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Will India Ally with America? – Analysis

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By S. Kalyanaraman*

India’s defence relationship with America has steadily deepened since the mid-2000s. Will this trend culminate in an alliance between the two countries? No, is the answer of a number of scholars and policy makers, who contend that India will never enter into an alliance because of its commitment to the principle of strategic autonomy.1 There are at least three problems with this contention. One, it is premised on a restrictive and ahistorical definition of what an alliance is. Two, it overlooks the fact that nonalignment and its post-Cold War offshoot, strategic autonomy, have not been conceived of as inviolate principles that have to be adhered to at any cost and in all circumstances. And three, the obsession in the discourse on India’s sense of self as reflected in the principles of nonalignment and strategic autonomy has led to the complete neglect of crucial issues that are likely to determine whether the two countries would enter into an alliance or not.

Restrictive And Ahistorical Definition Of Alliance

Analysts and scholars who argue that India will not enter into an alliance with America have in mind a restrictive and ahistorical definition of what an alliance is. An alliance, in their view, ought to possess three features: 1) institutionalised military cooperation between the parties, 2) a firm commitment to use force under defined conditions, and 3) a high level of synchronisation of foreign policy positions. In other words, an alliance must resemble the type of relationship that America fostered with its Asian and European Asian allies during the Cold War. This is, however, a narrow definition that excludes other types of inter-state agreements dealing with the provision of military assistance. 

Commitments of military assistance in alliances have assumed different forms. These include: 

  • unilateral guarantees extended by one state to another; 
  • pacts that call only for consultations if one party to the agreement were to find itself at war with a third country;
  • pledges of non-aggression or neutrality when one party is engaged in war with a third country; 
  • commitments to come to the defence of the other party when it comes under attack from a third country; and, 
  • promises to fight alongside the other party even if the latter were to initiate war against a third country. 

Given this broader range of alliance agreements that states have entered into during the last few centuries, Professor Bruce Russett defined an alliance as: “a formal agreement among a limited number of countries concerning the conditions under which they will or will not employ military force.”2

India’s 1971 Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Union squarely falls within the ambit of Russett’s definition of alliance. The crux of that treaty lay in two key provisions. One, India and the Soviet Union undertook not to participate in any alternate alliance aimed against the other, and not to militarily assist a third country that is engaged in war with the other. And two, they undertook to consult each other if one of them came under attack “in order to remove such threat and to take appropriate effective measures to ensure peace and security of their countries.”3

Nonalignment Not an Inviolate Principle

Nonalignment was devised as a policy to navigate through the Cold War. It was not conceived of as an inviolate principle to remain committed to at any cost. Even the originator of that policy, Jawaharlal Nehru, averred after the 1962 War that “there is no nonalignment vis-à-vis China.”4Further, according to Selig Harrison, Nehru envisaged the Soviet Union as India’s second front and India as the Soviet Union’s second front in the event of either country finding itself at war with China.5

If nonalignment did not preclude Nehru from envisaging the Soviet Union as India’s second front, Indira Gandhi from taking India into an alliance with the Soviet Union, and the Janata Government from discarding the alliance with the Soviet Union during the late 1970s, there is no reason to conclude that strategic autonomy, which is a post-Cold War offshoot of nonalignment, would prevent India from allying with America if a need for such an alliance were to arise. 

Factors in Alliance Decisions

If so, what factors are likely to influence India’s decision to enter into an alliance with America? An alignment of interests and ideology already exists between India and the United States (US). They are both democracies, which are moreover committed to a liberal, rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. And they face challenges to their security and interests from the same source, namely, China. But affinities of interest and ideology have never been sufficient conditions for the formation of alliances. India and America were democracies during the Cold War years as well, but they were estranged democracies throughout those decades. Even when they agreed in the late 1950s and the first half of the 1960s about China as a source of threat, they failed to forge an alliance due to various factors including their inability to come to an understanding on how India should tackle the threat posed by China.6

Ultimately, the crux of the alliance question lies in the extent to which each side is willing to make a military commitment to the other. Whether a state decides to make a stronger or weaker or no militant commitment to the other depends on two factors: 1) the extent to which it shares with the potential ally interests that are in conflict with those of the adversary, and 2) the extent of mutual military dependence with the potential ally.7

With respect to shared interests, India does share with America an interest in promoting a rules-based liberal order. It also shares with America an interest in preventing Chinese hegemony in Asia, but would also ultimately prefer a multipolar Asia rather than reinforce and perpetuate the US primacy. For its part, America views Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India, but has not taken a position on Aksai Chin. Moreover, it was lukewarm during the Doklam crisis and may not fully support India on all territorial and security issues relating to China. All in all, while there may not be a complete harmony of interests between the two countries, there is a degree of alignment in their positions when it comes to their respective issues in conflict with China. But, as yet, the degree of convergence does not appear sufficient to make an explicit alliance possible to envisage.

The other determinant of alliance decisions, which is military dependence, is a function of four other factors: 1) the intensity of threat posed by the rival, 2) the state’s need for military assistance from an ally to tackle the threat, 3) the ally’s capacity to provide military assistance, and, 4) the availability of alternate allies.

There is no denying the fact that India’s threat perception vis-à-vis China has not diminished in any significant manner in recent years. In fact, there is a certain degree of consensus among analysts that the threat posed by China to India’s security and interests is likely to increase in the years to come as China’s power grows, its ambitions expand, and its ability to project power beyond its borders increases. Even the authors of Nonalignment 2.0 stated categorically that China constitutes “the single most important challenge for Indian strategy” because of its increasing ability to directly impinge upon India’s “geopolitical space” in Asia.8

Does India need military assistance from allies to cope with the China threat? In terms of sheer numbers, the military balance is indeed in China’s favour. China’s development of infrastructure in Tibet has considerably enhanced its ability to mobilise a greater number of forces in a faster timeframe. However, China’s continued preoccupation with security challenges along its eastern seaboard and the constraints imposed by terrain, weather and distance in projecting power through and from Tibet limit the scope and intensity of the military challenge that China can generate against India. That means India is unlikely to need direct military assistance from America or any other potential ally during a limited India-China war. What India might need instead are: diplomatic support including in the United Nations Security Council, continued supply of weapons and spares, intelligence about the adversary’s military dispositions, etc. 

While diplomatic and limited material support might suffice in the context of a limited India-China border conflict, India’s military needs and dependence on allies are bound to be considerably higher in the event of a two-front war, irrespective of whether it is China or Pakistan that joins the fray. While the scope and intensity of Chinese military operations would probably remain the same because of the geopolitical and geographical constraints highlighted earlier, the territorial and security consequences of fighting China in a two-front war are likely to be rather high. 

America does have the capacity to provide greater military support for India under these circumstances. Given Russia’s increasing dependence upon and growing partnership with China, it is no longer a likely alternate alliance partner for India. In effect, India’s military dependence on America is likely to be higher in the event of a two-front war with China. But would America be willing to come to India’s assistance? What kind of military assistance and the risks associated with it would America be willing to undertake? Would the kind and extent of assistance America may be willing to offer be sufficient for India to tackle the threat from China? Answers to these questions would be a key determinant of India’s decision to ally or not with America. 

While India is likely to become more militarily dependent on America in the event of a two-front war with China, India’s capacity to undertake reciprocal commitments in support of the US in the event of a China-US conflict is limited. India does have the capacity to contribute to the common effort in the Indian Ocean Region, but its role in the primary theatre of a potential US-China conflict is likely to be rather limited. Further, India’s capacity to undertake diversionary military action along the land border is highly constrained by geographical factors as well as by a lack of sufficient offensive military capability. Even if the mountain strike corps gets raised with its full complement of weapons and equipment, India’s offensive capability along the China front is likely to remain limited.

In sum, it is not the commitment to the hoary principle of strategic autonomy that will determine whether India enters into an alliance with America. Instead, it is more likely to be a function of two main factors: the degree to which Indian and American positions align or diverge on their respective issues of conflict with China; and, the extent to which each needs the military assistance of the other and is willing to contribute to the other’s military effort.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.



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The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. IDSA has been consistently ranked over the last few years as one of the top think tanks in Asia.

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