If it wants the U.S. to heed its security concerns, the Asian giant must live up to its own responsibilities in the region

by Mihir Sharma

For many in the Indian establishment, the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to New Delhi this week will have been a disappointment. Beneath the bonhomie, India and the U.S. find themselves in very different places on a lot of issues that matter — Afghanistan, human rights and even the question of how the future of Asia will be shaped. If India wants the U.S. to heed its concerns, however, it needs to start adding more to the relationship.

Indian leaders generally assume that the U.S. needs India more than the other way around. Successive U.S. administrations have reinforced that impression by striving to deepen the relationship. In a press conference with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Blinken recalled a statement from Joe Biden — then an India-friendly senator — in 2006: “My dream is that in 2020 the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States. If that occurs, the world will be safer.” It’s taken for granted that India is needed by the U.S. as a bulwark against China.

At the same time, decisions such as Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan suggests that this attentiveness only goes so far. Indian strategists see the U.S. pull out as potentially disastrous — leading to an upsurge in terrorism, a flood of refugees and the empowerment of the most radical elements of Pakistan’s military establishment. They also feel locked out of the discussion on Afghanistan’s future as the U.S. courts countries such as Uzbekistan and even Pakistan in search of basing rights for U.S. forces.

Nor is Afghanistan the only irritant. By the end of this year, the Russian S-400 air defence system will arrive in India, opening it up to sanctions under U.S. law. Rather than appreciating India’s continuing need for arms from Russia — long its most affordable and reliable supplier — the U.S. appears to some in New Delhi to be dictating the terms of their friendship.

A little humility, however, is in order. If India expects the U.S. to be more solicitous of its concerns, it needs to live up to its own responsibilities, particularly in terms of regional security.

To start, India needs to increase its capacity to help out in the neighbourhood and beyond. India’s manpower-heavy armed forces remain chronically underfunded, with the government regularly slashing the allocation for capital expenditure in particular. Efforts to modernize the military are being held hostage to New Delhi’s recent emphasis on neo-socialist import substitution.

Indian-made battle tanks are too heavy to be deployed easily on its long, mountainous and contested border with the People’s Republic, and even train tracks don’t help much because the tanks require special wagons. The Indian submarine fleet is small and old; even its newest vessels don’t yet have heavy torpedoes.

All this calls into question India’s utility as a counter to China. If India is to take on a leadership role in the Indo-Pacific, for instance, it will have to think like a maritime power. Yet the navy’s share of the military budget is shrinking even faster than the budget itself; last year, the service received 13% of the budget, as opposed to 23.4% in the U.S. Disappointed naval leaders are scaling back ambitious plans to put 200 ships to sea.

Even worse, Indian leaders remain hesitant about the slightest suggestion that the navy should take on a role outside the Indian Ocean. As naval analyst Abhijit Singh put it last year: “India’s position on the South China Sea disputes has so far been neutral … Indian decision makers [are] wary of taking a stand on China’s aggressive posturing.”

Other U.S. allies in the region are adopting far more robust stances. In its annual defence report this July, Japan openly declared the stability of the Taiwan Strait to be crucial to its security, implying it might join in efforts to thwart a mainland invasion of Taiwan. And the Australians have made it clear that they intend to keep up their presence in the South China Sea, including as part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements.

It has been the Australians, too, who have drawn Beijing’s ire by being the first to demand an investigation into Covid-19’s origins. By contrast, India has not been outspoken about China’s behaviour in Xinjiang; it has not even been as supportive of exiled Tibetans as it could be, even as its own human-rights record collects more stains.

If India feels it has neither the capability nor the inclination to contribute to the larger security effort east of its borders, it’s hard to see how concerned the U.S. should be about the security environment to India’s west. India will have to commit more deeply and broadly to the partnership if wants to be seen by its fellow democracies as anything more than a transitory partner of convenience against China.