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US can't alienate India after it failed to condemn Russia

New Delhi’s relationship with Moscow is complicated and goes beyond what the United States wants in response to the Ukraine invasion.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

U.S. disappointment with India in recent weeks is probably at its highest since Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee authorized five nuclear tests in May 1998. New Delhi has failed to take a clear position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, neither unequivocally denouncing Russian actions nor voting at the United Nations to condemn the invasion.

The United States has responded with a raft of diplomatic efforts seeking to shift India’s stance. In response to reports that India may move forward with a Russian offer to buy discounted crude oil and other commodities through a rupee-ruble payment mechanism, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo urged India not to fund President Putin’s war but “to stand on the right side of history.” As the crisis has unfolded, Washington has seen New Delhi’s choices as “shaky,” “disappointing,” and “unsatisfactory.”

The United States and India have been here before. Throughout the Cold War, successive U.S. administrations measured India’s value and legitimacy by its willingness to align against U.S. foes and the forces of global communism. That India, a major Asian democracy, refused to takes sides posed a major challenge to a binary U.S. vision of world order: Washington could not assume allegiance from a country with shared political values. Today, as then, New Delhi seeks to manage its crucial relationships with major powers apart from the dynamics of system-level geopolitical polarization. This disposition is at the root of India’s current stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Nonetheless, a favored explanation is that India has refused to condemn Moscow because of its dependence on Russia for defense supplies. It is a questionable logic, as Yale-NUS assistant professor Rohan Mukherjee has argued, because New Delhi has diversified its arms imports over the past two decades, revising downwards its dependence on Russia from 88 percent to 35 percent between 2002 and 2020. Last October, this reduction even served as one justification for an Indian exemption from the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act for purchasing Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

The “defense dependence” explanation is attractive, however, because it is permissive of change (and arms sales). Mira Rapp-Hooper, director for the Indo-Pacific on the White House National Security Council, proposed that the way forward was to help India reduce its defense dependency on Russia and to “present it with options, so that it can continue to provide for its strategic autonomy.” Plotting this remedial arc towards a future of lesser Indian dependence on Moscow might seem to promise greater allegiance to Washington. However, for New Delhi, the remedial arc is of a different kind: bolstered Western defense partnerships present opportunities to address perceived biases that still today limit the transfer of sensitive technologies to India, or supply them on the condition of end-user agreements.

Offers to further wean Indian supply chains away from Moscow will receive a warm welcome in India but they will not deliver the desired level of fidelity and are unlikely to produce a fundamental shift in India’s position. Moving forward, it is important for Washington to manage its expectations of New Delhi rather than repeat failed efforts to mold India’s preferences.

Similar to the Cold War era, India remains pivotal to the legitimacy of a U.S. vision of order. As the United States has accelerated global competition with China and with autocracy more broadly, India stands — in theory if less in practice — as the democratic bulwark and major power primed to support the liberal international order alongside the West. So much hinges on India because of its role as a central legitimating force in the ideological contest between the custodians of liberal order and its autocratic challengers. Yet, as Deepa Ollapally, George Washington University professor of international affairs, has argued, India’s commitment to the international liberal order “remains both instrumental and partial.”

To be sure, growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean since the turn of the millennium and clashes at the Sino-Indian border in 2020 have spurred unprecedented strategic convergence between India and the United States. Intelligence sharing on the Sino-Indian border and increasing military exercises in the Indian Ocean Region have taken both sides well beyond previous comfort levels. New Delhi has played along with a U.S.-led vision of the Indo-Pacific, embracing the Quad to send the right signals to its regional democratic partners, but tamping down the grouping’s status as a quasi-security alliance.

Yet as the Ukraine crisis shows, when the chips are down, Washington expects partners to make unflinching choices. India, for its part, remains unwilling to take on others’ enemy images, whether with respect to Russia or even China. During its border crisis with China in mid-2020, New Delhi asked Washington not to build pressure or publicly shame China as an aggressor, and avoided — in public at least — the equation of Chinese aggression on the Sino-Indian border with Beijing’s moves across the Taiwan straits or in the South China Sea. The reason was India’s unwillingness to subsume the ebbs and flows of its relationship with China within U.S. logics of great power competition. India may well not resolve its long-standing border dispute with China in the near term. Yet the Quad and other Western partnerships form only one side of efforts to counter China’s influence in the region. The other is keeping a door open to rapprochement. 

This option seems all the more important now. Indian concerns about U.S. commitment to conflict dynamics in the Indo-Pacific are heightened: the rivalry with Russia presents a serious distraction. Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran claimed it would be a "nightmare scenario” if the heightening of the Russia threat led to a softer line from Washington on Beijing. With the possibility for variable geometry in U.S. relations with other major powers, India too is keeping its options open.

For the United States, working collaboratively with an India that supports a reconfigured, multipolar, rules-based order is essential. This is of overall net benefit to global peace and security, too. India can be a partner that supports foundational rules and norms that the United States and most other states consider non-negotiable, but cannot be pressured into signing up wholesale to U.S. visions of order.

In the eyes of partners around the world, in and beyond the West, New Delhi does need to make credible and consistent choices, especially in terms of putting a name to the Russian invasion and condemning the devastation, displacement and loss of life in Ukraine. But for the United States to seek to extract these via binary choices spells a return to a bilateral relationship of Cold War poverty and a risk of detachment and disaffection in New Delhi. Ultimately, the U.S.-India relationship will need convergence from both sides on shared ideas of international order and the means of conflict management, not just the sticking plaster of a deeper defense partnership.

Editorial credit: YashSD / Shutterstock.com
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