India Romances the West
In a deepening geopolitical shift, New Delhi is inching closer on many fronts.
In affirming that the “Quad has come of age” at the first-ever summit of the Quadrilateral Dialogue with the United States, Japan, and Australia last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sent an unmistakable signal that India is no longer reluctant to work with the West in the global arena, including in the security domain. The country’s new readiness to participate in Western forums marks a decisive turn in independent India’s world view. That view was long defined by the idea of nonalignment and its later avatar, strategic autonomy—both of which were about standing apart from, if not against, post-World-War-II Western alliances. But today—driven by shifting balance of power in Asia, India’s clear-eyed view of its national interest, and the successful efforts of consecutive U.S. presidents—India is taking increasingly significant steps toward the West.
The Quad is not the only Western institution with which India might soon be associated. New Delhi is set to engage with a wider range of Western forums in the days ahead, including the G-7 and the Five Eyes. Britain has invited India to participate in the G-7 meeting in London this summer, along with other non-members Australia and South Korea. Although India has been invited to G-7 outreach meetings—a level or two below the summits—for a number of years, the London meeting is widely expected to be a testing ground for the creation of a “Democracy Group of Ten,” or D-10.
In Washington today, there are multiple ideas for U.S.-led technology coalitions to reduce the current Western dependence on China. Two initiatives unveiled at the Quad summit—the working group on critical technologies, and the vaccine initiative to supply Southeast Asia—underline the prospects for an Indian role in the trusted technology supply chains of the United States and its partners.
Along with Japan, India also joined a meeting of the Five Eyes—the intelligence-sharing alliance between the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand— in October 2020 to discuss ways to give law enforcement agencies access to encrypted communications on platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram. Five Eyes is a tightly knit alliance, and it is unlikely India will be a member any time soon. But it is very much possible to imagine greater consultations between the Five Eyes and the Indian intelligence establishment.
To be sure, India’s engagement with Western institutions is not entirely new. India joined the British-led Commonwealth in 1947, but only after India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, made sure the forum was stripped of any security role in the postwar world. Refusing to join military alliances was a key plank of India’s policy of non-alignment.
Nehru turned to the United States when his policy of befriending China and supporting its sensitivities collapsed by the end of the 1950s. Facing reverses in a military conflict with China on the long and contested border in 1962, Nehru sought massive defense assistance from U.S. President John Kennedy. With the deaths of both Kennedy and Nehru soon after, the prospects for strategic cooperation between New Delhi and Washington receded quickly.
The 1970s saw India drift away from the West on three levels. On the East-West axis, it drew closer to the Soviet Union. On the North-South axis, it became the champion of the Third World. This was reinforced by the sharply leftward turn of India’s domestic politics and a deliberate severing of commercial cooperation with the West.
Many concluded in the 1970s that anti-Americanism was part of India’s genetic code. After all, India voted more often against the United States at the United Nations during the Cold War than even the Soviet Union. The idea that India is irreconcilably opposed to the United States was the dominant assessment in both country’s capitals. Most scholars of Indian foreign policy assumed that come what may—at home or abroad—India would forever be alienated from the West.
But the story of India’s international relations over the last three decades has been one of a slow but definite advances in cooperation with the United States and the West. The Quad summit is not only a culmination of that long trajectory, but also a major step up.
It was the reform of the Indian economy at the end of the Cold War, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union as India’s superpower partner, that created the basis for the renewal of ties between New Delhi and Washington. But even as expanding commercial ties began to stabilize and deepen the bilateral relationship in the 1990s, Washington’s activism on Kashmir and its eagerness to denuclearize India made matters difficult for New Delhi. Beset with domestic turbulence and an era of weak coalition governments, New Delhi embarked on a hedging strategy by joining the Russian initiative for a so-called strategic triangle with Moscow and Beijing that eventually evolved into the BRICS Forum after Brazil and South Africa joined.
U.S. President George W. Bush, however, revolutionized U.S. policy on India in the 2000s by discarding Washington’s mediating impulse on Kashmir, decoupling engagement with New Delhi from that with Islamabad, and resolving the dispute over non-proliferation. Bush recognized that India is critical for the construction of a stable balance of power in Asia as the continent was being transformed by the rapid rise of China.
But just when Washington was ready to transform relations with New Delhi, India was paralyzed by self-doubt. If then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee boldly called India and the United States “natural allies” in 1998—at a time when no one seemed interested in Washington—his successor, Manmohan Singh, reverted to type. His government began to reinvent non-alignment, keep distance from the United States, and double down on the principle of strategic autonomy. Even as Indian-Chinese tensions multiplied after 2008—when the global financial crisis seemed to have convinced the Chinese leadership that the United States was in terminal decline, with the consequence that Beijing adopted a more assertive posture towards its neighbors—the Singh government continued to hedge against U.S. power.
Modi, who became prime minister in 2014, began to reverse New Delhi’s resistance to a deeper partnership with Washington. His affirmation in his 2016 address to the U.S. Congress that India’s “historic hesitations” to engage the United States were over was not just a rhetorical flourish.
Modi resolved the remaining issues that had prevented implementation of the historic 2008 Indian-U.S. nuclear deal, renewed the 2005 agreement for defense cooperation, and signed the so-called foundational defense agreements that have facilitated interoperability between the two country’s armed forces. He widened the annual bilateral Malabar exercises to include Japan in 2015 and Australia in 2020, helped revive the dormant Quad in 2017, came up with his own version of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, and joined the Quad summit in 2021.
Beyond the relationship with the United States, Modi also revived India’s strategic interest in the Commonwealth, strengthened ties with the European Union, and joined the European Alliance for Multilateralism. He sought to make India part of the solution to mitigating climate change, supported “multi-stakeholderism” in global internet governance, initiated the International Solar Alliance and the Indo-Pacific maritime partnership with France, and is poised to lay the foundations for a substantive strategic partnership with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson when they meet in India next month.
Every one of these moves was against the predominant instincts of India’s political class, bureaucratic establishment, and foreign-policy community.
Two factors have facilitated this. First, Modi carried little of the anti-Western ideological baggage of the nationalists who thrive in his own party or the political left and center that prefer to keep a safe distance from Washington. Modi’s judgement that India needs a more productive relationship with the United States and the West is rooted in the simple calculus of national interest rather than any involved reasoning.
Second, much credit must go to successive U.S. presidents—Bill Clinton during his second term, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump—who persisted as a hesitant New Delhi battled the anti-Western demons in its mind. If you are looking for a textbook example of “strategic patience”—this is probably it. Biden appears determined to build on this legacy.
While both New Delhi and Washington deny that the Quad is a military alliance, it could certainly take India closer than ever before to a security coalition with the West. Although India did sign onto an alliance-like pact with the Soviet Union in 1971, it quickly pulled back soon after Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan and the immediate crisis ebbed. If India has shunned alliances with that one momentary exception, the idea of Indian participation in looser coalitions of various kinds with different Western countries is no longer a taboo in Delhi.
India, of course, will be a very different kind of partner than the United States’ current European and Asian allies. India is more than willing to share U.S. security burdens in the Indo-Pacific on terms that are mutually beneficial. Given its size and long-term potential, India’s contribution could be quite substantive in securing Asia. In fact, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad are a considered bet on this proposition. So is the eagerness in Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra to join “Indo” with “Pacific” and bring unaligned India into a grouping of treaty allies.
But as long as we’re looking at India’s history, none of this should come at a complete surprise. After all, India contributed significantly to Allied victories in the First and Second World Wars—nearly a million Indian soldiers served in the First and more than two million in the Second. That India was not independent then does not take away from the critical role of Indian soldiers and resources in shaping the conflicts’ outcomes.
It would have been quite reasonable to imagine that India’s very consequential contribution to the Allied victories would have translated into a partnership with the West in constructing the new global order after World War II. But the shortsightedness of the British colonial rulers, their growing confrontation with the Indian national movement in the interwar period, the partition of the subcontinent, the Anglo-American tilt toward Pakistan, Nehru’s active dissociation from the Western alliances, and New Delhi’s inward economic orientation steadily diminished India’s salience in the postwar institutions. The Quad suggests that we might be close to coming full circle. It has taken a long time, but India could reemerge as a natural partner for the West in the East—this time around on terms that a much stronger India negotiates with the United States and its allies.