Even hawkish Indian thinkers who push for enhancing nuclear and conventional deterrence against China have some concerns regarding the India-US cooperation.

Amidst the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the United States has been keen to dispel India’s misgivings about its commitment to Indo-Pacific security. Earlier, US withdrawal from Afghanistan did little to reassure India. For its part, the US would like India to respond more firmly to Russian action and become more active in creating an Indo-Pacific security architecture.

India’s reticence is familiar yet puzzling to many American thinkers and policy-makers. The US, filled with part frustration and forbearance, has attempted to find ways for India to bolster American initiatives. However, the Indian policy to stress case-based and context-specific approach to American initiatives has upset expectations that India and the US would form an active axis in the Indo-Pacific.

A majority of American thinkers and policymakers who seek improved India-US relations often stress on ways to help India commit to US initiatives. However, they are sometimes unsure as to whether India comprehends the ambitions of the Chinese military, which in turn would have dire consequences for India’s security. On the other side, India insists that it is well-aware and does grasp the enormity of the Chinese military challenge, given the tense border stand-off with the Chinese troops. India is meeting the Chinese military on hostile land borders, unlike others whose conflict is confined to maritime boundaries. The prospects for active physical engagement remain high.

PM Modi, Joe Biden Kickstart 2+2 Dialogue With A Virtual Meet

If India does understand the challenge posed by Chinese military along its border, what explains its hesitation to comprehensively cooperate with the US in the Indo-Pacific?

There are strong ideological reasons to cooperate. India does have a stake in defending the liberal order as the largest democracy in the world. However, remnants of the colonial experiences have influenced to a certain degree anxieties in the Indian establishment. India might support a liberal order but is increasingly wary that India might be pulled into undesirable responsibilities defending the Western powers. Therefore, it tends to differentiate by framing US concerns as a desire to extend the unipolar movement while identifying risks China poses for India to be countered by internal balancing.

Even hawkish Indian thinkers who push for enhancing nuclear and conventional deterrence against China have some concerns regarding the India-US cooperation. They believe that India might not be guaranteed any protection in case of a conflict over its northern borders unlike members of NATO where some smaller countries might not even have serious security concerns.

Worse, apprehension over a possible US-China deal on G2 remains a distinct possibility on the Indian minds. Moreover, they are unable to get a clear picture from the American interlocutors whether there will be any adverse reaction from the US to India’s rise.

While these questions are hypothetical and risks are natural in every strategic partnership, many believe that diverting limited resources needed for its economic development and social harmony to confront a nuclear neighbour and risk losing its territory is not a fair transaction if India is unable to get American acceptance to its rise. Their concern is that the US has been very reluctant to acknowledge any regional hegemon, whether it was Japan in the 1980s or China today, nor does it want regional hegemons to emerge in other parts of the world that would challenge it.

Therefore, while India is committed to resisting Chinese aggressiveness, there is a sense of acknowledgement that any confrontation with the Chinese PLA would have to be fought solely by the Indian troops. India's options are limited. Either it has to cooperate with China or help preserve the American leadership. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s period, similar questions about great power competition led to a compromise: India should not align with any country. India has little appetite for such a policy in the current scenario, and in turn, wants to strengthen its bilateral relationship with all major powers.

India wants to defend democratic and liberal principles. But the dilemma of choosing either the US or China has made India find innovative ways to hedge against the Chinese threat. For instance, its attempts to cooperate with Russia to maintain stability in the neighbourhood is one such way or its policies to engage China in regional initiatives to keep the risk of conflict to the minimum.

India’s geopolitical reality might influence its thinking about the nature of the Chinese dominance and efforts to manage it, but its policies are also driven by prudence about its historic and civilizational identity in Asia. The Indian decision-makers equally believe that it would miss opportunities to prosper if it does not cooperate with the US.

There is therefore a renewed emphasis on making its foreign policy function in a way that can set the conditions for India to build a sustainable future. It wants its participation in the American initiative to bear tangible benefits, with India-US cooperation empowering the common people. Indian decision-makers are looking towards a partnership with the US that would keep the prosperity and security of its society as a goal in the emerging order. In short, India seeks a developmental partnership beyond just geopolitical goals.