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Can the U.S. and India depend on each other?

Here are the takeaways from the July 2021 bilateral meetings.

- August 1, 2021
Editors’ note: In this archival piece, Good Authority contributor Christopher Clary discusses the Biden administration’s moves to broaden U.S. ties with India –  and the challenges involved. His analysis was originally published in the Washington Post on Aug. 2, 2021. 

The last week of July 2021 was Asia week for the Biden administration. On July 27 and 28, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited India for the first time since President Biden’s inauguration. Blinken’s talks came a day after Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman concluded a visit to Beijing and during Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Southeast Asia.

On July 27, 2021, the State Department reaffirmed U.S. support for “India’s emergence as a leading global power and vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific, a geographic label that has taken over U.S. bureaucratic speak to highlight India’s importance in contemporary Asia.

These five areas highlight the challenges the United States and India face as they try to forge a meaningful partnership to deal with global problems.

1. How is the Quad shaping up?

The initiative that strategic analysts are watching closely is “the Quad,” composed of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan. Public conversations about the Quad, though, tend to devolve into diplomats denying its similarities with other institutions, most notably NATO. Blinken emphasized this point to reporters in New Delhi, noting, “What the Quad is not is a military alliance.”

But with little actual news about the Quad this week, it’s unclear whether this grouping will evolve, or merely serve as a forum for virtual and physical summitry.

2. Coronavirus cooperation has struggled

The “Quad Vaccine Partnership” that began in March 2021 almost immediately faltered. The Biden administration retained export restrictions on U.S. coronavirus vaccines so long as eligible Americans might need them. Meanwhile, the initiative sought for India to ramp up its vaccine production capabilities to help immunize the world. Although India had generously exported 60 million doses of vaccine from February to April under its Vaccine Maitri (“Vaccine Friendship”) program, it paused to confront its deadly coronavirus surge this spring. Credible outside studies estimate that several million Indians have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Instead of an early Quad success story, the vaccine initiative and India’s deep struggles with the virus led some skeptics to wonder whether the pandemic revealed inherent weaknesses in the new grouping.

3. Can India and the U.S. depend on each other as they face an assertive China?

The Quad emphasis on coronavirus cooperation was in part to de-emphasize what many viewed as the Quad’s raison d’etre: to manage the rise of an increasingly powerful China. For many years, it was easy to find officials in these four capitals hesitant to back high-level quadrilateral engagement, out of concern about antagonizing Beijing. But China managed to antagonize enough of the Quad partners in recent years to shift the relative balance of concerns away from fears of provoking China to fears of appeasing it.

Nowhere has this been more true than in India, where incidents along the Chinese border and a deadly clash in the Galwan River valley last year left many Indian observers skeptical that confidence-building measures to manage the Sino-Indian border dispute were failing.

India’s big debate, scholar Tanvi Madan observes, is “how close to get to the U.S.” as New Delhi deals with a more confrontational China. India seeks Washington’s help in bolstering Indian power, while seeking to avoid giving the United States an ability to constrain Indian choices. And, given prior disagreements during the Cold War and over India’s nuclear weapons program, India has enduring concerns about Washington’s reliability.

4. In Afghanistan, India fears a resurgent Taliban

Indian officials stopped short of criticizing the United States’ decision to withdraw from Afghanistan during Blinken’s visit. Yet Indian observers are deeply worried by the Taliban’s advances, and fear the reemergence of a safe haven for anti-Indian militants.

Notably, India is not a treaty ally of the United States – it’s probably not covered by the Taliban’s 2020 commitment to “not allow” anyone “to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” Critics of the U.S. withdrawal, including former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, argue that the United States fought a war on terror only to retreat, “leaving Afghans at [the] mercy of the Taliban.”

It’s not clear whether India will play a part in forging a post-U.S. coalition “to prevent a complete takeover by the Taliban,” as former senior Indian diplomat Shyam Saran advocated this week. Yet the U.S. record in Afghanistan reinforces Indian worries that Washington remains a fickle partner.

5. Shared values: Is this still a partnership of democracies?

And domestic politics also complicate the U.S.-India partnership. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted after his meeting with Blinken that he welcomed the chance to strengthen U.S.-India relations, “anchored in our shared democratic values.” Skeptics in Washington – and Modi’s political opponents in New Delhi – question Modi’s commitment to those values.

Earlier in July, a group of media outlets and Amnesty International alleged that the Indian government used spyware to target the mobile phones associated with a wide swath of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and students. The news reinforced concerns about democratic erosion in India, already downgraded in this year’s Freedom House list from “free” to “partly free.”

Blinken noted to Indian news outlets that although he had spoken with his Indian counterpart about human rights issues, he did so based on a premise that “no democracy, regardless of how large or how old, has it all figured out.”

Of course, Blinken may also have reasoned that the United States has few better options than India for managing a rising China. Despite Japan’s technological acumen and investment heft, its aging society and declining population limit its long-term abilities as a security partner. And despite Australia’s continental expanse and abundant natural resources, its tiny population is smaller than that of Canada.

This means that out of the United States’ three Quad partners, only India has the population and location to serve as a potential counterbalance to China. A post-pandemic recovery in India, with the economy growing by 9.5 percent this year according to IMF projections, would further help U.S. officials overlook whatever concerns they have about Modi’s new India as a political, security, and economic partner.

Note: Updated Sept. 19, 2023.