As the world's great powers enter an era of renewed competition, India finds itself in a bind. Its relationships with China, Russia and the United States serve an array of occasionally conflicting strategic purposes in support of its ambitions as one of Asia's rising powers. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in China's Qingdao, which will run June 9 and 10, could offer India a chance to exhibit the strength of its bonds with Moscow at a time when Washington is brandishing the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to force New Delhi to scale back its reliance on Russian arms. India, however, resents such exhortations — especially when it has already started shifting away from Russian arms purchases. As a result, India's unwillingness or inability to bend on its arms commitment to Russia could complicate its nascent defense cooperation with the United States in the short term. But wary that coercing India to eschew Russia could have the opposite effect — thereby complicating efforts to balance out Beijing — the United States is unlikely to take too hard a line on New Delhi's defense ties with Moscow.
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India is courting ties with the United States in an effort to counter the rise of China amid an intensifying Sino-Indian rivalry — a trend we highlight in our 2018 Annual Forecast. The long-term trend of greater India-U.S. cooperation, however, is facing short-term complications because of the U.S.-Russia standoff. India's desire to retain its strategic autonomy suggests it will rebuff U.S. efforts to pressure it to further scale back arms purchases from Moscow.
India's China Problem
India's ties to the great powers relate to two key tenets of its grand strategy: the need to ensure its primacy in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region and the need to maintain its strategic autonomy. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, its foreign policy has assumed a distinctly multilateral tone in support of a more dynamic role abroad for Asia's third largest economy. However, India's geopolitical imperatives dictate that before New Delhi can definitively extend its reach to the far corners of the world, it must first consolidate its standing in its own neighborhood. And to do that, it must contend with the mounting challenge posed by its greatest strategic rival: China.
China's spectacular rise on the crest of an export-led economic boom fundamentally transformed the Middle Kingdom from a historically insular nation to one thoroughly integrated with the world economy. Now, as Beijing embarks upon a drastic shift toward a consumption-driven model, President Xi Jinping is reviving the ancient Silk Road through his signature Belt and Road Initiative. But the initiative's flagship project, the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, crosses through Gilgit-Baltistan, a disputed territory India claims in full as part of the greater region of Kashmir. In spite of India's protests, China has unsurprisingly refused to halt construction on the corridor. What's more, China is funding a raft of other projects for the massive initiative across South Asia in tandem with its growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean, both of which feed into India's fears of strategic encirclement.
Between Washington and Moscow
This geopolitical reality is helping drive India's relationship with the United States. Specifically, New Delhi is compensating for its military imbalance against Beijing by advancing a defense partnership with Washington. The United States, for its part, is only too happy to cooperate with another Asian country that can help it balance against China. And as if to underscore the point, the Pentagon changed the name of its Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command on May 31, highlighting the importance of the Indian Ocean — and, by extension, India — in its strategic calculations.
Closer U.S.-Indian ties on the strategic front do not preclude differences of opinion in the tactical domain.
Still, closer U.S.-Indian ties on the strategic front do not preclude differences of opinion in the tactical domain. Last year, the U.S. Congress passed CAATSA to discourage third countries from engaging in significant defense transactions with Russia. This is problematic for India on two counts. First, India's historically underdeveloped domestic manufacturing base has forced it to acquire arms from abroad. As a result, it is the world's largest importer of arms, and Russia, in turn, is its biggest supplier. And second, India resents outsiders seeking to dictate the terms of its relationships with other states, viewing such meddling as a clear affront to its strategic autonomy.
India has so far rebuffed U.S. efforts to scale back its reliance on Russian arms. On May 27, New Delhi completed the pricing for a deal to purchase multiple units of Russia's S-400 Triumf air defense missile system as part of a wider effort to enhance its defenses along its borders with China and Pakistan. Now, Moscow and New Delhi are exploring a way to bypass CAATSA before officially announcing the deal later this year. Because New Delhi had already begun to reduce its Russian arms purchases in favor of U.S. weaponry — even before the introduction of CAATSA — it resents any attempt by Washington to accelerate the process. Indeed, Russia's share of Indian arms imports has fallen from 79 percent during 2008-12 to 62 percent during 2013-17, whereas Washington's share during the respective periods rose from less than 4 percent to 15 percent.
The Balancing Act
Because of India's overdependence on arms imports, its efforts to cultivate greater domestic arms production while diversifying its suppliers will likely weaken the defense component of its relationship with Russia over the long term. Naturally, however, the preponderance of Russian weapons in the Indian military, as well as Moscow's offers of technology transfer and opportunities for joint production that bolster India's strategic autonomy, indicate this dependence will not diminish anytime soon. Ultimately, India's desire to thwart Chinese hegemony in Asia will ensure it continues to view Russia as a country that counterbalances Beijing, leading it to keep the relationship for its diplomatic heft, which includes a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Given that New Delhi is unlikely to abandon all its links with Moscow, U.S.-India defense cooperation will likely proceed at a staggered pace in the short term. In fact, House Armed Services Committee Chair William Thornberry has admitted as much, noting the S-400 deal could impinge upon India's acquisition of U.S.-made Predator drones. But India plays a critical strategic role in Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy, so the Pentagon is unlikely to impose an extreme interpretation of CAATSA on New Delhi. U.S. military officials have recognized that using defense ties as leverage over partners can lead to diminished influence. After all, Pakistan, a country that used to rely heavily on the United States for arms, pivoted toward China after Washington repeatedly cut defense aid, resulting in a loss of U.S. influence over Islamabad.
India, of course, has its own cards to play against the United States. When the foreign and defense ministers of both countries sit down next month to discuss a host of issues, including two remaining foundational defense agreements, New Delhi could refuse to cooperate. The first agreement is the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa), which involves the sharing of encrypted technology and secure communications between the two countries' militaries. The second is the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which would enable Washington to share geospatial intelligence with New Delhi. And if India sees the United States as a nonreliable source partner, it could also resist the purchase of U.S. weaponry — Lockheed Martin is pitching its F-16 to India while Boeing is offering its F/A-18 Super Hornet — as part of an air force contract.
Though a giant itself, India finds itself between two great powers in terms of defense links. On one side lies Russia, with whom it has a longstanding relationship, and on the other, the United States, with whom it is pursuing a burgeoning partnership. Whichever path New Delhi ends up taking, one thing is clear: India's vast arms market and strategic significance as a U.S. partner in the Indo-Pacific give the country its own form of leverage, which it will use to maximize its self-interest — regardless of what course the great powers chart.