As the international community grapples with a turbulent global landscape, New Delhi and Washington have successfully overcome the “hesitations of history” to forge a close alliance in dealing with new geopolitical realities - from China to Afghanistan and beyond.
“This is a practical world. If a country is going to get more powerful, we are going to see its influence in geographies, in areas we have not seen before, we are going to see activities and capabilities that we have not seen before. We will see that from China and I dare say, in some areas, they will see it of us.” - Dr S. Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs, India,
Coming from India's top diplomat, those words succinctly sum up the current mood as a four-month-long acrimonious border dispute continues to simmer due to multiple intrusions into Indian territory by Chinese troops.
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Addressing a virtual US-India leadership summit earlier this week, Dr. S Jaishankar warned that China is asserting power and influence in areas or geographies “we have not seen before”, and that India was not going to watch passively. “This is modus vivendi between India and China and I actually say in my book (The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World), this is extremely consequential for both countries and actually for the rest of the world,” he said.
Dr Jaishankar, who was the longest-serving Indian Ambassador to China from 2009 to 2013, also pointed out that while India's growth might not have been at the same pace as China, it has clearly been one of the major global stories. “So, if you have two countries, two societies with a billion people, each with the history and culture that they have, it is very important that they reach some kind of understanding or equilibrium between them,” he said.
That call for equilibrium is also an acute reminder of the new challenges facing the international community as it navigates a turbulent global landscape, and have had a profound role in reshaping some of India's deepest partnerships, especially the ties with the United States.
Indeed, the transformation of the Indian-US relationship has been one of the greatest foreign policy success stories of the past two decades, and with a great personal chemistry between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump, those ties have convincingly overcome what Modi famously called the “hesitations of history” to forge a strong strategic bond, informed by the new realities of 21st century.
“Estranged democracies during much of the Cold War, India and the United States have, since the turn of the millennium, constructed one of the defining strategic partnerships of the 21st century.
Cooperation has not always come easy or developed as quickly and meaningfully as its advocates hoped, but its geopolitical significance of the evolving partnership is undeniable,” notes Jeff Smith, Research Fellow for South Asia at the Heritage Foundation.
A key fulcrum of that evolving partnership has been the rise of an aggressive and often cavalier China - and US strategists have long seen India as a powerful counterweight to Beijing, a fact corroborated by US Vice-President Mike Pence.
“There is no question that the (India-US) relationship that has been forged over the years, and then under President Trump and Prime Minister Modi, has never been stronger,” Pence told the leadership summit this week. “It will strengthen the hand of those that want to see freedom in the Indo-Pacific, that want to see a future of freedom across Asia. As we (India and the US) stand together more closely for security in our economies, we believe that that will only strengthen the case for a future of freedom. We want a good relationship with every country in the world including China and President Trump has a very good relationship with President Xi (Jinping). But, we are going to continue to stand firm with our allies in the region like India,” Pence said.
Like in the case of China, a similar cohesive US-India strategy is also at play in Afghanistan - where along with counter-terrorism coordination the US drawdown is something that New Delhi continues to look with deep interest.
As the US gears up for crucial presidential elections in November, maintaining the new-found momentum and direction of the India-US partnership will therefore rank high among the priorities of both sides. As thoughtfully placed by Dr Jaishankar, “We Indians should be comforted by the fact that over many administrations, over both Democratic and Republican, our relationship has steadily grown. We look at the ramifications of US policies at different regions.”
As the world scrambles to counter the medical and economic aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, carrying forward what Pence calls this “unbelievable chemistry” between US and India is no mean task, but like in his own words, while the relationship has grown dramatically over the last 20 years, “we think the best is yet to come for the United States and India”.