China’s fast-expanding global influence – especially, in the context of the Gaza war – has already emerged as a key issue for Washington. The US is already in a state of denial, and China’s rising global status is turning into too big an issue for New Delhi to handle without entering into a formal anti-China alliance being put together by the US. Therefore, there is an added incentive for New Delhi to reinforce its alliance with the US in an even more anti-China way. This was the major development out of the fifth annual US-India “2+2 dialogue” held on November 10, 2023, in India. As a result, India is reinforcing Washington’s global position on almost all key flashpoints, ranging from Ukraine, and Palestine to the Indo-Pacific region.
The joint statement that came out of New Delhi points in this direction. The statement noted both countries as “natural and trusted partners” seeking “to promote a resilient, rules-based international order with respect for international law, including the UN Charter, sovereignty and territorial integrity” and taking steps to develop a joint approach to “developments in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East, Ukraine among other regions. The ministers expressed mutual deep concern over the war in Ukraine and its tragic humanitarian consequences”.
The joint vision is a prelude to a strategic alliance between New Delhi and Washington. For decades, India championed ‘non-alignment’. But, in the wake of profound shifts in the world due to the two ongoing military conflicts in Eastern Europe (Ukraine) and the Middle East (Palestine), the geopolitical landscape is shaking badly, forcing a great many countries to adjust their positions.
The fact that India is essentially reinforcing Washington’s position against China (and even Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine) means that India is also supporting Washington against two of its key competitors with a view to neutralising their bid to make the world multipolar. This is the key part of India’s shifting foreign policy. Where India might have previously sensed a place for itself in a multipolar world, that dream remains far from close to being realised within today’s polarised global context. Its reason is that the struggle between the US and China, on the one hand and between Russia and NATO, on the other hand, has strengthened US rivals far more than it has benefitted the US. The fact that China is gaining influence means the gap between India and China is, instead of shrinking, fast expanding. China’s economy is already five times larger than India’s, with a GDP of US$ 17.7 trillion versus India’s GDP of US$ 3.2 trillion. The same goes for both countries’ military power.
It makes sense for India to, at least for now, drive its growth and rise within a bipolar world. And, to achieve that, New Delhi has decided to shake hands with Washington. It needs to have Washington on its side in order to neutralise what New Delhi sees as China’s hegemonic rise in Asia and beyond.
With a view to presenting a competition to China, both Washington and New Delhi are also targeting Afghanistan, where the Taliban appear to have developed strong working ties with Beijing. Notably, the logic of Beijing’s normalised ties with the Taliban is underpinned by non-interference in questions and issues of Afghanistan’s politics and society under Taliban rule. While short of recognition, the Taliban’s ties with Beijing – and the fact that Kabul has been successful in largely preventing terror attacks on Chinese interests in Afghanistan – has strengthened the group’s claims to power. For China, these ties matter because Afghanistan is a strategic territory within Beijing’s BRI projects. Therefore, China became the first country to appoint a formal ambassador to Kabul in October, and both countries are already talking about opening the Wakhan Corridor to boost trade and ultimately open a new territorial link between China and Central Asia via Afghanistan.
However, the US and India see these developments differently. Whereas Washington sees it as yet another diplomatic success for China and a step towards the consolidation of its Silk Roads projects, for India, Beijing’s success means that its hopes for developing any ties with the Taliban have shrunk significantly. There is, therefore, an incentive for New Delhi to join hands with Washington to attack the Taliban because it cannot possibly compete with China in Afghanistan. It is for this reason that Afghanistan featured prominently in the meeting. The joint statement basically sought to de-legitimise the Taliban (to internationally complicate China’s terms of engagement with the group) when it said that,
“The Ministers called on the Taliban to adhere to their commitment to prevent any group or individual from using the territory of Afghanistan to threaten the security of any country, and noted UNSC Resolution 2593 (2021), which demands that Afghan territory not be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorists, or to plan or finance terrorist attacks”.
The statement also targeted the Taliban’s handling of human and women’s rights. This growing convergence could have crucial implications for the future of Asia. India’s growing willingness to toe the US line could significantly militarise Asia. New Delhi is all set to host the next meeting of the QUAD, a group comprising India, the US, Australia, and Japan. Although it is not yet a military alliance, it appears to be moving in this direction due to the recent emphasis we have seen on the security aspect in the “2+2 dialogue”. To quote the joint statement,
“The Ministers reaffirmed the importance of a free, open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific and renewed their shared desire to consolidate their dialogue and collaboration through the Quad. They emphasized the important role of the Quad as a force for global good for the peoples of the Indo-Pacific.”
Being seen as a “force for global good” only implies the idea that the US and India see a lot of geopolitical potential in the alliance in terms of achieving a common global objective, i.e., keeping the US-led “rule-based” international order intact. While the US has long been pushing for making the QUAD a military alliance, India’s close embrace of the US will significantly facilitate this possibility.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.