Charting India's Rise

This past summer, Indian and Chinese troops stared each other down for over two months, in one of the most tense periods ever known in the fraught history of the two Asian nuclear powers. The crux of the dispute lies in Doklam, a tri-junction region where the borders of India, China, and Bhutan meet. India and Bhutan have always been strong allies; the two countries currently share a security pact, signed in 2007, naming India a partial guarantor of Bhutan’s foreign defense, according to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. Despite these close ties, it was still a surprise to many that -in response to the Chinese government’s construction of a road past their internationally recognized border with Bhutan in the Doklam region this summer- India sent in its own troops to prevent the Chinese forces from progressing further into their smaller neighbor’s territory. The bold decision by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to commit his troops to not only defend foreign soil but also to risk war with China in the process represents a new assertiveness in India’s foreign policy that is taking the country to an unprecedented level of global influence.

This increasing willingness on the part of the Modi Administration to counter China and bolster India’s standing on the world stage has not only played out in Bhutan but also at sea, as India now participates in trilateral naval exercises alongside the US and Japan. Indian-Japanese relations have also grown economically, as Japan has pledged to support the construction of bullet trains in India with billions in foreign direct investment. India and Japan have also recently begun to cooperate on nuclear energy, as Japan, a long-time leader in the field of civilian nuclear power, and India, a country that possesses an ample stock of nuclear weapons, are both looking to improve the economic benefits and mitigate the environmental consequences of each of their respective programs. If these developments proceed as scheduled, the growing economic and technological collaboration between the two countries will serve as a direct counterweight to China’s global expansion both economically vis-a-vis its Belt and Road Initiative, and territorially, through its recent take-over of a Sri Lankan port town through a 99-year lease.

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In recent years India has upgraded its military technology on a massive scale, leading to significant growth in its economic and strategic relations with not only Japan and the United States but also with Israel. Israel is now in fact India’s second-largest provider of arms and military technology, with the weapons trade between the two countries in 2016 totalling over 4.5 billion dollars, according to the Jerusalem Post. This past year, Modi also became the first Indian Prime Minister to formally visit Israel, a development indicating a new stage in Indian-Israeli relations. In the past, ties between the two countries have been constrained by India’s close ties with Egypt during the Cold War, as well as by the wish of Indian politicians not to alienate Muslim voters in the country by cozying up to the Jewish State. However, nearly three decades separate current politics from the Cold War, and the Hindu nationalist party in power no longer relies on the Muslim minority for its support in the polls. India’s leaders thus have little to fear from expanding their partnership with Israel.

India’s increasingly close alignment to both Israel and Japan at the same time that it has been expanding ties with the US bodes well for American interests. The Modi Administration’s effort to make common cause over the dual threats of Chinese aggression and Islamist violence demonstrates that India’s new role in the world may be a boon to long-term US policy goals in the region. Whatever one might say about some of Narendra Modi’s domestic social policies, especially in regards to his ties to ultra-nationalist movements like Hindu Yuva Vahini, this prime minister has undoubtedly positioned India to a more openly pro-Western foreign policy stance. Now that trade between the U.S. and India is at an all-time high and military collaboration has developed, it appears that the U.S. and India are likely to become increasingly closer allies over the course of the next few years. Indeed, as President Obama said during his 2010 visit to India, the relationship between the two countries would be a “defining partnership of the 21st century.” The words ring especially true, given the massive growth in economic and military relations between the countries in the years since the visit. The warm relationship between the heads of state of each country has not dissipated with changes in leadership on either side. President Obama took another trip to India following the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, and in turn, Modi visited the U.S. But even as other foreign leaders who enjoyed close relationships with President Obama, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, have received the cold shoulder from the recently elected President Trump, Modi appears to be one of few world leaders who can boast of his close ties with both President Donald Trump and his predecessor. Modi and  Trump even exchanged a hug in the White House’s Rose Garden for their first in-person meeting, a gesture that stood in direct contrast with Trump’s refusal to even shake Merkel’s hand at their joint press conference earlier that year.

Signs that the U.S.-India relationship continues to flourish with Donald Trump in office stem from India’s elimination of all economic ties to North Korea last year in response to American-led international pressure to punish Kim Jong-Un’s regime for its acceleration of the country’s nuclear missile program. This move by the Modi Administration was welcomed in Washington, and may well have been a contributing factor to the U.S. suspension of military aid to Pakistan last month. America’s arming of India’s longtime rival has long been a point of contention between the two countries, and so the denunciation of military aid to Pakistan was seen as a pivot toward India, triggering immediate responses among different governments. In contrast, China restated its commitment to Pakistan’s security immediately after the U.S. made this announcement,  and hinted publicly at deepening its already-close economic and military ties to Pakistan. Thus, two new geopolitical entities in East and South Asia may create blocs, uniting Pakistan, China, and (to some extent) North Korea against India, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea.

This new alignment in the Asia-Pacific is based not merely on common goals but also the personal ideological outlooks of the leaders whose world views, with the notable exception of South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, are all strikingly similar. Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for that matter) are all nationalistic leaders from conservative parties that see themselves as leaders of great civilizations surrounded by hostile rivals and threats to their power. But in spite of the implicit xenophobia underlying each of their stances, the administrations of each of the three men have championed realist foreign policies that call for alignment with other democratic powers in order to counter shared threats. In the case of India and the U.S., that includes both the rise of China, as outlined in the Trump Administration’s latest national security memo, and Islamist extremism.

As the U.S. and India have each been the victims of multiple Sunni Islamist terrorist attacks over the past decade and are regarded by Islamist militant organizations like Lashkar e-Taiba, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS as hostile infidel powers occupying Muslim lands (Kashmir in India’s case, Afghanistan and Iraq in the case of the U.S.), both nations stand to gain from collaborating to defeat terrorist groups that target each of them. The fight by the U.S. to eliminate the Afghan Taliban, an organization covertly backed in part by Pakistan’s intelligence service ISI and the Indian government’s wish to secure itself from attacks by the ISI-linked and Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar e-Taiba (which carried out the deadly Mumbai attacks of November 2008) could even inspire mutual assistance. To be fair, even under the assertive reign of Narendra Modi, India is unlikely to commit troops to the NATO campaign in Afghanistan anytime soon. However, a shift to relying upon India instead of Pakistan, an untrustworthy partner in the War on Terror, as NATO’s primary ally in the region could help to finally bring an end to the seventeen-year-long struggle for control of Afghanistan. Similarly, U.S. intelligence cooperation with India could in turn aid India’s own struggle to deter attacks on their soil from Islamist organizations based in Pakistan and Kashmir undercut Pakistani-backed anti-Indian separatist movements in Kashmir.

In fact, collaboration with the Indian intelligence community would be a more convenient arrangement for the USA as Israel, a long-time American intelligence sharing partner and trusted ally, has already engaged in close collaboration with India on intelligence since the 1980s. Cooperation between the Mossad and India’s national intelligence services began when the two countries considered a joint operation to disrupt Pakistan’s fledgling nuclear weapons program, and continue to be strong today. Israel and India have both long been targets of state-backed terrorist organizations emanating from Muslim-majority countries and, in some cases, have even had their citizens jointly targeted by the same group, such as in the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which four Israelis were killed due to Lashkar e-Taiba’s choice to destroy a Jewish center in the city. Although the close Cold War alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan has prevented the U.S. from cultivating similarly significant national security ties to India, shifts in long-held U.S. foreign policy trends under both the Obama and Trump administrations are finally changing the foreign relation dynamics in South Asia, allowing the possibilities for U.S.-Indian cooperation to grow.

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Most international relations scholars conclude that the world is becoming increasingly multipolar as the U.S. faces an increasingly powerful China, a resurgent Russia, and a host of non-Western regional powers (some of which are rogue states) like Iran, North Korea, Turkey, and Brazil. A question has been: where does India fit into all this? Will India merely be a regional powerhouse in South Asia, or, like Russia and China, will its influence be felt across much of the world? Furthermore, if India does reach the level of a world power, who will the country align itself with? Will India champion democracy and the Western geopolitical order, or, like China, will India form strong relations with a host of different nations while advocating exclusively for its own interests without joining any particular coalition?

The answer to the first question may depend in part upon India’s economic growth over the next several decades. In the past 25 years, India’s economy has expanded from a total GDP of a couple hundred billion (in U.S. dollars) to over 2.25 trillion in 2016, according to the World Bank. And if the estimates by the International Monetary Fund are correct, India’s total GDP may well exceed 2.65 trillion this year, which would cause it to overtake France as the world’s fifth largest economy. Meanwhile the GDP of India’s traditional rival, Pakistan, remains below 300 billion dollars, and it is in part this vast economic mismatch that has enabled India to move beyond its regional struggle with Pakistan to become a rising power on the global stage. Indian economic growth has been extraordinary. In 2016 the country’s GDP grew by 7.1 percent, eclipsing China’s 6.7 growth rate that same year, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. In spite of this impressive growth, however, India is still beset by a multitude of socio-economic problems that limit its competitiveness in the modern world. India’s national literacy rate still hovers around 75 percent, according to the Times of India, a rate far lower than that in developed countries, which primarily enjoy literary rates spanning the high 80s to the very high 90s percentage-wise. Even China, a country whose development is often compared to India’s, has achieved a 95 percent adult literacy rate, according to UNICEF’s latest statistics. And literacy isn’t the only area where India still lags behind its rival to the northeast, as India still has approximately 20 percent of the population, or 270 million people, living in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s figures from 2012 reveal that only 6.5 percent of China’s citizens are similarly impoverished.

However, even as India’s economy and education rates still have some catching up to do, the still considerably vast economic gulf between India and China does not necessarily mean India won’t be able to sustain its role as a world power. Russia, for instance, has expanded its influence across the globe over the past decade under the tenure of Vladimir Putin, who remains a popular Russian leader in spite of the economic upheaval that Russia has faced under his rule. Putin’s political success may actually be in part due to his willingness to defy the international community with military incursions into Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria that have not only won the country enhanced border security but restored the sense of pride that many Russians feel in their identity now that their country is once again regarded as a mighty world power. Given that Russia, which possesses an economy less than half the size of India’s and ranks only 12th in the world in terms of total GDP, according to the latest figures from the World Bank, is usually considered among the top three global powers, alongside the U.S. and China, India may well be able to maintain its newfound assertive foreign policy postures even if the nation’s currently high rate of economic growth begins to stagnate in the near future.

We now return to the second question: where India will fall in terms of its geopolitical alignment on the world stage? Given that India has been expanding its strategic partnerships with Japan, Israel, and the United States, the trend suggests the growth of a relatively pro-Western foreign policy based on the establishment of alliances between fellow democratic countries over shared values and mutual security goals. There are some exceptions to this, of course—in a rare holdover from their Cold War foreign policy, India still maintains a close relationship with Russia, a clear adversary of the NATO-aligned democratic West. But overall, India’s concerns about China’s encroachment near its borders and its reasonable fear of Islamist-inspired terrorist groups perpetrating attacks on Indian soil and sowing of political dissent in Kashmir seem to be pushing the country in a firmly pro-Western direction in the foreseeable future. Unless these threats rapidly dissipate or India slides from being the relatively robust democracy it is today to a technically democratic but increasingly authoritarian government like Turkey or Hungary, India’s pro-Western foreign policy alignment appears likely to only strengthen its commercial, scientific and security ties to the USA going forward. Thus, the rise of India is not the presence of yet another rival for global supremacy that the U.S. should fear, but may represent an opportunity for the U.S. to share more of the burden that comes with being the world’s most powerful democracy with the world’s largest democracy.