Summers in Washington DC are sultry, scolding and heated both for the weather and for the discourse emanating from think-tanks, academia and the embassies.
One such summer day in DC, an unnamed diplomat, at an unnamed event, unequivocally stated that India is not a strategic counterweight to China. India is one-fifth of China’s economy, and the only geopolitical power that can compete with China would be the United States.
Where does this kerfuffle originate from?
The robust partnership between New Delhi and Washington rests on the pillars of strategic partnership on defence and the union of foreign policy goals such as the Quad, on mitigating a belligerent Chinese threat, and on aspiring to a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’.
Other reasons for this growing US-India ties are India’s burgeoning economy, a strong diaspora connection epitomised by Indian Americans at the highest echelons of the public and private sector, and — the secret sauce — the understanding of shared democratic values.
Of course, there is no economic altruism towards India, apart from a quid-pro-quo for US exports and the elephant in the room, which is China. The US has had many adversaries in the past, from the British Empire, to Nazi Germany to Imperial Japan, to the Soviet Union, and then the economic competitor in post-war Japan. But neither of them came close to dislodging Washington from the economic totem pole.
China today, with its economy hovering near $14 trillion, is 60 percent of the US economy.
Beijing has steadily increased its portfolio of US Treasury securities over the last few decades. As of January, China is estimated to own close to $1.095 trillion, approximately 4 percent, of the $28 trillion US national debt, exceeding that of Japan’s possession.
It’s no wonder that in the television series Madam Secretary, Chinese Foreign Minister Chen, addressed his US counterpart saying “in the year 2000, China owned only 6 percent of US foreign debt, now Beijing owns more than 21 percent in US foreign debt. When China comes for you, it won’t be with missiles and cyber-attacks, but will come to repossess you”.
Tit For Tat
In light of these developments, it’s no wonder that DC-based think-tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a report on how Washington seeks to counter a rising China, with India as its “natural ally, sorry strategic partner”.
The report touches on how India’s abundance of highly-skilled technical professionals and strong political and cultural ties with the US would help mitigate Beijing’s clout. At the same time, there are cautionary notes that emerge pertaining to the ‘overreliance’ on India’s IT services, given that the US and India have had trade disagreements.
Both countries have been engaged in a tit for tat tariff war since 2019. India was hit hard by the former US President Trump’s aluminium and steel tariffs. New Delhi slapped tariffs on 28 US products after Washington withdrew its 46-year General System of Preferences (GSP) in June 2019. By withdrawing the GPS, India was removed from being exempt from billions of dollars’ worth of US taxes and levies.
A Cautious India
Furthermore, the US ‘strict immigration requirements on the H-1B talented skill worker visa has affected Indian IT giants the most.
However, Indian diplomats are cautious on being anyone’s counterweights. For too long India has been accused of being pusillanimous at the world stage. India values its strategic autonomy, in some ways a metamorphosis of its traditional non-aligned stance from the Cold War. While the recent border skirmishes and tensions in Galwan Valley, Ladakh have strained ties between New Delhi and Beijing, India is careful to not piggyback on US’ ire towards China, despite its own qualms with Chinese belligerence.
“The Quad without India would be seen as anti-China and BRICS without India is seen as anti-US” said the earlier mentioned diplomat alluding to India being the placating force as Beijing and Washington will continue to lock horns.
There has always been a sense of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’
(World is One Family) in India’s global outlook. Friends with (almost) everyone, alliances with none, and perhaps something that the traditional notion of superpowers in the US, erstwhile USSR and China have all eschewed from in their sense of political and economic hegemonic quest.