Three countries have a deep interplay with Indo-US relations. Two of these share borders with India and the one that does not maintained a much stronger bond with India than the two neighbours. During the Cold War, Russia’s relations with India had a cooling effect on India’s relations with the US. During those years, the US had visibly drifted farther from India and closer to our neighbours, China and Pakistan. Of these three countries that play a significant role in Indo-US relations, India’s equation with Pakistan and Russia has been more or less stable; Pakistan is an enemy and Russia is an all-weather friend and that situation continues in this third decade of the 21st century. Hence, Indo-US dynamics are not seriously affected by India’s relations with either Pakistan or Russia since there is nothing new to offer. Simultaneously, Pakistan remains a trouble spot for China as well as a strategically important foothold for the US and the two countries will never completely forsake Pakistan, the killings of Chinese workers in Pakistan and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan not withstanding. Pakistan-China relations are wide but not deep and Pakistan-US relations continue to have strategic depth though the spread of the canvas expands and shrinks with the degree of US interest in Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia. Similarly, US-Russia relations can never be friendly in spite of the two giants having been allies in WW II and the support given by the US to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This support included recognising the legally questionable notion of Russia inheriting the permanent seat of the Soviet Union in the UN Security Council. This shows the lengths to which the US is prepared to go to have Russia as the rival superpower rather than a country like China that has been eagerly waiting in the wings to take that mantle.
Coming back to Indo-US relations, it is China that has been the variable. In 1945 at the end of WW II, the Nationalists ruled China and Mao’s rule was still four years away. China was an ally of the US and had played a significant role in the defeat of Japan. At the Yalta conference, Manchuria was gifted to the Soviet Union. As the Chinese civil war started, Russia expelled the Nationalists from Manchuria giving a base to Mao’s forces while the US landed 50,000 troops in what has been called “China proper” in support of the Nationalists. Gradually, the US lost faith in the Nationalists and established communications with the Communists as the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. After more than two decades of letting Taiwan occupy China’s seat in the UN Security Council, Nixon changed track, opening up to China. The rest is History. Even in the hostile environment created by Xi Jinping, Obama retained a favourable opinion of China and it was left to the epidemic to force the US to recognise China as a rival if not an outright enemy.
These changes in the US policy towards China have had their ripples in Indo-US relations. The Communist take over of China in 1949 prompted the Time magazine to write on October 17 of that year as Nehru visited the US, “With China lost to Communism, the free world needed a new anchor in Asia. Whether India could play that role depended largely on the chance of much closer understanding and cooperation between India and the U.S.” While Nehru was deluding himself with Panchsheela and the goodness of the Communists, the US was seeing the two Asian giants as rivals. In 1957, the South Asia policy document of the Eisenhower administration said, “The outcome of the competition between Communist China and India as to which can best satisfy the aspirations of peoples for economic improvement, will have a profound effect throughout Asia and Africa”. Nehru did infuriate the Chinese by giving shelter to the Dalai Lama and had to face the destruction of his aura and credibility in the 1962 war with China. The US did give a lot of lip service and some help but that was not enough to prevent India’s humiliation. Even as Nixon was opening up to China, India was laying the ground for the dismemberment of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh and in the process pushing Indo-US relations to a new low, with the US Seventh Fleet hovering in the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India. This low point remained till China’s recent wolf-warrior approach brought most of the democratic world together against the dragon.
While the leaders in New Delhi and Washington were calibrating Indo-US relations continuously with the US focus on trade with China, a former US diplomat did see the future more accurately. Robert Blackwill, former US ambassador to India said prophetically in 2006, “If in 10 or 15 years … China begins to act aggressively externally and in a hostile way, these two countries [India and the US] will come together naturally. So they do not have to plan for it; … it will happen, it seems to me, because they are natural allies.” Even earlier, Condoleezza Rice, who was Secretary of State with George W. Bush, writing in the year 2000 in the Foreign Affairs magazine had said that in the context of China, the US should not look at India merely in the Indo-Pakistan context and “should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance … India is an element in China’s calculation, and it should be in America’s, too”. These calculations led to shifting the focus to Indo-Pacific from Indo-China and the revitalisation of the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between India, Japan, Australia and the US. It caused huge consternation in China that rightly saw it as an arrangement focussed on China. The CCP mouthpiece – Global Times – conveyed that unease in an article on April 1, 2021, “Boarding Washington chariot will hardly bring desired benefits to New Delhi”.
The writing on the wall has been there for a long time though the socialist leaning of the Congress Party in India kept putting a veil on it. Shortly before he was elected president, John F. Kennedy, then senator from Massachusetts had stated the self-evident truth. He noted that there was a “struggle between India and China for the economic and political leadership of the East, for the respect of all Asia, for the opportunity to demonstrate whose way of life is the better.” He added that the US should help India win the contest. 63 years later, as PM Modi left for Japan, the foreign secretary of India hinted that India may join the US initiative of creating an Indo-Pacific economic framework plan and that happened a day later. Thanks to the impatience displayed by Xi Jinping to be the sole hegemon of the Indo-Pacific contrary to Deng’s advice that “China should hide its strengths and bide its time”, perhaps the era of vacillation in the Indo-US relations is over. It is hoped that the two will now steadfastly lead a coalition of democratic nations in this region, particularly Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan and maybe, New Zealand too, to confront China, the biggest threat to democracies since Hitler.