U.S. Pressure on India Forces New Delhi to Reassess Its Options

The United States’ approach to India since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis has reignited India’s historical grievances toward Washington. But outreach by other major powers—such as Russia and China—to New Delhi illustrates India’s growing clout in international affairs.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, the White House has attempted to rally support for sanctions against Russia and isolate it diplomatically. While the Biden administration had little hope that India would adhere to imposing these sanctions, New Delhi has openly explored ways to circumvent them and has also refrained from condemning Russia at the United Nations.

But India has trodden carefully, refusing to show any support for the Russian invasion and, instead, has been calling for dialogue between Russia and Ukraine to resolve the conflict. In addition to not wanting to offend Ukraine, a country that India also has good relations with, New Delhi does not want to be seen as endorsing Russia’s actions or straying from India’s traditional foreign policy of nonalignment.

Nonetheless, India’s balanced approach has provoked the ire of Washington. The United States has attempted to frame the Ukraine conflict as one between a united front of democratic states against an isolated authoritarian Russia. New Delhi’s cautious, sustained cooperation with Moscow has undermined this portrayal, alongside China’s diplomatic assistance to Russia and Russia’s broader support across the Global South.

On April 11, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized India over human rights violations by government functionaries in a joint press briefing with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The comments drew immediate criticism in Indian political and social circles, particularly as there was no warning from U.S. officials that the issue would be discussed.

Blinken’s remarks follow increasing criticism in the West in the last few years over India’s perceived democratic backsliding under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power in 2014. Doing so has accentuated animosity among many of Modi’s supporters toward the historical role of the West in India over the last few centuries.

Sensing friction, other major powers have sought to capitalize on the divisions between the United States and India. Russia has been particularly receptive to India’s neutrality over Ukraine and has rapidly expanded its oil exports to India in recent months at heavily discounted prices. This has further complemented years of growing energy ties between India and Russia through oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power cooperation, as well as increasing commodity imports between the two nations outside the energy sector.

India has also been Russia’s largest destination for weapons exports for years, spurring further military cooperation. Russia’s traditional support for India at the UN will also no doubt continue thanks to the Indian government’s adherence to maintaining trade.

The EU, like the United States, has attempted to persuade India to take a harsher stance against Russia, and it noted on March 28 that it was “not pleased” with India’s refusal to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine. But the EU has largely limited its criticism, and has instead been focusing on a strategy of pursuing more constructive ties with India.

In 2020, the EU-India Strategic Partnership: A Roadmap to 2025 was adopted to upgrade relations, while in April 2021, the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was revealed, with a major focus on increasing engagement with India. A month later, India and the EU held a virtual meeting to rekindle efforts to forge a free trade deal and boost economic relations.

And in early May of this year, Modi conducted a three-nation tour of Europe. On May 2, the Sixth German-Indian intergovernmental consultations were held in Berlin, where global security and expanding bilateral relations were discussed. On May 4, the second India-Nordic summit took place in Copenhagen, featuring leaders from Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Later that day, Modi flew to Paris to meet with newly reelected French President Emmanuel Macron.

Forging ties with European states through bilateral and plurilateral forums, as well as wider initiatives with the EU, has helped India balance against the heightened pressure it is currently facing from the United States, and it also shows Europe’s willingness to engage with India despite disagreements over Russia.

Arguably, the most significant opportunity for India will be how the conflict in Ukraine changes its relationship with China. The United States’ criticism of India in recent weeks was not missed in Beijing, which has had various border clashes with India for more than 80 years. Since 2020, the Chinese and Indian militaries have engaged in a tense and deadly standoff across parts of their disputed border.

Additionally, China’s support for Pakistan, which has its own territorial disputes with India, as well as India’s safe harbor to Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama—China annexed Tibet in 1951 and has since retained control over the region—has traditionally caused friction between Beijing and New Delhi. As China and India have grown in power since the turn of the century, their overlapping spheres of interests in Asia have also become more pronounced.

But both countries have kept the option for diplomacy open, and the ongoing flare-up on their border has done little but cement the status quo. India has proven it will not be budged by the Chinese military, even if China’s rise in power and influence in recent decades has been more substantial on a global scale.

Tensions have somewhat abated since the most violent period in the Chinese-Indian border standoff from 2020 to 2021. This has led to the perception that China’s “neighborhood diplomacy,” which seeks to entice India through economic initiatives, has taken precedence over the competing “major power diplomacy” strategy, which seeks to use more forceful measures to make India accept China’s regional hegemony.

Any Chinese policy seeking to defuse tensions with India stems from Beijing’s fear of India entering a formal security alliance with the United States, which would severely undermine Chinese ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad for short), which also includes Japan and Australia, besides India and the U.S., has so far not amounted to that. But the relatively sudden creation of the AUKUS security alliance in 2021 between the United States, the UK, and Australia showed that a challenge to China’s plans in the region is still possible.

The shock of the AUKUS announcement clearly helped instigate China into seeking a more cordial relationship with India. Pakistan remains India’s primary concern, while China’s greater focus remains to contend with the United States in the Asia-Pacific. A truce between New Delhi and Beijing would allow them to reorient their foreign policies to deal with their most important concerns, as the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion ushers in a new world order.

Though it will be difficult for India and China to work out their differences, several avenues exist that could facilitate an improvement in their relations. Encouraging India to play a larger role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will help create constructive economic incentives to cement more positive relations between the two countries.

Both India and China are also part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) (alongside Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), an international political, economic, and security bloc. Russia, which enjoys positive relations with both India and China, would relish the opportunity to showcase its diplomatic power by mediating disputes between New Delhi and Beijing in an international institution without Western involvement.

Clearly, major powers are increasingly willing to court India thanks to the country’s growing profile in international affairs. For the second straight year, India is projected to become the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

But pressure from Washington over New Delhi’s response to the Ukraine crisis has also shown the limits of the United States’ hot and cold approach to India. U.S. military forces threatened India during the 1971 India-Pakistan war and sanctioned both India and Pakistan following their nuclear tests in 1998. Furthermore, U.S. support and aid to Pakistan during its war in Afghanistan and the wider war on terror caused significant concern in India.

However, India and the United States have also increased bilateral cooperation over the last 30 years, driven by their support for the democratic process, wariness over China’s strategy in Asia, and efforts to combat Islamic extremism in the region. India’s growling partnership with Russia over security, diplomatic assistance, energy, and wider trade cooperation explains why New Delhi will not budge from its commitment toward nonalignment. Instead of recognizing these realities, Washington has doubled down on critiquing the policies adopted by India.

India’s foreign policy will continue to permit it to attract cooperation from all other major powers. While that includes maintaining a budding relationship with the United States, the absence of any additional incentives to India means that the Biden administration’s efforts to alter India’s foreign policy will continue to be in vain.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.