means an emphasis on indigenization and self-reliance under the Make in India push. It will also mean maintaining its longstanding ties with Moscow, which have survived the Ukraine war unscathed, as India has benefited from discounted Russian oil while stabilizing global markets. A Stimson Center study found that 85% of India’s major weapons systems are Russian-origin, creating a vulnerability for India, especially as Moscow deepens ties with Beijing. While most Indian analysts downplay the threat, it recalls the risk of Russia’s behavior in the 1962 India-China war when it pushed India to accept China’s terms and delayed delivery of MiG fighter jets.

India is most comfortable with a foot in many camps, from the Quad to Global South forums to BRICs, keeping a seat at the table and its options open. However, developments outside of its control, not least a potential China contingency in the Indo-Pacific, could see New Delhi forced to choose among them.

Andrew Latham, Professor of Political Science, Macalester College

The global chessboard is undergoing a dramatic reshuffle. As China’s ambitions balloon, the United States faces a critical strategic choice. Should it view a rising India with suspicion, fearing the emergence of another great power challenger? Or should it seize the opportunity to cultivate a powerful ally that shares America’s vision for a stable and prosperous world order and that can help it balance against China’s more odious geopolitical efforts? The answer lies not in fear, but in fostering India’s rise as a great power aligned with the United States.

Unlike China’s strategic trajectory in the 1990s, India’s path to power is demonstrably different. China initially embraced the US-led international order as a springboard for its own economic development. However, once China achieved a certain level of wealth and power, it began to challenge the very order that nurtured its growth. India, on the other hand, faces a fundamentally different security environment. Its long-standing regional rival, China, is flexing its muscles. India’s rise is not driven by a desire to dismantle the existing order, but by the very real need to balance a powerful neighbor, in part by preserving that order.

By supporting India’s economic and military development, the United States can cultivate a vital strategic partner that shares its vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. India’s democratic traditions and long-standing ties with the West create a natural foundation for alignment with US values and interests. A strong India acts as a counterweight to China’s growing assertiveness, ensuring a multipolar Asia where no single power dictates the regional narrative. This strategic partnership transcends immediate security concerns; it opens doors for robust economic cooperation between the two democracies.  Imagine a future where India’s burgeoning tech sector and skilled workforce collaborate with American ingenuity to drive innovation. Imagine joint efforts addressing global challenges like climate change, pandemics, and cyber threats.

The specter of past missteps with China might make some skeptical of facilitating India’s rise. However, the circumstances surrounding India’s rise differ fundamentally from those associated with China’s evolutionary trajectory. To begin with, and despite the current popularity of Hindu nationalism in India, India’s democratic traditions and commitment to the rule of law provide a solid foundation for a long-term, stable partnership. Unlike China’s one-party state, India’s political system is more sensitive to public opinion and international pressure, making it a more reliable partner in upholding shared values.

Second, India’s rise is organic and driven by internal factors like a growing population and a mushrooming middle class. This stands in stark contrast to China’s state-driven economic model, one that for some time now has been shaped as much by the concept of “comprehensive national security” as any idea of open markets and free trade. A stronger India, integrated into the global economy, will be a natural trading partner for the US and a force for stability in the region.

The opportunity to cultivate a powerful ally in India not only adds an additional strategic arrow to Washington’s grand strategic quiver. It’s a chance to build a more just, prosperous, and secure international order for all.

Andrew Latham

Finally, New Delhi’s strategic anxieties perfectly align with those of Washington. China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and along the Himalayas directly threatens India’s security, just as they threaten the United States’ interests across — and beyond — the Indo-Pacific region. A US-India partnership can present a united front against these challenges, deterring Chinese aggression and promoting a peaceful resolution of regional disputes.

The opportunity to cultivate a powerful ally in India not only adds an additional strategic arrow to Washington’s grand strategic quiver. It’s a chance to build a more just, prosperous, and secure international order for all. By embracing India’s rise, the United States can shape the 21st century alongside a partner that shares many of its grand strategic anxieties and that is committed to the same broad vision of the Indo-Pacific region.

Amrita Jash, Assistant Professor, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (Institution of Eminence)

In the background of nearly four years of border standoffs in eastern Ladakh since 2020 and especially in the wake of the Galwan Valley clash, India’s policy towards China has undergone a significant change. The shift in India’s strategic outlook and foreign policy can be read in a two-way perspective:

First, there is a clear acceptance in India’s perception that “China is a military threat”, which has replaced the long obsession with Pakistan. This has expedited India’s military and operational preparedness at the border, as affirmed by India’s Army Chief General Manoj Pande recent remarks, stating: “We [India] are prepared in every manner. Our levels of operational readiness, and operational preparedness is of a very high order… We have our response mechanism firmly in place.”

Second, “no normal is the new normal” defines India’s attitude towards China. For New Delhi, a return to normalcy comes with the “border condition” attached, as categorically put by India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar that “the state of the border will determine the state of the relationship.” Therefore, securing the border cannot be compromised at any cost.

This brings into perspective the fact that unlike the US-China rivalry, the India-China rivalry which often gets overlooked has become far more consequential. They are not just proximate but are also nuclear-armed neighbors which have the potential to engage other powerful actors, mainly the US and Russia. Given this context, in their book “The Sino-Indian Rivalry: Implications for Global Order,” Sumit Ganguly, Manjeet S. Pardesi and William R. Thompson argue that there exist three scenarios that makes escalation viable: any attempt by China to exploit the power gap with India in its favor; India’s pursuit of strategies in order to be taken more seriously by China, and the United States’ promotion of the rise of India.

Therefore, India today is not just cautious but also assertive in its policy towards China.

Elizabeth Threlkeld, Sania Shahid, Andrew Latham, Amrita Jash

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