India Is Not Sitting on the Geopolitical Fence
In early 2019, Gen. David Petraeus and S. Jaishankar, now India’s external affairs minister but then in his private capacity, appeared together on a panel. The former U.S. Central Command commander asserted that China was “the defining issue of our age” and, seemingly in frustration, added that countries such as India “have to decide.” Asked if India could indeed take a stand and choose a side, Jaishankar retorted, “India should take a stand and should take a side — our side.”
Petraeus’s comments were not unusual. They reflect a prevailing view — shaped by India’s stated non-alignment during the Cold War — that Delhi will walk a middle path and avoid taking sides in the geopolitical competition between China and the United States. They also flow from an assumption that India’s broader geopolitical approach involves maintaining equidistant relationships and not making difficult choices.
But this is a misunderstanding of India’s foreign policy strategy in general, and of its recent decisions in particular.
India does make choices and, increasingly, those are in alignment with the United States and its allies. Delhi’s embrace of the Australia-India-Japan-United States Quad, despite objections from friends and foes, makes this clear. That decision, evident in last month’s leader-level summit, in turn reflects other choices policymakers have been making in the context of India’s intensifying competition with China. Faced with Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and the recognition that it cannot tackle this challenge on its own, Delhi has chosen to deepen ties with partners that can help it build Indian capabilities, offer alternatives in the Indo-Pacific, and maintain a favorable balance of power in the region. The United States is seen as particularly useful, with former Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon noting that even though the two countries do not have a commitment to mutual defense, “India and the United States are … moving toward a partnership that increasingly has some of the characteristics of an alliance.”
This is a trend in Indian foreign policy that the United States and its partners should continue to be attentive to, nurture, and not take for granted. Just as Beijing’s choice to confront India at the border has made Delhi more interested in cooperating with the United States, Washington’s choices can shape the scope of that cooperation — for better or worse.
India’s Quad Choice
India has come a long way on the Quad in a very short period. Four years ago, the coalition did not even exist. A year ago, the Indian government would neither use the word “Quad” in statements nor agree to a joint statement. This was partly due to a desire not to provoke rival China or upset partner Russia. By March 2021, however, Delhi had agreed to elevate the grouping from the ministers’ to the leaders’ level, with a virtual summit on March 12 resulting in a joint statement, joint op-ed, and joint vaccine initiative. This was particularly striking because, at the time, Delhi was engaged in sensitive negotiations with Beijing to resolve the worst Sino-Indian border crisis in decades. Traditionally, at a moment like that, India would not have taken any steps that could rock the boat with Beijing. But — this time — it chose to take that risk.
Subsequently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made only his second international trip since November 2019 for the first in-person Quad leaders’ summit in Washington on Sept. 24. The Australian ambassador to the United States remarked, “India has really, I think, driven a lot of the elevation of the Quad in recent times.”
This Indian choice to align with Australia, Japan, and the United States centers on a shared vision of a free, open, inclusive, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. These partners can help tackle challenges to that vision — whether that challenge is China’s assertiveness, COVID-19, or climate change. And, thus, Delhi has been willing to consult, coordinate, and cooperate with them to build both a balancing coalition and resilience in the region.
Delhi is choosing to do this despite the trade-offs it entails. It has revived and elevated the Quad and persisted with its Indo-Pacific concept in the face of Russian unhappiness, as well as criticism and potential blowback from China. Beijing and Moscow have both dismissed the Quad as a destabilizing U.S.-led clique, with Russia even more vocal than China in its opposition. But the Indian external affairs minister countered his Russian counterpart’s statements against the Quad, and by doubling down on cooperation via the coalition, Delhi has made clear that it will not let Moscow or Beijing veto its partnerships.
Some have argued that India’s embrace of the Quad is not a meaningful geopolitical choice because it is also a member of the Sino-Russian promoted Shanghai Cooperation Organization. But India’s motivations for membership in — and level and kind of engagement with — the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are not equivalent to its involvement in the Quad. Delhi participates in the former to keep Russia from drifting even closer to China, and to maintain its ties with Central Asian countries. It also does not want to leave the mechanism to its rivals, China and Pakistan, which are both members. Moreover, India participates because it wants to have a voice at the table when issues such as Afghanistan are discussed. Finally, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization provides a platform for India and its rivals to discuss their divergences. But there is little doubt that those rivalries and contradictions can spill over and limit the group. For instance, India’s national security advisor walked out of a meeting due to his Pakistani counterpart’s background display of a map that showed Kashmir as part of Pakistan, and India withdrew from a Russian military exercise with Shanghai Cooperation Organization partners in 2020 due to Chinese and Pakistani participation.
The Quad, on the other hand, is based on convergence on what kind of region the members would like to see and shared concerns about China’s assertiveness. Moreover, its members are not just like-minded on key issues — they also have no major disputes with each other.
What’s Driving India’s Decisiveness
The deterioration of ties with China is increasingly shaping India’s geopolitical choices. Border tensions have been a feature of Sino-Indian relations since General Secretary Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. After two and half decades of relative calm, there were major military stand-offs in 2013, 2014, and 2017. A far more serious one began in 2020, with India accusing China of unilaterally attempting to change the status quo at several locations along their border. This crisis has resulted in the first fatalities and first known shots fired at the border in decades, and the stand-off continues to this day. It has brought Sino-Indian relations to their lowest point since the two countries fought a war in 1962.
Many external observers have underestimated the extent to which Indian perceptions of China have hardened over the last year and a half. India already viewed China competitively, with some concern and mistrust. However, the border crisis and the killing of 20 Indian soldiers, as well as Beijing’s COVID-era approach, have intensified this perception of China as a challenge. This has not only resulted in India’s well-known TikTok ban, but also affected India’s posture at the border, its policies at home, and its partnerships abroad. This is evident from its acquisition of additional military equipment, increased forward deployment of troops, bolstered border infrastructure, improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, progress with regards to the implementation of long-pending military reforms, and restrictions or extra scrutiny on Chinese activities in various sectors (economic, technology, telecommunications, civil society, and education). And Delhi is making choices in each of those realms (e.g., India’s decision to reorient one of its strike corps away from a sole and primary focus on Pakistan, or to exclude Chinese companies from India’s 5G trials).
The deterioration of India’s relationship with China has also contributed to Delhi overcoming one of its earlier hesitations about the Quad — that the grouping would be provocative to China and result in blowback. The increased scale and intensity of Chinese pressure that India is facing have changed its cost-benefit calculation about the Quad. There is also a sense that China seems perennially provoked regardless of India’s actions. Moreover, India holding back on the United States or the Quad or the inclusion of Australia in the annual India-Japan-United States Malabar maritime exercise did not deter Beijing from salami-slicing efforts at the border last year. And it did not stop Russia from deepening its ties with China and Pakistan either.
India and the United States: A Different Cost-Benefit Calculation
India’s Quad choice also reflects — and has been made possible by — a recalibration of Indian views about the United States and its utility regarding China.
This recalibration toward a more positive view of the United States did not happen overnight — it has been occurring over two decades — but American support during the crisis with China in 2020–2021 has further fueled the shift. From the 1970s through perhaps the 1990s, the dominant view in Delhi was that American power was a problem, and its presence in the region was unwelcome and needed to be deterred. Moreover, there was a sense that Washington sought to contain India’s rise. That perspective has not entirely disappeared in India, but the dominant view today is that, with Chinese power and the Chinese-Indian capabilities gap growing, American power is part of the solution. Now there is a perception that the U.S. presence in the region is desirable, if not essential, and it can help facilitate India’s rise. Thus, unlike both Chinese and Russian officials, Indian policymakers have pushed back against the notion that the United States is a destabilizing outsider, and have emphasized that the Indo-Pacific is also home to the United States. And they have deepened ties with the United States across the spectrum, but particularly on defense and security issues.
Indian policymakers have also pushed back against the idea of American decline. The external affairs minister recently asserted that the United States is “the premier power of our times and will remain so” and cited its “extraordinary capacity to really reinvent itself, re-energize itself.”
This sentiment is not a partisan one. In July 2020, as the United States struggled with COVID-19, Menon dismissed the idea of America as a declining power and noted its capacity for reinvention. A recent task force, which included scholars and former officials who were involved in the 2012 Non-Alignment 2.0 report, concluded that “it is in India’s interest that the U.S. remains engaged in the Indo-Pacific and continental Asia, and for India to work with the U.S. to keep the area open, plural and free of single-power domination.” While the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government elevated India’s relationship with the Quad, it is worth noting that it was a Congress-party-led coalition government that first joined the Quad in 2007, as well as the India-Japan-U.S. trilateral in 2011. Perhaps more notably, that government signed a civil nuclear agreement with the United States during the Bush administration despite Chinese and Russian disapproval.
This does not mean that Delhi likes all aspects of American power. For instance, Washington’s use of sanctions has constrained India’s options and decision-making space vis-à-vis Iran and Russia. And while today there’s not much of a China debate in India, there continues to be a debate on how far and fast to cooperate with the United States.
At the moment, however, India worries more about the potential decline of U.S. power or any moves toward retrenchment. Unlike many in Beijing and Moscow, Delhi did not want to see an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, even as policymakers understood the drivers for the move and expected it. Indian observers have not just been upset about the flawed execution of the withdrawal, but also concerned about Pakistan and anti-India terrorist groups taking advantage of the vacuum in the region. In addition, there is apprehension that this could potentially require a diversion of Indian resources and attention from addressing China-related challenges. At the same time, however, Delhi will assess how Washington deals with Chinese influence in Afghanistan, and whether the withdrawal from Afghanistan does lead to more American focus on or investment in the Indo-Pacific. In this regard, the Biden administration’s continued high-level attention to India, the Quad leaders’ summit, and even the new Australia-U.K.-U.S. security partnership (or AUKUS) are likely to have been reassuring to Delhi.
In turn, Delhi’s decisiveness on the Quad is part of India’s investment in a partnership with the United States and even a bet on American power. Simultaneously, the grouping is a mechanism to encourage a U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific and to keep Washington interested and engaged in the region. This was particularly the case during the Trump administration, but the uncertainty about America’s commitment to the region hasn’t dissipated. The Quad helps make the case to Washington that it has like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific theater willing to share the burden of regional security and resilience. At the same time, it also facilitates Delhi’s pursuit of partnerships with Canberra and Tokyo, which help hedge against overreliance on the United States and uncertainty about the future of U.S. foreign policy.
India’s Ties With Australia and Japan Are Better Than Ever
India is also choosing to balance China through closer partnerships with Japan and Australia, which, in turn, made the Quad choice possible. While the deepening of the Indian-Japanese relationship goes back further, in recent years the development of their defense and security ties has been an added focus. But it is really the transformation of India’s ties with Australia that has bolstered the Quad.
The Indian-Australian dyad was perhaps the weakest link in the first version of the Quad in 2007–2008. The two countries had a relationship, but the common quip was that it only involved cricket, curry, and the Commonwealth. On strategic issues — particularly China — Canberra and Delhi were not on the same page. Indeed, while it remains hotly debated, many in India pointed to Australia’s desire to deepen its relations with China as significantly contributing to the demise of the first iteration of the Quad. This also made Indian policymakers hesitant first to revive and then to elevate the grouping.
However, over the last few years, Delhi and Canberra have invested in the Indian-Australian relationship, and this helped change Indian minds about the Quad. Strategic convergence on China helped fuel the closer bilateral relationship. And greater familiarity, in turn, helped India better understand that Canberra has become more concerned about China than it had been five or 10 years ago.
That has led to a closer defense and security partnership. Today, Australia is one of only a handful of countries with which India has signed a logistics sharing agreement, holds a 2+2 ministerial, and conducts military exercises of increasing sophistication. Delhi also overcame its initial reluctance (based in part on concern about China’s potential reaction) and finally invited Australia to the Malabar exercise. Australia is one of only seven countries that has a liaison at India’s Information Fusion Center for the Indian Ocean region, and Delhi and Canberra’s discussions have included sensitive issues like resilient supply chains and cyber security. Australia is also perhaps India’s favorite partner for trilaterals — they have ones with France, Indonesia, and Japan. It has also supported India’s stance during recent crises.
India’s Pivot to Plurilaterals
India’s Quad choice would also not have been possible without its recent embrace of coalitions — or plurilaterals, as Delhi calls them. It was not that long ago that Indian observers criticized the plurilateralism — and the departure from multilateralism (i.e., working through established international organizations) — that the Trans-Pacific Partnership represented. But it has come around for much the same reason many Trans-Pacific Partnership (now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) members turned to that approach. As the Indian external affairs minister put it: “Multilateralism has fallen short. And bilateral delivery is not what it used to be.”
There is another benefit for India. Coalition membership does not require joining an alliance, but it does facilitate alignment and deeper cooperation on issues or shared interests with like-minded states. The Quad, for instance, allows India to do more with the United States and two American allies, providing a mechanism that is less than an organization but more than ad hoc meetings. Moreover, it does so without locking Delhi into commitments with which it is not yet comfortable.
In the Indo-Pacific, this kind of coalition helps fill the gaps left between India’s bilaterals, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, and the American hub-and-spoke alliance system. Delhi does not see these coalitions as a replacement for its bilaterals or for the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, but a supplement. Thus, India participates in the Quad, as well as several trilaterals: India-Japan-United States, India-Maldives-Sri Lanka, Australia-India-Japan, Australia-India-Indonesia, Australia-India-France, and India-Italy-Japan. The latter two serve as a bridge between European and Indo-Pacific partners. There have also been Track II dialogues of India-Japan-South Korea since 2012 and India-Japan-Russia in 2021 — this last one is in part an effort to wean Russia away from the Chinese position on the Indo-Pacific.
Much like India’s partnerships are not all equal, these coalitions are not all alike. They involve different issues and levels of investment, move at different paces, and include members with different threat perceptions (on the basis of which countries can pick specific coalitions to join). From Delhi’s perspective, in an ideal world, these interlocking coalitions — and its like-minded partners’ other minilaterals — would pull in the same direction. India, for instance, hopes that the Australia-U.K.-U.S. security partnership will supplement the efforts of the Quad. However, the fallout with France after the announcement of that initiative also made evident that managing coalitions will be a delicate task — not just for Washington, but for Delhi as well.
The Possibilities and Limits of India’s Choices
This is not the first time that India is making clear strategic choices. For instance, it decided to align with like-minded partners in 1962–1963 (with the United States) and 1971 (with the Soviet Union). In both cases, the objective was internal and external balancing vis-à-vis China, and now that is the case again. The choices won’t necessarily be heard in India’s rhetoric, but they will be seen in its actions, as the Quad summit demonstrates.
It will be important to have realistic expectations about India’s choices, which will not be all-encompassing. Delhi will opt to align with the United States to balance China, but not to isolate Russia. Furthermore, its choices and the related shifts will need to be measured not against, say, what the United States does with an ally like Australia, but rather what India does with various countries or what India was previously willing to do with the United States (though these days, arguably non-ally India is more aligned with Washington on China than many American allies).
Delhi’s preference for strategic autonomy (i.e., the freedom to make independent judgments based on India’s interests) will also persist. But its foreign policy decisions do reflect a recognition that its desire for autonomy has to be balanced with the need for alignment to protect India’s security. They also reflect an acknowledgment that an assertive China, with an expanding footprint in South Asia, could be one of the most significant constraints on Indian autonomy — and partnering with like-minded states might not just help protect India’s security interests, but also help preserve and even enhance Delhi’s decision-making space.
India’s decisions can and will be shaped by other countries’ choices. Beijing’s recent moves at the Sino-Indian boundary, for instance, have affected Delhi’s decisions regarding the United States and other partners worried about China. The longer the crisis continues, the more time those choices will have to solidify. Canberra’s altered stance on China has made it a more attractive partner for Delhi. Even as Russia remains relevant for Delhi — especially when it comes to Afghanistan or defense equipment — Moscow’s choice to deepen ties with Beijing has limited its utility for India and increased Delhi’s willingness to take actions that might displease it. On the other hand, Washington’s choice to compete with China and partner with India have facilitated Delhi’s decisions to deepen ties with the United States.
India is also persuadable. Partners can get Delhi to yes. To do so, they should understand that India often makes choices — as it did with the Quad — in a step-by-step way. This stems from Delhi wanting to assess the initiative or the commitment of the partners involved, and needing to build internal support if not consensus, including within government. Such an approach might be too high-maintenance for some countries, but for those seeking to develop a partnership with India, it’s worth keeping in mind that persistence and patience can pay off. Initially, Delhi might say no to a proposal — perhaps even multiple times. But when the time is right and a window of opportunity opens, it does reconsider its options and make choices about which it was previously reluctant.
This raises the question of whether India can be persuaded to reverse a choice. For instance, if Beijing moves to resolve the current Sino-Indian boundary crisis, will Delhi change course with China and the United States? It might change pace, but its direction will likely remain the same.
From Delhi’s perspective, Beijing didn’t just choose to grab some territory at the border — it chose to violate the agreements that made a broader Sino-Indian relationship possible. Moreover, it did so in a brutal way when India was particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. Thus, while Delhi might revisit some specific policies (e.g., restrictions on Chinese investment in non-sensitive sectors), it is unlikely in the near future to trust that Beijing will respect its commitments broadly and at the boundary in particular. That lack of trust means that Delhi will continue to seek a little help from its friends.
What’s likely to have a greater effect on India’s willingness to make choices regarding the United States is its assessment of American willingness and ability to play the role that Delhi envisions for it in Asia. That could be affected by U.S. developments at home (e.g., political polarization, economic setbacks, retrenchment) and abroad (e.g., accommodating China, rehyphenating India and Pakistan, sanctions directed against Russia that end up targeting India, a stalled pivot to the Indo-Pacific, greater skepticism of India). If Delhi believes Washington may become a more uncertain or unreliable partner, its risk-reward calculation will change accordingly. And so will its foreign policy choices.
Tanvi Madan is a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy in the Foreign Policy program, and director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. She is the author of the book Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped US-India Relations during the Cold War (Brookings Institution Press, 2020).