The 21st century is scheduled by many to be the “Chinese Century.” It is a fear many in Washington have not because they believe China is going to get more powerful than the United States, but over the uncertainty of what the world order could look like when the world’s largest economy is no longer a liberal democracy that values free markets. The prospect is what inspired Secretary Hillary Clinton under President Obama’s first term to formulate policies that would have U.S. foreign policy, dominated by crises in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, “pivot to Asia.” The discussions about this “pivot” have largely been China-centric and focused on Northeast Asia. The “pivot” itself has been very slow-paced, especially since the Obama administration’s second term started, and has only produced the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), which is unlikely to get passed. Absent from the conversation about the U.S.’s future in Asia is the role India could come to play.
Nuclear-armed and almost as large as China, India’s economic success could be the counterbalance the U.S. needs to turn the narrative of the “Chinese Century” into the “Indian-American Century,” and is why recent administrations have actively begun to support its rise in the region.
While it is abundantly clear that the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world and has the capacity to deal with China and the Asia-Pacific region alone, it is also quite evident that Washington tends to get mired in conflicts outside the region, causing it to play a less effective and consistent role. Due to globalization and economic interdependence the U.S. cannot successfully mimic its previous Cold War policy of containment with China, which would have catastrophic repercussions for the region and even the world. If China is successful in challenging the current balance of power in Asia, it could threaten free trade and the promotion of liberal values.
A strategic partnership with India could not only counterpoise an aggressive Chinese foreign policy but also safeguard American interests in the region. Australia, Japan, and Singapore, traditional Asian allies, do not possess the geography, economic growth or population size essential for such a strategic partnership. Arguably, India has the economic growth rate and potential capacity to balance out a rising China, which makes boosting Indian strength and warranting India’s success, both economically and as a regional great power, a vital U.S. strategic interest. India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has indicated that he plans to strengthen relationships with countries such as Japan and Vietnam that would help India limit China’s rise and sphere of influence.
Counterbalancing China, on the other hand, is not the only importance India’s success has to the United States. In their own words, the U.S. and India are “natural allies” compelled by shared values and a recent convergence of “strategic visions.” The two countries have similar concerns on matters over lasting peace in Asia, drug trafficking, piracy, climate change, terrorism and more recently, nuclear proliferation. A strategic partnership with India could help the U.S. build an economic and political regime in Asia similar to how the Marshall Plan provided the infrastructure for our relationship and partnership with Europe. Reinforcing India’s influence and ability in solving these issues, which both countries suffer from, can further bolster American economic expansion, ensuring its dominance and the promotion of liberal political and economic values in the region.
Furthermore, India’s success also matters to the U.S. in the global political arena. The two countries were distant during the Cold War before India’s liberal economic reforms in the 1990s, but were later brought together during the early years of the War on Terror through shared security concerns. The advent of globalization served as the defining feature which convinced Washington that it needed like-minded global allies. In order to promote liberal democratic values abroad, the two countries jointly launched the UN Democracy Fund in 2005. The Fund finances governmental and non-governmental institutions that promote popular participation of all groups in governments around the world. Moreover, India, like the U.S., supports a durable government in Afghanistan that is limited from the influence of the Afghan Taliban, which is both anti-Western and pro-Pakistani (i.e. supports India’s arch-rival). India is one of the largest investors in Afghanistan and provides support to its infrastructure, education and health system in efforts to bring more legitimacy to the government in charge of Kabul. While India has good relations with Iran both as its largest importer of oil and as its biggest supplier of agricultural goods, it is willing to take a principled stance against its allies whenever there is a threat to global security. After being recognized as a responsible nuclear-armed power by the U.S., India has played a role supporting nuclear non-proliferation, favorable to American interests. In 2009, India voted for an IAEA resolution spearheaded by the U.S., which condemned Iran’s nuclear program. The resolution provided the clout needed for UN economic sanctions that later pressured Iran into accepting an agreement which removed key components of its nuclear program in 2015.
Washington welcomes the rise of Indian power as a means of preserving the liberal international order which both countries have benefitted from. India, because of its strong anti-colonial foundations, will not reciprocate America’s generosity by agreeing to everything Washington asks, nor sign a disproportionate treaty similar to NATO or our agreement with Japan. However, American policymakers who often view every relationship in transactional terms could view their support for India’s rise as a low-cost burden that advances the U.S.’s own strategic ambitions in Asia and the world. As Indian power gradually rises, especially with regard to economic development, American and global expectations of Indian cooperation in a variety of regional and global issues will only increase.