Pacific Dialogue
The price of loyalty
India will not play U.S. "deputy sheriff" in the Indo-Pacific
By Liang Xiao  ·  2023-07-04  ·   Source: NO.27 JULY 6, 2023

Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, concluded his high-profile state visit to the U.S. on June 23. The current most influential Hindu nationalist was feted by U.S. President Joe Biden with an elaborate vegan state dinner at the White House and an invitation to address a Joint Session of U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill. The former makes him the third foreign dignitary to enjoy the state dinner treatment under the Biden administration, after French President Emmanuel Macron and President of the Republic of Korea Yoon Suk-yeol; while the latter marks him as one of only a few foreign leaders, including Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, who has given congressional addresses more than once.

Modi first addressed the U.S. Congress in 2016, two years after he became Indian prime minister and restrictions on his entry to America were lifted. In 2002, Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, a state in western India, was denied a U.S. visa and faced sanctions because of his role in a deadly religious riot in the state. The riot led to the deaths of about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

India's human rights issues are so widely criticized in the United States that 75 democratic lawmakers sent a joint letter to Biden before Modi's arrival, urging him to take this opportunity to put pressure on Modi on human rights. However, Washington, which claims for "values-based diplomacy," now is choosing to avoid controversial issues to enhance bilateral relations. Biden was very generous in his praise, saying that the U.S. and India are "two great countries, two great friends and two great powers," and U.S.-India relations are "one of the closest partnerships in the world."

"Primly rejecting cooperation with India because its ideology and democracy do not conform to Western ideals would only empower China," The Economist wrote on June 17. Few would deny the view that the U.S. attaches so much importance to India because it hopes that India, the world's most populous country and the fifth largest economy, can quickly grow into a country that can play a key role in the Indo-Pacific strategy of the U.S. and that can compete with China, which is regarded by the U.S. as its biggest geopolitical "rival."

U.S. efforts to win India's heart over the last decade are most likely the result of wishful thinking and India's loyalties remain in question. As David Leonhardt, a senior writer for The New York Times, wrote on June 23, "India is arguably the most important swing nation in global politics. It is influential enough to shift the balance of power, and its allegiances are neither obvious nor consistent."

But what choice does Uncle Sam have? For the U.S., the decline of its global hegemony is an indisputable fact. Turning India into an imperfect ally rather than pushing it over to the other side seems to be the best outcome at the moment.

India seems intent on following its strategic objectives to avoid taking sides, so as to maximize its interests among the U.S., Russia and China. Since the 1950s, the friendly and close cooperation between New Delhi and Moscow has been the most important element of India's diplomatic relations. Now the U.S. becomes India's second largest source of arms, but the volume is still too small to be compared with India's arms purchases from Russia. In 2022, India also became the largest buyer of Russian crude oil, ignoring warnings from the U.S.-led Western camp.

New Delhi probably never wants to be the "deputy sheriff" in the Indian Ocean region. Since India's national independence in 1947, the pursuit of "great power" status that is not dependent on others has been deeply imprinted in the ruling philosophy of successive Indian governments. India's dream of becoming a great power has always been conquering of the Indian Ocean first, then being the regional hegemon, and finally growing into a globally dominant power.

India only treats the U.S. as a springboard to achieve its goals, and it feels no loyalty or obligation to the U.S.-led international order. No matter how hard Washington tries to peddle, the price will definitely not be attractive enough for New Delhi to become a pawn of the United States. BR

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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