India will need to focus both on domestic and international issues in order to counter China—build back the economy, allocate more resources for the military, ensure political and social stability, and deepen partnerships with all friends and partners.

New Delhi: India firmly believes in multi-polar diplomacy and practises it too with perfection. While some may call it New Delhi’s “Great Game” in post-Covid world, but there is no doubt in the minds of global diplomacy and strategic affairs experts that India has been, in fact, balancing the diplomatic channels, suiting its larger strategic and security goals. While it has strengthened its “vital partner status” with the US to a “comprehensive partner”, it also maintains its diplomacy without a hurdle with Iran and Russia, especially when others like Turkey had to face White House ire over S-400 missiles from Moscow. India is emerging as an alternative for many nations from the Western bloc to ally with to counter the growing Chinese aggression. The Sunday Guardian spoke to Aparna Pande, Director of Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia in Hudson Institute, on a range of diplomatic challenges confronting India-US strategic ties and how the two democracies are set to handle this. Excerpts:
Q: India is more in multi-polar diplomacy mode and it is not letting the US off its strategic partner compass. Can New Delhi manage that well?
A: India has always favoured a multi-polar world, and has never been comfortable with either a bipolar or unipolar world. A multipolar world ensures that India is one of the countries that can play a role on the global and regional arenas. However, during the Cold War it was a bipolar world, then a unipolar moment when the US was the main global power, and now we are moving towards a world where US and China will be the two main poles. A key difference India faces is that during the cold war, neither of the two global powers—Soviet Union and the United States—craved Indian territory, had any territorial disputes, and both recognized Indian pre-eminence in South Asia. China has a border conflict with India, has Indian territory and craves more, and does not accept that South Asia is India’s area of influence.
Q: Countering China in the Indo-Pacific and its growing aggression in the sub-continent is an urgency for both the US and India to partner strategically. Will Quad be a sufficient security-cum-strategic alliance suiting their interests?
A: India will need to focus both on domestic and international issues in order to counter China—build back the economy, allocate more resources for the military, ensure political and social stability, and deepen partnerships with all friends and partners. The Quad helps, but more needs to be done in the economic and military arena.
Q: At a time when India-US partnership is being talked about like never before and it is now beyond leadership and “personal chemistry”, what is it that’s keeping India and US together? What can both explore beyond terror and regional security to become long standing partners as many European allies have been of the US since World War II?
A: The US-Atlantic relationship is based on shared values and shared interests and the ability to therefore transcend any changes in leadership and political parties. That includes deep networks in all arenas of life, from economy to military to intelligence to academia to research and also values.
The India-US relationship has deepened over the last two decades to become a strong strategic partnership based on three pegs: economy, defence/military, and values. The US-China peer rivalry means that the US would like allies/partners to counter China’s rise and India is critical to that goal. While bilateral trade in goods and services stands at around $152 billion annually, the potential to raise it further is there and for that India would need to become less protectionist, implement more reforms, and become a part of the global trading network. The US companies that are leaving China would prefer to move to India, if only India opened its markets further. Finally, a large Indian diaspora helps strengthen ties but for the values-based ties to deepen, India will need to remain true to its own secular, democratic, and pluralist credentials that are the bedrock of its Constitution.
Q: The US wants India in Afghanistan and how do you think India must play the “Great Game” in Kabul?
A: India has a strong strategic interest in a politically and economically stable Afghanistan and has invested $3 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and rebuilding. Supporting the Afghan government, seeking stability in the country, and wanting to make sure that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for jihadi groups has remained India’s core goal. Delhi has traditionally been reluctant to play the Great Game and I believe that is the correct policy. Never light fires in other places as others can do the same in your home.
Q: India can be US’ vital partner in areas not explored. For instance, Iran, which is getting closer to China and Russia, is a worry for both New Delhi and DC. India is maintaining balance till now and will do so. Will that affect the ties or can the US benefit from India’s warm relations with Iran?
A: We have to wait and see where US relationship with Iran goes this time around. India would prefer a loosening of sanctions so that it can build the Chabahar port, help Afghanistan, purchase some oil from Iran and keep its relationship on a level keel. However, India would not want Iran to turn nuclear and India has long objected to Iran’s use of proxies in the region.