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The Upside of Rivalry | Foreign Affairs

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For China, Russia, and the West, the last year has been one of fear and conflict. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has killed tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of people. It has prompted the United States and Europe to rearm and has pushed Moscow and Washington back into Cold War–style competition. In the Pacific, China and the United States are eyeing each other with increasing hostility and suspicion, and some U.S. analysts believe that the countries could wind up at war over Taiwan. These dangers prompted U.S. President Joe Biden to declare that the world is at risk of annihilation for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis. In a speech from Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the 2020s are “the most dangerous decade” since the end of World War II.

But thousands of miles away, in the world’s second-largest country, the global outlook is very different. As India prepares to hold the G-20’s 18th summit, the government has put up signs and posters across the country that speak about international harmony. In announcing India’s G-20 vision, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote that his country would catalyze a new mindset within humanity, help the world move beyond greed and confrontation, and cultivate a “universal sense of one-ness.” The theme, Modi said, was “One Earth, One Family, One Future.” Rather than war and rivalry, the prime minister declared, the greatest challenges humanity faces today are climate change, terrorism, and pandemics—issues that “can be solved not by fighting each other, but only by acting together.”

To Western officials, these hymns to cooperation and shared challenges surely sound off-key. But India has limited patience for U.S. and European narratives, which are both myopic and hypocritical. The divisions of the Cold War have not been revived; instead, today’s world is a complex network of interconnections where trade, technology, migration, and the Internet are bringing humans together as never before. Europe and Washington may be right that Russia is violating human rights in Ukraine, but Western powers have carried out similarly violent, unjust, and undemocratic interventions—from Vietnam to Iraq. New Delhi is therefore uninterested in Western calls for Russia’s isolation. To strengthen itself and address the world’s shared challenges, India has the right to work with everyone.

This perspective isn’t unique to New Delhi. Much of the global South is wary of being dragged into siding with the United States against China or Russia. Developing countries are understandably more concerned about their climate vulnerability, their access to advanced technology and capital, and their need for better infrastructure, health care, and education systems. They see increasing global instability—political and financial alike—as a threat to tackling such challenges. And they have watched rich and powerful states disregard these views and preferences in pursuit of their geopolitical interests. For example, the aggressive economic sanctions imposed by wealthy countries on Russia have generated costs, including higher food prices, for people who are far removed from the war in Ukraine. India wants to make sure the voices of these poorer states are heard in international debates, so it is positioning itself as a heartland of the global South—a bridging presence that stands for multilateralism.

For New Delhi, fostering cooperation will not be easy. The invasion of Ukraine may not have fractured the world, but the longer the conflict lasts, the harder it will be for India to work with both Moscow and Washington. India has also come under criticism from some international politicians for what they believe is democratic backsliding. These politicians have protested, in particular, New Delhi’s 2019 decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status under the Indian constitution, the government’s arrest of journalists and civil society activists, and anti-Muslim violence in parts of the country. And India is feuding with—and primed to fight—China over where the two countries’ Himalayan border lies.

But if New Delhi can successfully navigate this complex moment and collaborate with China, Russia, and the West, the benefits will be enormous—both for India and for the developing states it champions. India is home to more than 1.4 billion people and a rapidly growing economy. It trades with and has managed to maintain good relations with almost every country. That means India has the potential to spread growth and foster dialogue across the world, even when global tensions are running high.

GO YOUR OWN WAY

To New Delhi, neutrality is nothing new. “We are not pro-Russian, nor for that matter are we pro-American,” said Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. “We are pro-Indian.” Setting the tone for many future Indian foreign policy statements, he continued, “I am on my own side and nobody else’s.” Nehru made good on these words. During his 17 years in power, he helped craft an explicit policy of nonalignment, one that many other postcolonial states adopted. For India, at least, the strategy worked. New Delhi steered a course through the Cold War that kept it from becoming entrapped in the proxy wars that plagued so many other countries.

Today, the country is experiencing a nationalistic upsurge that marks the India of Modi. The median age of India’s population is around 28 years, one of the youngest on the planet. The Indian economy has expanded steadily over the last three decades, even during the pandemic. Among large economies, it now ranks as the world’s fastest growing.

Given all these advantages, it is little surprise that India has become an independent pole of global power and a leader among developing countries. It has used this position to emphasize a different set of priorities from those of the West. Speaking at the Voice of the Global South virtual summit convened by India in January, Modi said that all developing states had encountered similar challenges in the last three years, such as rising prices for fuel, fertilizer, and food as well as increasing geopolitical tensions that have affected their economies. “Developing countries desire a globalization that does not create climate crisis or debt crisis” or an “unequal distribution of vaccines or over-concentrated global supply chains,” Modi declared. He called for fundamental reforms to major international organizations, including the UN Security Council and international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, so that they will better represent the global South. New Delhi has also promised to provide its digital, nuclear, and space technology—such as its highly successful countrywide electronic payments interface—to other developing states.

The United States and Europe’s worldview is both myopic and hypocritical.

India is the third-largest producer of pharmaceuticals in the world, and its Vaccine Maitri (or Vaccine Friendship) program has distributed over 235 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 98 lower-income countries. It is a founding member of the International Solar Alliance and is working to transport solar energy across borders. India has also generally expanded its grant assistance, lines of credit, technical consulting, disaster relief, humanitarian aid, educational scholarships, and other programs for global South countries. The biggest recipients include Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, in line with India’s Neighborhood First policy. But there are also recipients in Africa, Central and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. Indeed, India has extended $12.35 billion in credit to African countries alone.

New Delhi’s efforts have not been received as warmly in the global North. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has tested the rules-based international order, and India’s carefully orchestrated neutrality has frustrated the United States and European countries. Its refusal to speak up in Kyiv’s favor has brought it under intense scrutiny and questioning by friends and partners in the West.

But India, rightfully, sees these critiques as hypocritical. The West routinely cut deals with violent autocracies to advance its own interests. The United States, for instance, is improving ties with Venezuela to get more oil. Europe is signing energy contracts with repressive Arab Gulf regimes. Remarkably, the West nonetheless claims that its foreign policy is guided by human rights and democracy. India, at least, lays no claim to being the conscience-keeper of the world. Like any other state, it acts in accordance with its interests—and severing its partnership with Russia would harm them.

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Outside the Indian finance ministry, New Delhi, March 2023

Anushree Fadnavis / Reuters

India’s relationship with Russia has deep roots stretching back to the Cold War, and both countries refer to their ties as “special and privileged.” New Delhi relies on Moscow for roughly 60 percent of its defense equipment, and over the years, Russia has offered India advanced weapons technologies (for which India pays top dollar). Moscow has also become an important source of cheap energy for India, which is importing oil from Russia at heavy discounts.

India has other, less technical reasons not to join the fight against Moscow. The country wants Russia to maintain some distance from China, and it worries that isolating Moscow would just push it closer to Beijing. Despite the battlefield setbacks, Russia is still a global power of consequence—with a military footprint that extends across continents and a United Nations Security Council veto—that can help prevent a cold war between China and the United States. And although the West may like to think that Russia’s invasion was entirely unprovoked, India understands that the war is not purely an imperial project. NATO was founded as an anti-Moscow alliance, and over the last 30 years, it has expanded right up to Russia’s borders. Over the last ten, Western leaders have slapped all kinds of sanctions on Moscow. The Kremlin was right to think that Washington and Europe wanted to weaken Russia.

New Delhi’s refusal to condemn Moscow does not mean that India supports Russia’s invasion. The Kremlin has clearly contravened the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, international humanitarian law, and the precept of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs. But Russia is not the only state to violate these rules: the United States has also displayed a questionable commitment to sovereignty and noninterference. And India did not respond to Washington’s past abuses with sanctions or acrimony. New Delhi instead continued doing business with the United States—even if it opposed the country’s invasions—because doing so helped India and made it easier for the world to address shared challenges. New Delhi has every right to take the same approach with Moscow, no matter what the West says.

HAVE YOUR CAKE AND EAT IT, TOO

Indian public opinion is extremely sensitive to any badgering by Western governments, legislators, and media about New Delhi’s sovereign decisions. But India still wants to have a solid relationship with Western countries, especially the United States—and for good reason. New Delhi wants to strengthen itself, and Washington is providing invaluable backing.

Consider, for example, the two countries’ economic links. The United States is India’s largest export destination and largest trading partner. The two countries’ bilateral trade in goods surpassed $131 billion in 2022, and estimates suggest that their trade in goods and services crossed $190 billion last year. They are close technological partners, especially in cutting-edge industries such as semiconductors and nanotechnologies. American and Indian workers are together developing tools for space research and travel, speech recognition, and digital translation that will prove immeasurably useful when dealing with cross-border threats, insurgencies, and other security challenges.

This technological partnership is poised to deepen. In May 2022, Modi and Biden announced the creation of the U.S.-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, which will bring together New Delhi, Washington, and both countries’ private sectors to strengthen quantum communications, build a semiconductor ecosystem in India, explore commercial space opportunities, and collaborate on high-performance computers. In January 2023, the two governments’ national security advisers agreed to a Defense Industrial Cooperation Roadmap to help produce better jet engines, munitions systems, maritime security tools, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems.

Some of this collaboration is driven by a sense of democratic affinity and economic opportunity. But a shared concern with China’s rising power has created a special synergy between New Delhi and Washington. Over the last several years, India has found itself in repeated standoffs with Chinese forces along the border in the Himalayas, where both states claim thousands of square miles across their disputed frontier. China has also begun making increasingly bold incursions into what is unambiguously Indian territory, leading to multiple skirmishes. One of those fights, which took place in Ladakh in 2020, resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers.

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Modi waving to supporters in Ahmedabad, India, December 2022

Amit Dave / Reuters

Because China is more powerful than India, a good part of New Delhi’s strategy for dealing with a belligerent Beijing runs through Washington. In the wake of the confrontation in Ladakh, India has kept in close touch with the United States over the border situation. The two countries have exchanged intelligence, and Indian and U.S. troops have participated in high-altitude training exercises close to India’s border, sending a clear signal to Beijing. Between 2008 and 2020, sales of defense supplies from the United States to India amounted to over $20 billion.

This security partnership is perhaps best illustrated by the two countries’ participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, popularly known as the Quad. India has moved purposefully to revitalize its membership in the group, which also includes Australia and Japan and which Modi has termed “a force for good.” New Delhi has eagerly embraced summit-level engagements within the Quad, where the top leadership of the four countries meet in person, as well as military-level meetings and joint exercises in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quad has also become a venue for a variety of other initiatives, including ones that improve cybersecurity, conduct disaster response, and advance infrastructural development.

India, of course, benefits from being a part of this organization. But its partnership is not a one-way street. India’s geographic position, intelligence assets about Chinese activities in the neighborhood, and naval coverage of the area bring significant assets to the group. Its strong business and commercial networks are also beneficial for the United States and the Quad as a whole because they can help counter Chinese commercial interests in Africa and the Indian Ocean region. As U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in April 2022, India’s cooperation in the pact creates a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, it is a testament to India’s sway and importance in the area that the Biden administration has largely accepted New Delhi’s autonomous foreign policy even as it sporadically complains about its behavior regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

India has the right to work with whoever it wants.

But U.S. policymakers should not mistake India’s Quad involvement for an alliance; New Delhi will not act as a balancer for Washington against Beijing. Instead, India is playing both sides in the U.S.-Chinese rivalry. India is a part of the Washington-led Quad but also the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It routinely attends trilateral meetings with both China and Russia. It continues to actively participate in the multilateral forum known as BRICS, which stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. India severed ambassadorial relations with China after the two states fought a war in 1962, but today, it keeps communication channels open with Beijing and with Chinese military commanders at the border. The two states regularly confer at the diplomatic and ministerial levels. India will host the G-20 this year, when its officials will frequently interact with their Chinese counterparts at meetings. Chinese President Xi Jinping is even expected to attend the summit in September.

Perhaps no issue better illustrates India’s ability to both compete and cooperate with Beijing than trade. Washington is pushing hard for states to reduce their economic ties to China, and in sensitive sectors, India has worked to reduce its dependence on Chinese imports and investments. For instance, India has prevented Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment for 5G services in the country. And after a border clash in June 2020, India canceled railway and power project tenders that Chinese companies had effectively secured, and it barred the use of Chinese apps, including TikTok, on national security grounds. But China remains India’s largest trading partner in goods, and India’s business and trade relations with Beijing have been difficult to curtail. Last year, for example, the two countries traded $136 billion in goods alone, up 8.4 percent from 2021.

India’s relationship with Taiwan also remains ambiguous. After Nancy Pelosi, then the U.S. House Speaker, visited the island in August 2022, New Delhi urged restraint and the avoidance of unilateral changes to the status quo in the region—sentiments that could be a critique of Pelosi’s inflammatory trip but also of China’s subsequent, provocative military maneuvers. India’s business, investment, and trade ties with the island are flourishing. But New Delhi has steered clear of the kind of critical rhetoric or official visits to the island that have raised tensions between Beijing and Washington.

HIGH WIRE

So far, India has done an impressive job of maintaining its balancing act. Whether it can continue to do so in the years ahead is an open question. Beijing has become increasingly belligerent, and it may eventually decide it will not deal with India if New Delhi strengthens its security ties to Washington. China could similarly put more intense pressure on India on the Himalayan border, forcing New Delhi to adopt harsher anti-Chinese measures. As the war in Ukraine drags on, Russia may rely more on China, reducing Moscow’s capacity to stop Beijing from pressuring New Delhi. Russia will also be increasingly constrained in its ability to sell defense equipment to the Indian armed forces. And a prolonged invasion could lead India to tussle more with Washington as the United States pushes harder for neutral states to come off the sidelines.

India could face other headwinds, as well. The country’s economy is not free of regulatory bottlenecks, and its growth rate could decline—especially because of the slowing global economy and rising interest rates. A slowdown in exports or a decrease in consumer demand could also undermine India’s economy. Transnational threats such as climate change may trigger developmental challenges and degrade human security, especially among economically vulnerable parts of India’s population. New Delhi’s historical struggle with Pakistan could flare up, diverting India’s security resources away from China and back toward its western border. And Western concerns about what certain policymakers see as democratic backsliding in India could result in some U.S.-Indian estrangement.

But Indians have little patience for being hectored about their democracy, especially from a country where insurrectionists recently breached the capitol and where racial inequalities run deep. They do not have much tolerance for European critiques, either, given the continent’s own harsh immigration policies and sordid colonial history. In fact, the government will not allow any outside powers to browbeat the country, especially when it is finding its sweet spot. Much as in during Nehru’s time, India’s self-interested foreign policy has earned it many partners and very few enemies despite worldwide turmoil. It is learning to punch above its weight and displaying a newfound confidence. It will not be stopped from asserting its international interests.