Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

India and the Global Balance of Power

| June 30, 2023

Official statements about India and America's "shared values" do not make an alliance. Following the basic logic of balance-of-power politics, India and the US seem fated not for marriage but for a long-term partnership — one that might last only as long as both countries remain preoccupied with China.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with US President Joe Biden in the White House this month, many observers saw the makings of an evolving alliance against China. But such expectations are overwrought. As Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has made clear, a formal alliance is not in the cards, even if it is still possible to maintain long-term partnerships in a multipolar world of "frenemies."

India has a long history of post-colonial mistrust of alliances. But it has also long been preoccupied with China, at least since the Himalayas border war the two countries fought in 1962. While serving in President Jimmy Carter's administration, I was sent to India to encourage Prime Minister Morarji Desai to support a South Asian nuclear-weapons-free zone, lest the burgeoning nuclear race between India and Pakistan get out of hand. As my Indian hosts told me at the time, they wanted to be compared not to Pakistan in South Asia, but to China in East Asia.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States and India began 20 years of annual “Track Two" talks between former diplomats who were still in close contact with those in government. (The American delegation, for example, included figures such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Holbrooke.) The Indian participants shared their US counterparts' concerns about al-Qaeda and other extremist threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they also made clear that they objected to the Americans' tendency to think about India and Pakistan as "linked by a hyphen."

The Indians were also concerned about China, but they wanted to maintain the appearance of good relations — and access to the Chinese market. China has long been one of India's largest trading partners, but its economy has grown much more rapidly than India's. Using market exchange rates, China represented 3.6% of world GDP by the turn of this century, but India did not reach that level until the 2020s.

In the 2000s, as China's growth far outpaced theirs, the Indians in the Track Two talks worried not just about China's support for Pakistan, but also about its increasing global power more broadly. As one Indian strategist put it, "We have decided we dislike you less than we dislike China" — and this was long before the 2020 skirmish on the disputed Himalayan border, where 20 Indian soldiers were killed...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Joseph S. Nye Jr..“India and the Global Balance of Power.” Project Syndicate, June 30, 2023.