India and the US are comprehensive global strategic partners, but that doesn’t mean that their relations are perfect, just like no pair of countries’ are. External Affairs Minister (EAM) Jaishankar publicly expressed mild distrust of America last week while speaking virtually at the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum. Asked about Afghan-emanating threats, he revealed that the US hadn’t taken India into confidence when it came to briefing New Delhi about all of the commitments that Washington reached with the Taliban.
Most observers hitherto widely presumed that the US and India were largely on the same page when it came to Afghanistan except for New Delhi’s disagreement over Washington’s withdrawal decision, but this shows that it wasn’t the case at all. Despite being the US’ first-ever Major Defense Partner and a key ally of the American-led Quad, India was evidently left out of the loop when it came to key details about Washington’s negotiations with the Taliban.
This isn’t the first time that India’s US ally cut deals behind its back. Last month’s surprise trilateral Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) military alliance against China was something that New Delhi wasn’t briefed about in advance either, even though it concerns the participation of two fellow Quad allies. EAM Jaishankar might not have wanted to reveal his earlier distrust of America when it came to Afghanistan, considering how sensitive the issue is for their relations but possibly felt comfortable enough finally doing so after AUKUS’ surprise announcement.
The Indian diplomat’s mild distrust of the US is justified but shouldn’t be exaggerated. There’s no impending rift between the two since they still have shared interests in attempting to contain China. Last month’s first-ever in-person Quad Summit showcased how close these two Great Powers remain despite their occasional differences. Be that as it may, EAM Jaishankar’s revelation that the US kept India out of the loop when it came to its dealings with the Taliban should be interpreted as a reality check for their relationship.
Both their most sincere well-wishers and strident critics alike should now realize that Indian-American ties are imperfect. There still exists some noticeable distrust in their relations, as evidenced by AUKUS’s surprise announcement, the US refusal to fully disclose all details about its talks with the Taliban, and Washington’s continued threats to sanction New Delhi for its planned S-400 air defense purchase from Moscow. It’s not unmanageable, but it nevertheless defies overly exaggerated claims of how close they truly are.
India is still practising a form of multi-alignment even if it does seem to have been leaning a lot closer to the US in recent years than towards any of its other partners. At the same time, while the US increasingly hopes that India will take on a more leading role in their shared commitment to contain China, it doesn’t yet feel comfortable giving its new strategic partner the perks that it might extend to other allies such as inside information and sanctions waivers. This is because it’s unsure of how far India will really go in this respect.
The reason why India has retained some aspect of multi-alignment (especially concerning relations with Russia) and the US doesn’t want to privilege its South Asian partner is precisely because of the distrust that they’ve yet to overcome fully. Some policymakers in both countries fear that the other might just be using them. It’s important to draw attention to these perceptions in order to help observers better understand the primary obstacles to their comprehensive global strategic partnership.
Indian concerns are that America won’t adequately support their country if a war breaks out with China. They fear that they might be set up to fail as part of a Machiavellian plot to divide and rule Asia. As for the US, there are worries that India just wants access to high-tech military transfers and American markets but won’t provoke China and cut ties with Russia in exchange. Washington’s worst nightmare is that New Delhi uses it to develop but then comprehensively strengthens the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral to oppose the US.
These mutual suspicions probably won’t be allayed anytime soon. India relies on its imperfect multi-alignment policy vis-a-vis the US and Russia in order to hedge against being abandoned by America, just as the US continues to keep India out of the loop at times and maintains some degree of pressure on it to hedge against New Delhi’s participation alongside Beijing and Moscow in BRICS, RIC, and the SCO. Neither is likely to change their respective policies anytime soon owing to the justified distrust between them.
Any shift by either would indicate a significant change in their grand strategies by making the one who modified their policies disproportionately dependent on the other. They’d likely only put themselves in that comparatively vulnerable position that they’ve thus far felt uncomfortable being in if something seriously changed in their relations with China to make their leadership regard that choice as the “lesser of two evils”. This suggests that their bilateral ties with China most strongly influence this triangle’s balance of power.
The US and India both want to contain China, but neither wants to go as far as to make themselves disproportionately dependent on their Quad partner out of fear that the comparatively more powerful one might later abandon them if they strike a secret deal with Beijing sometime in the future. So long as China is careful with how it responds to their respective containment efforts, it can avoid pushing one or the other into sacrificing its sovereignty to its partner out of “defensive desperation” to contain it more.