In the first episode of the Eurasian Connectivity podcast, New Lines Institute Senior Director Dr. Kamran Bokhari and U.S. Institute of Peace Senior Advisor Dr. Daniel Markey discuss how the U.S. can prioritize mutual strategic interests with India while not placating New Delhi’s current illiberal trajectory.
Hi, everyone. My name is Kamran Bokhari. I’m the Senior Director for Eurasian Security and Prosperity Portfolio here at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, and this is our first episode of a podcast called Eurasian Connectivity. And my guest here is Daniel Markey, who’s a Senior Advisor on South Asia at the United States Institute of Peace and a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University in the School of Advanced International Studies, specifically the Foreign Policy Institute there.
In the past, Dr. Markey has been a senior research professor at SAIS. He was also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations for several years. And prior to that he was part of the state department’s policy planning staff in the early to mid two thousands. He’s the author of two fascinating books, China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia, and No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad. And I may add that he’s a friend of the show. Hi Dan.
Yeah. I’m more than happy to. Good to see you.
Likewise. So let’s begin this conversation on the future of US-India relations from your piece that you wrote for Foreign Affairs. It was a very long detailed piece I thoroughly enjoyed, was very informative. But for the purposes of this conversation, I think it’s worth sort of summarizing your findings and your key points that you’re making.
So if I understood correctly, you are basically making the argument that, well, hey, this is how India is with its illiberal turn, its majoritarian form of democracy that is in the making and there’s not much we can do about it and therefore we should just deal with India where our interests converge. And at the same time you also say that we should not continue to praise India’s democratic credentials. So I’ll stop there and I’ll let you pick it up.
No, I think you’ve got most of the critical features there. I’m trying to find a helpful, I think, constructive balance in US policy that I think can help us navigate a relationship with India that is simultaneously strategically relevant, in terms of other US aims, and also somewhat too significantly more challenging than I think some of its biggest champions and boosters would maybe like to believe. So on the one hand, I certainly see that India, in terms of our broader aims with respect to China and global geopolitical competition with China, India is an important player in all of that. At the same time, we shouldn’t expect this India that’s currently governed by the BJP, Narendra Modi, to necessarily support all of our aims in our global geopolitical competition with China. And especially shouldn’t expect that India will be kind of a stalwart champion of liberal democratic aims that the Biden administration says are really central to the way that it sees the world.
And so what India or the direction that India goes in terms of its own politics at home and what it does abroad, I think are largely going to be determined within India itself. So we shouldn’t spend a lot of our time trying to shape India. We have rather little influence I think in New Delhi or over Indian politics, but we have influence over our own policies and our own expectations for what we think we can get from India. So I think we can do a lot more on some basic areas of cooperation as we are dealing with the challenge posed by China, but we shouldn’t overstate the nature, or mischaracterize the nature, of that partnership. So for instance, we shouldn’t be kind of proclaiming the closeness of our relationship based on shared democratic values when increasingly those values are really up in the air in terms of the way that India is governing itself.
One last point, and I think this is a piece of the article that sometimes got a little bit misunderstood, the opening of the article, I go back through a kind of longer history of the US-India relationship and I look at all of the ways in which American presidents have had faulty expectations for how India would see the world and the kinds of policies that India would have. And I’m not just talking about recent American presidents, I mean going back to FDR, through the Cold War, through the early post Cold War and to the present. And in all of those cases, we see evidence of American presidents believing that because India is a democracy that we will naturally see eye to eye on areas of acute interest for the United States. And American presidents have been disappointed again and again, and that’s because India, even when it has been pretty good democracy has just seen the world through a different lens and has had different priorities, different expectations.
And the seminal one that opens the article is the difference between FDR, who thought India should basically help the west, help the United States fight the Nazis and the Japanese and prioritize that war. And then Gandhi, who saw India’s principal challenge as fighting for independence from the British. And not surprisingly the two didn’t see eye to eye and they were both Democrats in different ways, just seeing the world differently. So I think that sense of reduced expectation or right-sized expectation is where I’d like us to be. I’d like us to correctly characterize India and to use that to then pursue what I think are still a wide range of mutual interests with one another.
So thank you for that summary and I’d like to ask you to unpack for us, where do you see India going domestically in terms of its domestic politics? Is this a condition that will persist, this illiberal phase of Indian democracy, or is it something here to stay for a much longer time? Obviously we don’t have a crystal ball and can’t tell the future, but I guess what I’m asking is, there’s a long history of India being a secular liberal democracy. Has that really transformed permanently? Because I don’t see that being eroded away. Yes, the BJP has a sizable majority in parliament, and obviously Prime Minister Modi is very popular, but then there’s a state, there’s a culture, there’s a tradition, there’s civil society, where are they? I mean, are they just sort of being dragged along by this new wave of ideology?
Right. And this is a core and important question. I think that, let me step back a little bit. When Modi came into office the first time around, when he won his first national election and became Prime Minister, most of the Indian political experts that I spoke to, tended to believe that regardless of whatever kind of political ideology that he might bring into office, whatever plans or expectations or ambitions that would be connected to him because of his background with the BJP and RSS, Hindu nationalism more broadly, he would be moderated by India’s complexity, by India’s kind of cross-cutting cleavages of linguistic differences, ethnic differences, religious differences, socioeconomic interests, regional differences, all of these things make India an incredibly difficult country to govern, generally, but also maybe more relevant, difficult to consolidate politically under any particular leader. And because of India’s federal system, no Prime Minister totally dominates the lives of Indian citizens.
State level politics are still very important. So what happens in New Delhi isn’t the sum total of what moves the Indian state. So basically what I got was an argument about how he’d probably be moderated, how Hindu nationalism may be a passing element of his governing, but it wouldn’t be so defining, and that India would be resilient, that other features of Indian state and society would continue to make it an effective democracy going forward.
And there are people who will still make similar arguments, but what I think we’ve seen over his first two terms in office, is a steadily hollowing out of the many features of the Indian state and of aspects of Indian civil society that would push back against the centralization of political control and the dominance of a single party. So examples of that are to be found in the media. India has had a reasonably to very free media at various points in its history, but I would say right now a lot of the media is being increasingly corporatized, which means it has profit motives, and many of those profit motives are being manipulated by the Indian government in ways that narrow the terms of national debate.
So that’s one structural way in which the pressures in favor of democratic or open and free society are being pushed to the side. But it’s not just that. I mean journalists are much less free to ask questions than they used to. The example of Modi having to take a question at the press conference here in Washington DC when he came to visit, and that was a very unusual thing for him to be subjected to, is a reminder of how far India’s free media has fallen in terms of its ability to question political leaders inside of India. So you see that in the media, you see questions being raised about the ability of the judiciary to rein in the government at various levels, and the extent to which it seems like they’re facing significant political pressure. And you see this in terms of pressures being placed on opposition politicians, investigations being launched against them, pressure campaigns and tactics that make it harder for them to compete.
And then most recently you’ve seen this, I think still quite contentious and we’ll see where it lands, but academic report by an economist in New Delhi who has done work that suggests that perhaps India’s much championed or sort of touted national elections may have been in fact to some degree manipulated, through we don’t know exactly what mechanisms, but have led the BJP to have greater success than perhaps it actually deserved in the national elections the last time around. And what this particular incident suggests is both, are India’s elections free and fair in the way that we think they are? One, and two, what do we make of the freedom of the academy in a society where this professor seems to have at least temporarily been hounded out of his job. So there are a lot of features that really raise some pretty significant questions.
I’m trying to give you the sense of an erosion of the democratic reality in India. And then the next question, and I’ll be briefer here, is whether those features are resilient enough to pop back up if and when Narendra Modi is no longer the super popular figure that he is right now, because I agree with you, he’s super popular. He has the ability to win elections legitimately himself. His party’s not always as popular as he is. Eventually he’ll leave the scene one way or the other.
And what will happen after that? Will India revert back to being a vibrant, pluralistic, to some extent secular democracy? Or will some of the things that Modi and his party have brought into place be locked into that society? A powerful state, a dominant political party, and an opposition media, a civil society that’s been cowed and threatened and repressed in ways that make them ineffective in standing up against that government? That’s the question that I think we should be looking at. We don’t have an answer yet, and I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t say that I know what the answer is, but I’m concerned because it’s already gone further, in terms of the consolidation of power and the repression that we’ve seen, it has already gone further than I think many intelligent, sophisticated Indian political observers expected it would go when he came into office in the first place.
So let me follow up on that. So on one hand there is this ideology that is corrosive to Indian democracy. On the other hand, this is a party that’s been legitimately elected, that seems to be managing the economy reasonably okay, it’s not great, there are problems and we’ll get into the foreign policy and the geo-economic rise of India here in a bit. But, with that happening, the ability of the current ruling party under the leadership of Modi, because I agree with you that post-Modi, the situation could change dramatically, but for now, it seems like the trajectory that India is on, we’re recording this on a day when the Indians have landed on the moon, and there’s much fanfare about that.
So I think that what I’m trying to ask here is, surely it’s in the interest of the ruling party to contain this very useful tool to bag votes, which is the ideology, with the imperative to run the modern economy and take it forward. And so surely this isn’t something that they would want to lose. It’s a difficult balancing act. But where do you see this balancing act? I mean obviously there are differences within the BJP and its broader ecosystem in terms of how much emphasis on ideology and how you balance that with commitments that have to do with economics and foreign policy.
Right. So this is an argument that’s also frequently made in terms of, Modi was expected when he came into office to, having been Chief Minister in Gujarat, that he would know that he needed to prioritize the national economy to win votes and that the BJP would only stay in office as long as it actually delivered. And delivering was often connected, as you’re describing, with the imperatives of a developmental state. Basically grow the economy stupid, and that’s the way that you will succeed in terms of winning votes and also achieving national goals. And you really need to put this other set of ideological commitments to the side. What I think we’ve seen is a kind of a halfway, you characterize it as reasonably successful management of the national economy, I would say yeah, reasonably successful, but some important missteps. Demonetization is always the one that’s pointed out.
But of course this government from any outside perspective didn’t manage the Covid situation terribly well. Obviously that’s all relative. We haven’t covered ourselves in glory here in the United States on that score, but it obviously was quite devastating, certainly in New Delhi and other parts of India. So there have been other missteps and the pace of economic reforms that would invite a windfall of foreign direct investment and would really spur the economy to new heights. Those things haven’t happened in the way that a number of more liberal-leaning economists certainly would’ve liked to see and thought that they might see out of a Modi government from the outset. So that’s my way of saying I think we’ve seen a little less on the economy than at least boosters would’ve hoped or expected to see out of Modi. And then we’ve seen a little more actually on the ideological agenda than those folks would’ve liked to see either.
So definitely, India’s policies under Modi with respect to Kashmir have been dramatic and have an ideological component to them. That doesn’t mean they’re unpopular, I think they’re broadly popular, but they have a very direct consequence, certainly for the Muslim community and for Kashmiris themselves. And that has been largely a political repression, which continues. We have definitely seen major political fights with other parts of Indian society, certainly over the Farm Bill, with the Sikh community, largely in Punjab. We have definitely seen with the Citizen Amendment Act, the CAA, fights that have direct relevance to the very large Muslim minority in India and have clear connections to, in terms of their motivation, to an ideological agenda.
More recently, we’ve seen a lot of important fights over how history is being taught in Indian schools, and what kind of national curriculum they’ll use. All of these have an ideological component to them as well. And then we’ve, certainly in rhetoric and style, if not always just in substance, we’ve seen the deepening of a Hindu nationalist identity in things like the symbolism and ceremony associated with the opening of the new Parliament building in New Delhi. So I guess if you put it all together, I think we’re seeing more ideology and ideologically driven policy as the driving features of this government, than I think at least more liberal and business-oriented proponents of the Modi government would’ve liked from the outset.
So before we get on to geo-economics, I just want to close this section of conversation with the follow-up question. Surely Modi and his associates know that the ideology can destabilize things, but what they’ve achieved could also be eroded. If communal tensions get to a point where it leads to social unrest, we’re already seeing a microcosm of that communal strife in Manipur, where we’re having a Christian tribe and a Hindu tribe battle it out while the authorities can do very little. God forbid, that expands to the core of India, and this is in the Northeast, then what? I mean, surely they’re factoring that in. I wonder what their thoughts are in terms of what their game plan is. They have to realize they’re playing with fire.
Yeah. You and probably other listeners will remember that this was an argument that President Obama made when he was being interviewed while Modi was here in Washington DC about exactly that, exacerbating historical cleavages within Indian society in ways that will lead to violence and really throw the entire Indian national project into jeopardy. And that is absolutely an area of concern and ought to be. I think that more clever members of the Hindu nationalist political community will appreciate that pushing too far too fast would actually harm their project and harm India. But I also fear that there is a deep-seated kind of ideologically driven agenda, which is extreme. And you hear that in some of the rhetoric and some of the expectations, which I’m not sure we should take them all literally, but I do think we have to take them seriously when they talk about the Muslim community in derogatory, very violent terms.
And when space is given to violent groups within Indian society, it seems with a degree of impunity and an openness by the state to allow it to persist far longer than it ought to, to attack minorities. And so yeah, people ought to know better. And smart Indians ought to know that if you push this system too far too fast, it is diverse enough that it will come apart at the seams, and you can’t afford to do that.
And yet unfortunately, we’ve seen other societies that have done exactly that, opportunistic politicians playing to a vocal, highly supportive base and not caring about the center or about the entire polity as a whole and driving their states in very dangerous, ultimately devastating directions. See the former Yugoslavia, see many other countries in the world where minorities are not safe and feel themselves to be alienated in ways that lead them to be radicalized. And obviously that’s not the direction that anyone should want India to go in. I hope it’s not the direction that India goes in, but I do feel like there’s enough extremism to go around in India that it is worth being concerned about this time.
Dan, do you think that the Biden administration and in the years to come, depending on who wins the election, the future US administration, will find it harder and harder to do business with India because of this? Because obviously any administration cannot just ignore what’s happening and say, okay, we have material interests, we have geopolitics to worry about and we have to deal with India, which is a rising geo-economic power. So doesn’t this situation constrain and make it difficult for Washington to deal with New Delhi in a substantive way?
Yeah, and part of what I’m trying to argue in that Foreign Affairs piece that you’ve mentioned, part of the argument is that because I think we do need a degree of strategic alignment with India to achieve our broader goals in Asia and the world, the Biden administration, any subsequent administration, need to be honest about where we agree with India and where we don’t, and to sell the relationship or explain the relationship to the American public on the basis of that honesty, rather than overselling it or explaining it on the basis of an ideological commitment. And I think that because the more honest they are about the tough decisions that we have to make about the strategic necessity of certain types of relations, even with countries with whom we don’t agree, and there are lots of other countries other than India with whom we don’t agree, but we still need to do business with them, the more honest we are about that, the less difficult it will be to defend that cooperation from political attacks here in the United States later.
So if we overstate, we are dealing with India because it’s a shared ideological partner, a democracy in good standing and doing all kinds of wonderful things. We see eye to eye with India and with Modi on just about everything, when we make those claims, administration actually opens itself up to more criticism, both from Americans who believe that if that’s the reason why we’re working with India and India doesn’t behave that way, then maybe we shouldn’t work with India. They also open themselves up to the criticism from outside the United States of hypocrisy, of overlooking what’s actually happening inside of India or what this Indian government is doing, and it raises questions among Indians who may be themselves, many of them, critical or concerned about what’s happening in their own country and certainly from other countries who have always raised doubts about America’s commitment to its principles.
The more that we seem to be granting legitimacy to an Indian government that isn’t behaving in the ways that we say they are, the more that we seem not to be wanting to be taken at our word. So it hurts us domestically and it hurts us internationally not to be straight up and honest, and to explain the relationship on the basis of its strategic merits, which I think are important, just like the strategic merits of working with Vietnam, which is quite clearly not a democracy, and we don’t waste our time talking about that, but we still see value in working with countries like that. And so why not with India too? I think we can still do that.
So we have a situation where President Biden just received Prime Minister Modi, a lot of deals on technology and investments were talked about. Some of them unfolded, others will unfold in the coming months and years. And now we have President Biden going to New Delhi for the G20 summit, and that relationship will continue for the foreseeable future regardless of who is president.
What do you see as the nuts and bolts of an Indian-US partnership beyond the discussion of democracy. Investments are going to be brought into India, and there’s the argument that many have been making that India is perhaps not ready for the scale of investments, and we should learn lessons from what we did with China. We ran into China in the late seventies, early eighties because we needed to split them from the Soviets. And now that the unintended consequences of that move, and therefore we’re relying and leaning on India. So where is this all going in terms of those investments and the technology transfer, especially when we know that the Indians are going to drive a hard bargain. They are not just willing to buy our stuff, they want that stuff to be built or at least create parts of it in their country.
Yeah, so that’s a great question. There are lots of different pieces of this. I think where you ended up has a great degree of relevance in the defense sector. Specifically questions about, as we partner with India say on producing high-end military equipment, what should be ruled in and what should be ruled out? Where, and you’re right, India drives a hard bargain, but India also is a major importer of foreign manufactured military hardware, and the United States would like to be in the business of selling more to India. So given all of that, where might we draw some lines? And one of the things that I would suggest is that given where India is and what it needs in terms of military equipment, there’s a lot of kind of mid-level types of technology. And we’ve already looked at things like selling drones and we’ve already got some deals in the works on that, where I think we provide an excellent alternative to India from other potential providers or manufacturers.
They definitely have a demand or need for these technologies, for instance, for surveillance, the Indian Ocean or the Himalayan range along the border with China. And we can sell something that is reasonably cost-effective and the technology that’s being transferred is not garden variety stuff, but it’s not the kind of thing that we’re desperately worried might fall into the wrong hands and where we’d have to break all the rules to be able to sell to India. Contrary, the latest interaction or exchange, visit, Modi here in Washington produced at least a tentative arrangement for the United States to enter into a co-manufacturing deal on GE engines for India’s jet fighters. And here we’re talking about what I understand to be super high-end, very unusual military capabilities that only the United States and several of the other most advanced producers have actually mastered, and transferring that in a way that is entirely unprecedented to India as a part of the arrangement for co-manufacturing.
This to me goes beyond where I think we might well be, where we ought to be. I think we should, maybe someday we should get there, but why do we need to leapfrog? I mean, you make the point that India drives a hard bargain. Yes, fine, but so should we be able to drive a hard bargain. India has considerable defense needs, including to ramp up and improve its air force, it needs to buy aircraft and engines and so on and other parts from someone. It could be us, but we should be in the running to sell up to and not beyond what we’d be willing to sell to some of our other close partners. But India is not a treaty ally. India is not to the point where when we sell to them as we do, say with an actual treaty ally, we can assume that they would be aligned with us in a future conflict.
We can’t. And there’s a reasonable chance that they won’t be, that they don’t want to be. And they’ve made it clear that they don’t want to be an ally, they want to be a partner. So my point is why treat them as an ally when what they want is something short of that? Why accept that they’ll drive a hard bargain? Why not drive a hard bargain of our own, particularly in areas where we both need one another? And why not in the end, focus on what I consider to be a huge range of military and then going to the civilian side, civilian-side technologies and other manufacturing capabilities, where India really has a long way to go before it is actually competitive even with the likes of some of its neighbors in Southeast Asia.
Why not go step by step through that process? Why be forced to leapfrog to high-end manufacturing, whether it’s computer chips or engine parts. That’s the best stuff that should come later down the line, and requires India to master certain other technologies along the way. And so we’re talking about a long-term project at best. Even if we wanted to go ahead with it, India wouldn’t be ready to do it overnight. So I’d say let’s walk before we run and in some cases let’s crawl before we even walk. Maybe we’ll get there, and maybe along the way India will evolve and we will evolve together in ways that make us more confident in our partnership and perhaps even an alliance down the line. I don’t want to rule that out. It’s possible, but we’re not there right now.
So China’s watching all of this, and China’s under extreme pressure given the alliance structure that’s being brought to bear by Washington in the Western Pacific, and now in the Indian Ocean Basin. With the growing relationship with India, obviously they know that this is still sort of initial steps, but they have to game this out, and at a time where things on the domestic front are looking pretty bad. President Xi and his politics are probably creating more problems for the Chinese than they’re solving. So do you see India as sandwiched between the United States and China? Or do you see India, because it doesn’t want to be a treaty ally and it wants to be a partner, that it will be able to try to balance the two sides and find its way out of being stuck between the two powers?
Well, at some level, India is destined to be stuck between us, but honestly, where India’s ambition lies is that this should be something more like an equilateral triangle than them wedged sort of victim like in between two great powers. India’s ambition is to position itself as an equal, at least politically and in terms of global respect, with both the United States and China. That may be a long ways off, but that’s where they’d like to go. And it’s important to appreciate that as an agenda because it helps us understand in part why India is not inclined to want to become an ally of the United States if that means entering as a junior partner. And that’s true for this Indian government. But that’s been true for every Indian government. It will probably be for any future Indian governments. That’s not a knock on Modi or anything like that, it’s just India’s national ambition.
So given that they don’t want that, but they also appreciate, I think increasingly, certainly over the past five plus years, that China is a significant and near-term threat and will be a long-term problem for India on its border. So India has to find a way to manage that. And there’s no feature or no force that’s driven India into America’s waiting arms more than Chinese aggression and Chinese belligerence. And so, you pointed out that President Xi Jinping has made a number of missteps that may be endangering China more than helping it, and this is one of them.
This was a series of moves that have made India increasingly nervous about China and have made Modi, who by the way came into office as someone who wanted to do business with China, wanted to invite Chinese investment into India. And as Chief Minister had done a lot of business with China and traveled to China many times, saw China as a natural partner and a necessary component to India’s economic growth. That was what he came into office hoping to achieve with China and has been pushed off that, I think primarily by Chinese behavior. So yeah, India is wedged between us, uncomfortably at the moment, but would like to find a very different reality over time. But that doesn’t mean that it will, as I said before, find us as a necessary ally. They’d rather just continue to play a balancing act.
So we’ve been talking about India on sort of the world stage, and before we get too far out on it, and we’re running out of time here, so I want to be mindful, what about India in South Asia? Given what’s happening to neighboring Pakistan, the history between the two countries, given what’s happening to Pakistan because of Afghanistan, it’s kind of like a contiguous strategic vacuum that seems to be emerging on India’s western flank, and then we’re seeing some instability, non-trivial, emerging even in Bangladesh, problems in Sri Lanka. So are these dynamics within South Asia going to arrest India’s growth, and if so, how?
Well, at the very least we can say India was not blessed with an easy neighborhood, and India doesn’t have the advantages of having, of reinforcing the neighborhood structure. Frequently people talk about South Asia as the least economically integrated region in the world, to the extent that that suggests that India doesn’t get any positive bounce from its neighborhood as it might if it were say, located somewhere off the edge of Europe, where there would be natural flows of resources, investment, finance and people. It just doesn’t benefit from any of that. So yes, it’s in a difficult neighborhood. India though is in a scale category that means that it’s almost a world of itself. And so when we think about the instability on their shores, say, from Sri Lanka, we need to keep that scale into perspective. Sri Lanka and what happens there may be quite disruptive there, but India now is the most populous country in the world and won’t necessarily face huge ripple effects.
But when we look at Pakistan, now we’re talking about a pretty big country as well. And so there, I like the way that you put it, that the creeping vacuum of instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan do have the potential to threaten India. Indians have often been much more comfortable portraying Pakistan as just an outright villain and adversary, but in many ways what has often been the bigger problem or threat to India is a weak Pakistan, Pakistan that is out of control, which would also be nearly impossible for India to bring under control in its own right. India’s worst nightmare is certainly not an invasion from Pakistan, but an implosion of Pakistan. I see it as an increasingly weak and incapable state facing adversaries and really enemies on almost all fronts – should bring pause to Indian strategists as they grapple with how to manage that problem.
Because things could go from what are admittedly very bad, to far, far worse. And it wouldn’t be because Pakistan made the decision to make India’s life difficult, but because Pakistan was unable to do otherwise. Bangladesh, I would say yes, has political fragility and scale, but isn’t nearly in the same nature of a problem, probably manageable and actually has some good news stories as well, in terms of just economic growth and human development issues over the past 20 years. And here with a lot of these countries, India’s looking at them as increasingly as a playground for competition with China, and that worries India as well. So that’ll be a part of the way that India perceives its dealings with Bangladesh. So I don’t think the region will destroy India unless India gets sucked into a problem with Pakistan, I believe unnecessarily, but it certainly isn’t helpful and India didn’t win the lottery in terms of where it was placed on the map.
Well, we’re almost out of time and I just want to sort of close with a final question, and I want to go back to sort of the beginning and connect the rising geo-economic status of India with what’s happening on the domestic front with the turn towards right-wing ideology. So let’s play this out. When the United States was investing in China, the hope was that hey, integrating China into the global economy, first pulling it away from the Soviet Union, bringing in market reforms, would lead China to be a more responsible partner in the international arena. At least that was the hope, even if people weren’t really believing in it.
Here we have kind of a similar but different situation. We already have a democracy, and you’ve gone into the lengths about how that democracy is eroding in slow motion, even if in slow motion. So let’s say God forbid, this trend line of majoritarian, illiberal democracy continues for the foreseeable future. At the same time, India continues to grow as a geo-economic power, separately. Down the road, many years from now, we’re dealing with a power that’s unpredictable, and if China continues to decline then India becomes, at least statistics and demographic numbers suggest that. Then where do we stand? What do we need to do to prevent that from happening? Can we do anything to prevent that from happening?
Right, so definitely this kind of logic is the kind of thing that I’ve walked through a bit. And the core observation lies in, in effect, an answer to the question of what might we have done with China differently? Had we known then what we know now about the rise of China, how might we have managed things a bit differently? I think the answer is not that we would’ve wanted to keep China weak or try to contain the rise of its economy in ways that would have basically created obstacles to the developmental rise of well over a billion people. I mean, that’s not something that we would’ve wanted to do. And of course, we’ve been along for the ride and we’ve benefited a lot. We, our companies, our consumers, the world have benefited in many ways from the rise of China’s, at least its wealth, if not its power.
And so the same is true with India. I mean, we shouldn’t be in the business of worrying about what India might be and concluding that it might be something bad, so we should keep it small and weak. Beyond that, we couldn’t do it even if we wanted to, really, the point is whether or not we should be accelerating that rise, contributing to it, and how. And going back again to the Chinese case, we could have done things differently. I think we probably would’ve focused on certain sectors where we felt like we don’t see a particular -commodities. It has affected the American economy, but as a strategic competition, it’s not the same as high-end AI and other future technologies that really could lead to political and military dominance on the world stage and really threaten America’s place and its primacy in the world.
Those are the kinds of things, military capabilities and related technologies, are areas where, had we had to do it over again, we’d probably have been a lot more careful about what was shared with China along the way because now that we know what they’ve done with it, it makes us nervous. That’s why when we come back to India, I think it’s certain types of technologies which we don’t share with other allies even. We should be cautious and maybe even withhold from our relationship with India. That’s the kind of thinking we ought to have, and at the very least, we should be asking the question broadly the way that you framed it. What if this India experiment goes horribly awry? What would that mean for us? It should be at least something that we continually come back to as a possibility, as a realistic possibility. Understanding as we maybe didn’t in the past, that all good things don’t necessarily go together.
A rising economy doesn’t necessarily mean greater political freedom, doesn’t necessarily see eye to eye with us about how to govern your own country, much less the world. These things can be separate and distinct. We need to understand that India will have its own perspectives and perceptions and for all of that, that still doesn’t mean that we don’t want to look for ways to cooperate. So we want to find a better balance rather than pulling away altogether, but finding a smarter balance for where we cooperate. That’s the kind of thing that I really think we absolutely should be looking at and hoping along the way that actually India turns out to be a great deal more resilient than I fear, and that India’s democracy actually comes back around in ways that make it a much more trustworthy, a capable partner, where we basically see eye to eye on the big things, if not everything.
Well, on that note, thank you so much, Daniel. This was a fascinating conversation. Hopefully we will continue this, definitely we’ll continue to engage on this topic.
That was Daniel Markey. He is a senior advisor on South Asia at USIP here in Washington. He has a must read article in Foreign Affairs from earlier in the summer, and it’s called India as It Is, Washington and New Delhi Share Interests, Not Values. I highly encourage you to read it and watch at this space for more such conversations in our new podcast series called Eurasian Connectivity here at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. This is Kamran Bokhari signing off for now.