U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June. While the United States and India expressed positive progress in their bilateral relationship, both avoided mentioning what brought them together in the first place: both countries have complex and significant relationships with China. What do Modi’s U.S. visit and the evolving U.S.-India relationship reveal about both countries’ geopolitical positions in Asia—and their strategies to manage relations with China?
Dr. Kanti Bajpai, vice dean and professor of international relations at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy based at the National University of Singapore, joins the National Committee to share an Indian point of view on relations between China, India, and the United States.
Kanti Bajpai is a professor of international relations at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
Before coming to the LKY School, Kanti was Professor of International Politics, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Professor in the Politics and International Relations of South Asia, Oxford University. From 2003 to 2009, he was Headmaster, The Doon School, India. He taught at the Maharajah Sayajirao University of Baroda, and has held visiting appointments at Wesleyan University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Kanti has held visiting appointments at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace, Notre Dame University, the Brookings Institution, and the Australian Defence Force Academy. He was also Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
Kanti’s most recent book was India Versus China: Why They Are Not Friends (Juggernaut 2021). He is currently working on a book on India’s grand strategy.
Does India view China as a partner, competitor, or strategic threat?
Kanti Bajpai: In the Indian mind, all of those things are true. Of course, the relationship, particularly since 2020, when there was a fracas at a place called Galwan and Indian lives were lost and some Chinese lives were lost, since then, the relationship has entered a kind of freeze, both metaphorically and diplomatically and militarily.
So, I think it’s fair to say that the relationship is not in great shape. India insists that there can’t be business as usual with China until the Chinese pull out of areas that they came into in 2020, and some other incursions since then which haven’t been quite as dramatic. But there hasn’t been much of a movement backwards by the Chinese.
There have been some retractions of forces, but not to the extent of the status quo ante. So, I think, you know, that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that neither government has over-reacted and the Indian government has quite markedly, significantly, cautious. It’s insisting that the Chinese pull out forces, but in fact, there’s quite a lot of business as usual as well.
And in fact, business—last year, bilateral trade between India and China was the highest ever. You know, after a couple of years of a downturn, partly due to COVID, partly due to the fracas at Galwan, trade resumed to the highest level ever. So, there’s that degree of normalness. The two have embassies that are functioning normally between the two countries.
The leaderships have met, at least, at the foreign minister and other level on the sidelines of mini-lateral or multilateral meetings. You know, [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi has shaken hands with Xi Jinping at one of those. There hasn’t been a great interchange at the highest level, but India clearly is not ready for that until there’s progress on the border issue.
So, I think things are fraught and cold, but they’re not likely to blow up into something really untoward and unmanageable. I think both sides have been careful to continue some dialogue, continue normal interactions where they can, in mini-lateral, multilateral trading areas, and that’s where it is.
In terms of, you know, the recent visit of Modi, I mean, it’s very clear that China is what drives India and the United States together. It’s not the convergence of political values so much, whatever the two leaderships might have said, and especially whatever Mr. Modi might have said, about democracy in common. And nobody takes that seriously, frankly.
And it’s not such a massive economic relationship, although at about $180 or $190 billion in bilateral trade, India has peaked with America as well in terms of trade. But it’s really the strategic challenge, the common strategic challenge of China. They won’t say it openly, but of course everyone recognizes it and so does Beijing.
I think the interesting thing is that it’s probably Delhi that insists that China is not mentioned in the various statements, public or more private. Even at the height of the Galwan fracas with the Chinese, even as India received a certain amount of intelligence and some equipment for high mountain warfare and so on that it needed but it didn’t possess, which it got from the United States, New Delhi made it very clear at that point that it didn’t want very overt American statements of support for India because that might polarize the situation even more. So, I mean, oddly, it’s India, which is in the front lines with China, which is very, very cautious about, you know, a joint statement with the Americans over China.
Look at India’s behavior in the Quad and in the Indo-Pacific. I think it’s widely acknowledged that India is the weak link there, that it tends to water down any suggestion that this is a common front against China. And it’s only after Galwan, for instance, that India agreed to higher-level meetings of officials in those two forums. Before that, India was tended to downplay both the Indo-Pacific and the Quad.
So Delhi is very, very cautious about offending China.
What hesitations does India have about its relationship with the United States?
Kanti Bajpai: Look at the way that S. Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, has spoken about Western countries, including the American media, not so much the American government, but about the American media over any criticism in the West over two things. One, India’s stand on the Ukraine war. India won’t even call it a war.
It’s with the Russians on that. And the second issue is, of course, democracy, human rights, liberalism. So any criticism in the West, either at the official level or—[Indian Foreign Minister S.] Jaishankar, I mean, is brutal about it. At the same time, he makes no statements about Russia or China of any kind of criticism of their behavior, even though, particularly with China, there’s a real problem.
I mean, all he’s saying to Beijing is “get out of our territory,” and that’s about all he will ever say. So, I think before everyone gets carried away about the United States and India as partners, India’s fundamental international outlook is much closer to that of Russia and China than it is to the United States.
And let me give you an instance. If you look at the February 4th statement of Putin and Xi Jinping, which is about three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, that statement contains—implied a direct criticism of the existing world order backed by the United States liberal internationalism that whole package of things.
There’s nothing there that New Delhi would be uncomfortable with in that statement, except for the one criticism that did bite India, and that was the criticism of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad that India would be a little unhappy about in that statement. But otherwise, it would be happy to associate itself with pushback against liberal internationalism, against making democracy a big deal, or human rights a big deal, the domination of the West of international institutions, the need for multipolarity, multilateralism, and it’s all bread and butter stuff for India, all the dog whistles that Indian foreign policy is associated with.
So, no quarrel with the Russians and Chinese over that. The quarrel is with Western dominance and Western policies on human rights and democracy. So I don’t want to exaggerate this convergence with the United States, and I think it’s very, very apparent if you look carefully at statements and behavior on the Indian side.
I think it’s fair to say that even before Narendra Modi, India used to push back and was an uncomfortable about any criticism of its domestic politics. So, you know, it’s not new with Modi. It’s just much more pugnacious in terms of the response to these things. I mean, you just have to look at Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s behavior over the last few months, last year or so.
I mean, he’s become India’s wolf warrior, in effect. But yes, I mean, a lot depends on how the Americans handle it as well. In the visit with Biden just now, clearly Biden underplayed the human rights, democracy angle. And, you know, America has a history of squaring these circles. Look at Saudi Arabia and the relationship with the Saudis, [or] with East Asian countries such as South Korea back in the day before democracy broke out.
[Americans] worked very carefully and easily with the South Koreans. You know, America has a whole history of working with illiberal, dictatorial countries when it suits its strategic interests. Pakistan, for instance, other Middle Eastern countries, countries in Latin America, and so on. So I think, when we say America, of course, there are all kinds of different constituencies and players.
Congressmen may have a slightly different point of view. Some congressmen in the American media have a different perspective. Think tanks and so on might say something contradictory to the government. But the White House and the leadership of national security and foreign policy have to be attentive to making partnerships, even if political values differ. And I think, you know, at the end of the day, it’s very clear that the China problem is so severe—or is thought to be—for both the Americans and Indians that they will find a way, despite the tensions over political values, to do business together.
How much is concern about China driving the United States to strengthen its relationship with India?
Kanti Bajpai: No one now has too many illusions in the United States about India being a liberal country. But, you know, I think the issue really is that India’s size means that it’s the only country around the world, and certainly in Asia, that if its economics finally kind of take off, it’s the only one that can be a counterpoint to China in the long run.
So the United States and India are united by the idea that even though they may not be allies in a formal sense or even very deep military partners, what this relationship about is really about now is what the United States has done with other partners in the past, including China in the second half of the Cold War, which is start to transfer technology and develop a series of economic links and develop other capacities in a putative partner.
So that that partner becomes an economic powerhouse, a technological player as well. And, you know, therefore develops its own economic and military capabilities in the long term so that in effect, India would become an existential balancer against China. It doesn’t have to be a balancer in league with the Americans. Its own natural rivalry with China will put it in the forefront of being a balancer.
The Chinese will always have to look sideways to the West at India as India grows, and if the Americans can help India grow economically and that mission is achieved, then the natural rivalry and balancing between China and India will play to their advantage. So what the Americans want, above all, is for India to take care of business by itself, in a sense, with some help to become an economic force, military force, and not go over to the Chinese side.
I mean, that’s the nightmare scenario: that India doesn’t remain more or less kind of neutral-to-soft-tilt towards the United States, but actually goes the other way. That would be a problem for Washington. So the issue is not to sign up India necessarily to a grand alliance, but to build it into an existential balancer against China.
And make sure it doesn’t go over to the other side. I mean, I think that would be the extent of American calculations.
Could there be an India-China rapprochement?
Kanti Bajpai: What would it take for India and China to become closer, and maybe even switch sides, for India to switch sides? I mean, I did point out earlier that fundamentally India’s view of a preferred world order does incline towards Russian and Chinese preferences much more than, say, American.
So, I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate that point because even Russia and China buy into many of the fundamentals of the existing order, but there are certain elements that they don’t agree with, particularly the liberalism of the current order, and that’s where India falls out as well. So, you know, I mean, I think if I was in Beijing, I would be cultivating India against the liberal-ness of this current order that could help flip India.
Of course, a Chinese withdrawal to positions before that Galwan incursion would make it much easier for Delhi to flip sides. And so I think if Xi Jinping wanted to make a gesture that would be really meaningful, he could come to a quick bargain over at least those incursions. Thirdly, of course, if the Chinese were in a mood to compromise much more ambitiously over a final settlement of the border, that could be a complete game changer because that we take away the main structural problem, one of the main structural problems between India and China.
There’s always a structural problem of the level of the power rivalry. So even if you took away the border problem, you know, these two big countries would still be eyeing each other a little bit in terms of their power dynamics. But at least that huge historical sediment would go away and, you know, there’d be a very real possibility that India could be flipped.
So I think those are at least three things that China could do. And China has shown that it’s not above making some of these very big kinds of decisions when it’s in its interest to do so and when it has a supreme leader who feels he has the capacity and flexibility to do so. Is Xi a Deng Xiaoping or a Mao? I think there’s a view that he’s that powerful.
I myself am a bit skeptical. And you know for one reason, my skepticism really rests on the issue of not so much Xi Jinping, but Chinese society, which is with social media and all of that. There is something like public opinion out there in China that I think even Xi has to be very careful about. And a lot of it is focused on, you know, recovering the homeland and not giving away territory.
So [there is] pressure on Xi Jinping to do something about Taiwan, Hong Kong, which I guess now is accomplished, and then the really other outstanding problem is the border with India. That chunk of land, at least in Chinese eyes, is even larger than Taiwan. So, you know, I mean, I think much as Xi Jinping might be able to pull off an ambitious deal, certainly he would have resistance in the system to it.
I don’t think there’s much India can do to really make a dramatic breakthrough in the relationship. Mr. Modi is not strong enough to do that at home. Xi Jinping is stronger, but even he faces a problem. So overall, I would say that I don’t think Washington needs to worry too much.
But there is one thing that Washington should be aware of. If American criticism of India on human rights, liberalism, democracy becomes more extreme, then you could see Delhi being pushed into the China-Russia camp. And so I think that’s where Washington has to take a call, has to play it very carefully.
And the scenario you outlined, if there’s a U.S.-China rapprochement of some kind, then things would become very fluid. Would India then try to play up to the United States or would it then find itself reaching out more to China so that it’s not dealt out of the game completely? So I think there are dynamic scenarios and possibilities, but everything points to a situation still where China and India are not going to be very good friends.
Could India pose a military threat to China along the India-China border?
Kanti Bajpai: Well, I don’t think there’s any possibility of that, frankly. India doesn’t have the ability to project that kind of military force in Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh. It can hold the Chinese, at least for the foreseeable future, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh, probably, where geography helps it. The mountains, terrain and so on, make it difficult for the Chinese as well.
But in Ladakh, where the ingress areas are much flatter, it could be much more difficult. But the long and the short of it is that India simply does not have the capacity to project force into Tibet from either in the eastern sector, which is Arunachal, or in the western sector, which is Ladakh. So I don’t see any possibility of India kind of opening up a front against China opportunistically to recover what it sees as rightful territories.
And by the way, India is very cautious about how much territory it’s actually lost. And nor will it open up another front to help the Americans and the Japanese and the Taiwanese out in a fight against the Chinese. But in any case, I mean, I think regardless of all of that Indian behavior, the Chinese have enough deterrent capability in Tibet to deal with virtually any Indian attack, even at a time when they might be fighting on another front.
How likely is it that India would help the United States in the event of U.S.-China military conflict?
Kanti Bajpai: I think the idea that India might open up another front for its own reasons, or to help out the Americans and so on, is quite a fantastic idea. It’s just not in the realm of possibility. Nor is it very credible that India would open up a maritime front against the Chinese and, you know, sort of intercept Chinese ships in the Strait of Malacca and so on.
At least a couple of reasons for that. One are Indian naval limitations and the strength of the Chinese, and that includes Indian air power. But the other is, if there’s a full-fledged conflict in the Taiwan Strait and extending into areas such as the South China Sea, which is adjacent to the Malacca Strait, it’s the American navy, perhaps with its allies, the Japanese and the Australians, who are going to stop the Chinese in and around the Malacca Strait.
I don’t think they need the Indian navy very much. And the Americans will take care of business there if they can. And as for commercial traffic being stopped, well, what commercial traffic would want to go into the South China Sea and into the Taiwan Strait where there’s a war going on? So the idea that the Indian navy would be there to keep the strait open or to choke off, say, Chinese shippers that are carrying stuff back to China, I don’t think any Chinese commercial shipping will be heading to the South China Sea or the [Taiwan] Strait when there’s a war going on.
I just don’t see this idea of the Indian navy being a factor in the Bay of Bengal up to the Malacca Strait. And certainly the Indian navy can’t project much power beyond the Strait of Malacca. It’s a non-factor. And the Indian Navy, as it says it publicly, has no ability to project force beyond the Malacca Strait.
So, you know, I think India is simply not a factor in a Taiwan fight. At best, because there’s a logistical agreement and various other intelligence agreements with the Americans, if Washington activates those during a fight with China over Taiwan, India would have to make a decision. Now, one of the things that hasn’t been picked up in the Modi-Blinken joint communique or statement after the visit is that there’s a couple of lines in there about how India will serve as a hub to service American warships and so on should they need that facility.
So that’s a possibility that the Americans will call in India to honor that agreement and to furnish maybe a certain amount of intelligence. Although, to be frank, the Americans have such enormous worldwide in intelligence capability, that I’m not sure that India can add much. It was the Americans who gave India intelligence on the Galwan incursion that India didn’t have, that’s right there on India’s border.
The Americans knew more than the Indians knew, perhaps. So I think even this idea that they would play much of an intelligence sharing role in a Taiwan fight seems to be, you know, looking for something, some sort of peanut butter to put on the sandwich. But at best, I think, some American ships coming back from the theater or proceeding to the South China Sea might need rest and recreation or stop off some servicing.
And, you know, and repair and maintenance. That’ll be a decision point for India. I wouldn’t bet on India saying yes.
How have Indian opinions toward the United States changed over time?
Kanti Bajpai: Indian opinion on America has changed. And just in the wake of the Modi visit, a poll from yesterday shows that 65% of Indians are quite favorably disposed towards the United States. But this is soft opinion. You know, it could change very, very rapidly under the pressure of events. What is still true is that because of the colonial era and the Cold War, there’s a lot of anti-Americanism in India even now just below the surface.
And if you look at Twitter commentary, for instance, during the first weeks and months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with so much anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism on display there in the Indian elite commentary, it was all America’s fault, NATO’s expansion, you know, sympathy for Putin and Russia, which are India’s great friends going back, you know, the Cold War and so on and so forth.
And by God, the Americans were going to be taught a lesson. And America is a country in decline. And I mean, just unsupported, you know, kind of opinion and commentariat type of stuff. But, you know, it’s revealing that at an elite level and at some popular level, there are very mixed views of the United States. And by the way, that’s true in the current Indian government.
I mean, please don’t imagine that Mr. Modi and his government all love the United States. Barack Obama made a couple of remarks about India’s treatment of minorities and just look at the pushback from two Indian cabinet ministers and other BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s ruling party) functionaries against them but two days after the Modi visit. So, you know, just below the surface, there is a lot of anti-Americanism.
And it’s partly colonialism, America being the successor to—another big Western state that bullies other countries, quote unquote, and all of that. So, you know, it’s mixed up with India’s colonial legacy and anti-Westernism. It’s related to a robust sense of India wanting to be its own player and count for something in the world as a great civilization and its sense that it’s been historically demeaned by Western countries, including the Americans and so on.
So, you know, there’s a whole reservoir of—having said that, yeah, the last 20 years have seen a softening of Indian opinion towards the United States. There’s a diaspora there. So, there are all kinds of social links to the United States. And for all the Indian elite’s criticism of America, all their children are going to study in the United States and hanker after a green card there.
So, you know, there are a lot of contradictions and posturing and bad faith in a lot of these statements. But on the whole, yeah, there’s been an improved view of the United States. But I would caution, again, it won’t take much for that opinion to flip into outright public anti-Americanism. And if the Americans were to do something different with Pakistan tomorrow or started flying towards China a bit more, things could change quite a bit.
So it’ll always be in India an ambivalence towards Western countries, and particularly the United States, because it’s the leading Western country, a view that it’s a neo-imperialist power and that it is unreliable and often demeaning of India. I think that’s something that the United States has to be aware of. I think Indian decision makers also are quite aware of it and take some trouble to make sure that they’re not seen in the company of Westerners too much.
And I think part of the kind of restraint that India shows, too, with China, for instance, is that it wants to make clear to the West and to the United States that the West should not take India for granted, that it will maintain links to China and keep its options, quote unquote, open. And so I think India plays a very careful game there, civilizationally, diplomatically, politically, militarily of staying between China and the United States.