It Takes Two to Tango: Formalising the US-India Alliance

4 November 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme Download PDF

A formal alliance between the world’s largest and most powerful democracies would constitute an unstoppable force. It could prove a very potent deterrent to China’s misbehaviour along the Line of Actual Control border with India, and, when further considered in light of the AUKUS alliance and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue alignment, in the South China Sea.


Key Points

  • India recognises the threat that China poses to it and its need to counter that threat.
  • India also recognises that it cannot counter China unilaterally.
  • New Delhi must, therefore, act against China in conjunction with other powers.
  • That accounts, to an extent, for the importance that it places on the Quad.
  • The Quad is not a formal alliance, however, and India, unlike the other three members is not a treaty ally of the US.
  • To counter China, India must become a treaty ally of the US but that outcome is blocked by its policy of strategic autonomy.



Making the case that the Sino-Indian border poses a greater threat to regional and world peace than Taiwan does, a recent article in an Indian publication began with these words:

On 20 October, Chinese soldiers invaded an unsuspecting India over multiple points across the McMahon Line. They also intruded into Ladakh, starting a brief, devastating war. That was in 1962.

Insofar as it goes, that description of events as they transpired in 1962 is wholly accurate. What it does not provide is the accounting for a collective mindset that led India to believe that China under Mao Zedong would not go to war against it. The blame for that miscalculation may be laid at the feet of India’s first Prime Minister and the incumbent at the time of the invasion, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mr Nehru, a Fabian Socialist, appears to have believed that diplomacy was all that was required to settle disputes in post-colonial Asia. The Director of Military Operations at Army Headquarters in 1962, while commenting on the ad hoc decision-making processes at the Prime Ministerial and Cabinet level on hearing of the invasion, recounts an incident that provides an insight into that thinking. Prior to 1962, an incensed Nehru exploded at Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Lockhart, India’s first military Commander in Chief, when the latter took a strategic plan on defence policy to the Prime Minister, ‘Rubbish! Total rubbish! We don’t need a defence plan. Our policy is ahimsa [non-violence]. We foresee no military threats. Scrap the army! The police are good enough to meet our security needs.’

That retort was made despite being cautioned that China did not see itself as India’s friend. Among those warnings was a letter from Vallabhbhai Patel, a major Indian National Congress leader and a prominent figure in India’s independence movement, who later became India’s first Deputy Prime Minister and first Home Minister of India. Mr Nehru’s mistake was to believe that his confidence in diplomacy was shared by Chairman Mao.

As Mike Tyson, he of boxing fame, insightfully noted, ‘Everybody has plans until they get hit for the first time.’ Faced with a well-prepared Chinese army and a poorly-equipped Indian one, Mr Nehru had few compunctions in foregoing his previous reluctance to turn to the US for military aid. The military assistance he now sought from the US included fighter pilots and US military personnel to man radar installations. Forgotten were the newly-created Non-Aligned Movement’s principles of not aligning with or being morally beholden to either the US or the Soviet Union and his personally-held faith in diplomacy alone being sufficient to conduct statecraft. Realism had trumped idealism again. Mr Nehru never recovered from having his illusions of Pan-Asianism and the efficacy of diplomacy shattered.

The entire situation has its parallels in – and lessons for – present-day India.



Vallabhbhai Patel’s letter to Mr Nehru resonates as much today as when it was written. China, never a friend of India, is more than an adversary; Beijing’s actions are inimical, its feeble attempts at “negotiations” are little more than stalling tactics and efforts to keep India off-balance and, when it breaks its agreements, casts those failures as misunderstandings of settled terms. China has engaged in outright deceit, as its unilateral repudiation of the terms under which it re-took Hong Kong demonstrates. When Beijing recognises that it cannot prevail in an arbitrated situation, it repudiates the arbitrator, as its loss at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the South China Sea Arbitration case brought against it by the Philippines showed. It is hardly surprising, then, that China does not adhere to negotiated terms regarding its border with India, which is, in large part, a strategic continuation of their 1962 war. Thus, as one Indian authority on the subject of India’s national security noted, ‘India needs to restore deterrence to stop China from attempting to nibble at [the Line of Actual Control (LAC)].’

With Mr Xi Jinping’s ascension to office, China’s territorial claims, together with its attempts at territorial control, have hardened. While the world’s attention has turned towards Taiwan and the South China Sea as a consequence, India is aware that China has also hardened its position in regard to – and along – the LAC. After its forces clashed with Indian troops in the Doklam region in 2017, China began construction of at least thirteen new military facilities close to the LAC, including three air bases, five heliports and five permanent air defence positions. To be clear, those facilities are not the temporary deployments that China used in previous stand-offs with India. These permanent facilities are a sign of China’s intent to increase its future assertiveness vis-à-vis India, if required to do so.

Those facilities are located for the most part in Tibet, very close to the LAC, as the graphic below shows. While there are inherent difficulties for aircraft that operate from airbases at elevated locations, such as in Tibet, the facts remain that China has hardened the LAC and that those fighter aircraft and helicopters pose an added threat to India.

Noting that threat, India has upgraded its defences along the LAC. It has moved Israeli-designed Heron unmanned aerial vehicles to the LAC to provide day and night surveillance over it in Arunachal Pradesh, deployed armed helicopters, constructed new roads, bridges and railway infrastructure and enhanced advanced landing grounds to cater to heavier and more aircraft in its effort to support the fifty thousand troops, including a new mountain strike corps, that it deployed to Arunachal Pradesh. India has, additionally, purchased over 140,000 assault rifles from the US and is manufacturing a further 700 thousand Kalashnikov AK-203 rifles under licence to arm its ground forces. New Delhi appears determined not to let China re-enact its victory over India in 1962.

The question must be asked, however: can India, by itself, withstand the might of China’s military if the two countries went to war? That is a difficult question to answer with any certainty. China’s military is more advanced than India’s, especially in terms of its logistical capability, the lifeblood of a fighting force. China’s rocket forces are, similarly, far more developed than those of India. On the other hand, due to China’s one-child policy, which had been in place from the 1960s until very recently, many families have been reduced to a single individual, with many of them being military personnel. If those individuals were to be killed, their families would cease to exist, an outcome that is anathema to the family-oriented Chinese. That situation has led to low morale among its troops (see also here), which accounts in large part for China’s dependence on its rocket forces.

On the other hand, morale in India’s military forces is high, as is their professionalism, which has been demonstrated time and again. India’s capabilities have been enhanced by its recent acquisitions of military platforms, arms and technology. The various agreements that it has entered into with the US gives it access to valuable real-time information and intelligence. Nevertheless, its troops, for all their professionalism and capability, are constrained by relatively poor training and a dearth of resources.

Given those factors, it is more likely than not that any conflict between the two Asian powers will be a protracted one that will end in a stalemate. The impact of conflict on the two countries’ respective economies, however, would be disastrous. India cannot afford to fight a war with China soon after undergoing the stress of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. The drain on its foreign exchange reserves, which stood at around US$640 billion ($852 billion) on 15 October, would be tremendous, as it would require huge supplies of arms, ammunition, systems and other military equipment. China, for its part, would have to take into account the duration of a war with India, the risk of having to fight on two fronts if India’s Quad partners decided to come to New Delhi’s aid by threatening China’s coastline and the effect that a war with India would have on its markets in Europe and North America. China must consider, in other words, its lack of allies and lonely position in the international system.

Continuing with that scenario, however, one must necessarily ask, could New Delhi count on the US to come to its aid in a war against China? Here again, the answer is not as clear cut as one might expect or like it to be. Unlike the Trump Administration, which sought to challenge China unilaterally, the Biden Administration has developed a plan to draw its allies into an anti-China coalition, a strategy that it calls “integrated deterrence”. Washington, consequently, conducted maritime exercises with the UK and Japan off Okinawa, Japan, and then took part in the Malabar 2021 Phase II exercises together with its Quad partners, Australia, India and Japan. Shortly after, the Philippines Armed Forces chief, General Jose Faustino, and the chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, announced at this year’s Mutual Defence Board and Security Engagement Board that the Philippines and the US expect a return to “full-scale” Balikatan military exercises, reversing President Duterte’s tilt towards China. The US, it appears, is determined to engage with its allies to challenge China.

Therein lies the problem for India. New Delhi is not a treaty ally of the US, no matter the various positive terms used to describe their relationship, nor does it seek to become one. That was made evidently clear by Mr S. Jaishankar, before he took office as India’s Minister for External Affairs, at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi in 2019. Responding to General David Petraeus, the former Director of the CIA and commander of the US Central Command, who described China as “the defining issue of our age” and remarked that India and other countries “had to decide” if they would align themselves with the US, Mr Jaishankar retorted, “India should take a stand and should take a side – our side.” According to him and, no doubt, the Indian political hierarchy, India was going to adhere to its policy of strategic autonomy, the successor to its policy of non-alignment that precluded an alliance with the US or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The non-alignment policy was little more than a façade, however, as India’s relationship with the Soviet Union demonstrated, and its successor policy of strategic autonomy is little more than that. Just as non-alignment did, “strategic autonomy” allows India the excuse and the leeway that it requires to absolve itself of the responsibility of taking a side.

India recognises that it has to stand up to China. It also recognises that it cannot perform that task alone. Ergo, it requires partners that could help it, should that become necessary, in a conflict against China. What India would like to have, ideally, is the opportunity to be able to pick and choose the issues on which it can work with the US in order to further its own goals. To be clear, that is the desire of every nation-state; it is Realism at work. India’s difficulty, however, lies in being able to keep to its middle path without upsetting either the US or Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union. That difficulty is compounded by the rise of China; India knows that it must challenge China’s aggressive behaviour towards it but, given its geographical location, does not want to create an inimical neighbour. Unfortunately for New Delhi, China is already close to being one. India, therefore, has no choice but to decide if it should become a treaty ally of the US or continue to hope that Russia, given its past relationship with India, its geographic location and its own suspicions about Beijing, will side with it to balance China if needed.

It is largely for that reason and also to enhance its existing Russian equipment-dominated military infrastructure that New Delhi continues to purchase equipment from Russia. That, however, strains and even causes friction in its relationship with the US. India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system, the first batch of which is to be delivered this year, is a case in point. If New Delhi obtains that system, it will automatically trigger the US’s “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA), which Washington uses to limit the sale of Russian arms to other states and to curtail the Russian military-industrial establishment’s and, by extension, Russia’s access to funds. If the US were to impose sanctions on India, it would affect the Quad alignment and, likely, the US’s further sale of military technology to India – just when India needs that technology to counter China.

CAATSA allows the US President to waive sanctions on a state at his or her discretion, however. Given the far-reaching ramifications of sanctioning India, at a time when the US itself needs allies to counter China, it is likely that Mr Biden will use that authority to waive sanctions against New Delhi. It is equally likely, however, that he will use the situation to coerce India into a closer partnership with the US. What form that coercion would take if he does is open to speculation but if India were to refuse to be more closely aligned, Washington would undoubtedly turn up the pressure on New Delhi.

Doing so would be a fairly easy undertaking. President Biden has had no option but to retain some of his predecessor’s hard-line policies on various issues, including immigration. While a fence on the US’s southern border is unlikely to be built during his tenure, Mr Biden walks a very fine line between being seen to retain Mr Trump’s hardline immigration policies and giving way to a surge in illegal immigration. He chose, for instance, not to repeal “Title 42”, the Trump Administration order that allows US authorities to expel almost all people caught crossing the border illegally. Mr Biden could, in similar vein, follow Mr Trump’s policy and hit India where it hurts most – curtailing the remittances that around one million Indian technicians and software engineers who work in the US’s information technology sector send home by forcing them to resign their positions in favour of US citizens who seek employment in the same sector. To be sure, that would hurt the bilateral relationship but Washington could easily cast the situation in terms of India demanding a lot but being unprepared to cede anything in return.

In the unlikely event that India downgraded the Quad as a consequence of that situation, Washington and the other members of that alignment would be forced to re-evaluate India’s role in it and eventually admit that India is its weak link. India’s proclivity towards and need to purchase Russian military systems, for example, places it at odds with the other Quad members, all of whom have US-manufactured military platforms in common. In plain terms, while there is much inter-operability between Australia, Japan and the US, India does not enjoy that advantage in the Quad. Additionally, Australia and Japan are treaty allies of the US, something that India, for all its importance to the US, is not. Thus, as one analyst concludes:

Indian policymakers have successfully avoided choosing between a close strategic relationship with the United States or Russia. But they have chosen to enter into a security pact that is meant to hedge against China, and must now decide between being a worthwhile member of the Quad or continuing the Russia-United States balancing act.

It is true, as another analyst observes, that ‘India has come a long way on the Quad in a very short period.’ What is not entirely correct in that assessment is that India is not sitting on the fence, or that the matter is at least debatable. Strategic autonomy, by its very definition, does suggest that India is sitting on the fence; the policy could be called “strategic ambivalence” without compromising its description of India’s strategic behaviour. If New Delhi wishes to be treated as an equal, it needs to behave as one, act to achieve joint goals, accept joint responsibilities and not stand aloof from the rest of the grouping, acting only when doing so suits its agenda. India, moreover, sees the Quad as an instrument by which it can demonstrate to China its membership of a grouping that is economically aligned against Beijing. The fact that membership of the Quad suits India’s agenda is, once again, unmissable. That gives rise to yet another question, if conflict were to break out between any of the other Quad members and China, would India come to that member’s aid in it?

Another factor that makes India the odd one among its members is that, since the others are equipped with US-manufactured systems, they can upgrade that equipment when required and when it is available. That facility, too, is unavailable to India because of the preponderance of its Russian equipment. That factor, along with the fact that it is a treaty ally, enabled Australia to approach the US to acquire arguably its most valuable military asset: its nuclear submarines. The request was agreed to in a very short period.

The resulting AUKUS alliance was announced by the leaders of the US, UK and Australia, much to China’s fury, France’s anger at losing a very valuable contract to build submarines for Australia, a general welcome across the Indo-Pacific region and to virtually everybody’s surprise. India’s reaction was mixed, with some analysts supporting the new alliance and others criticising it. An opinion piece written by a noted Indian expert in a national newspaper, however, raises some issues that have a direct bearing on the argument of this paper. It is worthwhile engaging with them to demonstrate why some of the thinking in India is unrealistic in its expectations and even hints at an underlying hubris.

Noting that reactions in India to the AUKUS announcement were mixed and commiserating with France on losing its Australian contract, the opinion piece asks, if Australia and the U.S. could deceive France, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation partner, what is to prevent them from doing the same with lesser allies? The answer to that question lies in the nature of the submarines that were to be built by France, the nature of the agreement that Australia entered into with France and the nature of the relationship between Australia and the US.

It is true that Australia signed an agreement with France to construct conventionally-powered submarines. That decision was made by a previous Australian government against the advice of many Australian defence strategists. The plan was to use a French nuclear-powered submarine as the basis for the design of a conventionally-powered one. Given Australia’s geographic location and its current geostrategic requirements, any conventionally-powered submarine would have been unfit for purpose almost from the design stage. Recognising that requirements could change midway through the design and construction process and in accordance with convention, exit points were built into the agreement at various stages in order that it could be terminated if required. Thus, when the US and the UK agreed to facilitate Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines, Canberra discarded the agreement with France, disregarding and accepting in the process the billions of dollars that it would have to pay France as a penalty for doing so. In Canberra’s reckoning, as is the case with any other country regarding its own, Australia’s national security is worth more than a few billion dollars. The regional geostrategic environment has changed so dramatically in a very short time that Canberra had no option but to negate the contract with France and accept its financial penalties. Once again, Realism came into play, the same Realism that India displays by using the Quad to accomplish its own goals.

Additionally, major acquisitions of this nature are not solely a matter of finance, technology or being the best suited for purpose; they are geostrategic enablers. At a time when China is threatening Australia economically and is increasing its influence among some countries of and its naval forays more often and further into the Western Pacific, it makes sense to deepen the Australia-United States relationship by more closely integrating the militaries of the two countries. For the US, deepening the relationship with Australia by giving it access to nuclear submarines allows it to pass some of the responsibility for countering China to an Indo-Pacific treaty ally; that is, after all, one of the objectives of its policy of integrated deterrence. Australia, unlike India, is an ally and not merely a partner to the US and is willing to enable that exchange. The US also gains by obtaining further access to Darwin Port, which could potentially become another major Indo-Pacific operations hub similar to Guam, the ability to station more troops there and potential access to another submarine base at HMAS Stirling on Garden Island, south of Fremantle in Western Australia.

Yes, France is upset at losing a very valuable contract but that anger is largely to do with President Macron being further unsettled in the French presidential polls. Australia, furthermore, did no more than France itself did to achieve its own goals, as the FDI paper referred to previously demonstrated. France had few compunctions, for example, in sending Secret Service (DGSE) agents to New Zealand to blow up a Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, using limpet mines and killing a crew member in the process, in Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour, in 1985. France was not at war with New Zealand but that was of little if any concern to Paris, which sought to prevent the ship from taking part in an anti-French nuclear test protest campaign at Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. France was willing to risk the loss of life, which happened, in order to meet its own goals. It, similarly, had few compunctions in carrying out nuclear tests in 1996, despite the protestations of its European allies and countries in the South Pacific, including Australia. When Canberra protested against the tests, France showed little hesitation in telling Australia to break off the bilateral relationship if it wanted to do so but it would carry out the tests, nevertheless. Paris cynically announced the termination of its tests after conducting a series of six far from its homeland and hid the effects of its tests over the years on the people in the region. France, like Australia, was working in accordance with Realist principles: to serve its own interests. For Paris to now complain about Australia’s termination of the submarine contract is, to put it bluntly, hypocritical.

The opinion piece next raises an issue that can only be described as casuistry. As it observes,

There is another reason why Indian officials are seeing this differently. There is apprehension that the deal could eventually lead to a crowding of nuclear attack submarines (SSNs/submersible ship nuclear) in the Eastern Indian Ocean, eroding India’s regional pre-eminence. … Washington’s willingness to help Canberra build SSNs raises the possibility that Australia could deploy nuclear submarines in the Eastern Indian Ocean well before India positions its own.

It is interesting that the author admits that India seeks regional pre-eminence, presumably also over Australia since the region referred to is the Indo-Pacific. If India seeks pre-eminence in the eastern Indian Ocean, it could conceivably be seen to pose a threat to Australia, that being the nature of Realism. The Indian strategist could counter that fear by noting that India does not seek to dominate or impose itself upon another country, but that would merely be an echo of China’s stated position. Realism underscores, further, the axiom that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. It is not inconceivable that India could, as circumstances dictate or as it rises in the international system, seek to dominate not only the eastern Indian Ocean but all of it. That is, at the time of writing, an unlikely prospect but not an impossible one in the future. Australia is preoccupied with China at this time, which accounts for its interest in acquiring nuclear submarines. Its population size makes it very unlikely to seek to dominate the Indian Ocean or any other in the foreseeable future, leave alone a major littoral country such as India, no matter whether it has or does not have nuclear-powered submarines. The idea that Australia could deploy nuclear attack submarines in the Indian Ocean before India does will, nevertheless, be of some concern to India and its goal of being a major power with regional pre-eminence.

The next point that the opinion piece makes relates to AUKUS. It notes that “It does not help that AUKUS has taken the focus away from the Quad.” Given the tenor of the opinion piece until now, that quotation could have been more accurately stated as “It does not help that AUKUS has taken the focus away from the Quad and, with it, India’s sense of heightened regional eminence by being seen as a challenger to China and at least an equal among the other members of the Quad grouping.” If personal experience is any guide, the Quad appears to dominate the time and efforts of Indian think-tanks and some government agencies. It has, together with India’s participation in it, been the topic of discussion at many seminars and conferences in India. Given the level to which the Quad has permeated Indian strategic thinking and its importance to India, it is hardly surprising that a new alliance that could upstage that alignment is seen in New Delhi and across India as a threat to its standing among the world powers and a possible diminishing of its importance to other powers.

Just as China objected to the idea of the Indo-Pacific because the previously-held concept of the Asia Pacific region projected Beijing at one end of a vast region with the US at the other while the Indo-Pacific concept projects China as just another country in that region, so, too, India is unhappy with the formation of AUKUS because that alliance overshadows the Quad. AUKUS is predicated on the transfer of military and cyber-technology, which are usually offensive in nature. AUKUS will, therefore, play a greater role in challenging China militarily than the Quad does. That is not to diminish the role of the Quad in its original Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief endeavours or even in its symbolism. AUKUS predominates militarily because its three allies know that if one is drawn into a conflict, the other two will follow on its side. The same cannot be said of India, especially given its adherence to its policy of strategic autonomy. India, after all, is not a treaty ally of the US or Australia or the UK. It would be the foolish strategist who undertook to wage war with, say, China in the belief that India would enter the war on his or her country’s side. In short, AUKUS cannot afford to have India as a member at this time.

The more astute observer could ask why it is, if that is the case, that Japan was not offered nuclear submarines as well. Two simple reasons must suffice. First, Japan did not ask for those platforms because, second, neither its government nor its people condone the use or even possession of nuclear weapons or platforms at this time.

The opinion piece also notes that,

Following the deepening of Quad ties, some in India were hopeful that the U.S. would consider providing the Indian Navy with nuclear submarine propulsion technology. The clarification by Washington that the deal with Australia is a “one-off” puts paid to Indian expectations.

Engaging in an accelerated rate of naval exercises or purchasing elevated sales of military equipment does not constitute a true deepening of a bilateral relationship. It is a good start, but only a start, nevertheless, without a security pact to fall back upon. India has certainly increased its purchases of US military hardware. It has also entered into four foundational security agreements with Washington. The bilateral relationship has progressed miles from where it first began around the turn of the century. That the relationship is a very important one for the US and India, furthermore, is not in dispute. What is lacking, however, is a true alliance. That could take the form of a negotiated security pact that has a set of limitations, but even such an abbreviated security treaty is lacking at this time. Even if India were to enter into a full security alliance with the US, furthermore, there could be no guarantee that the US would share its submarine technology with India. That level of trust and confidence in a treaty ally can only be developed over time. It was, frankly, presumptuous to think that the US would share its most valuable military technology with a partner when it did not do so with a long-time ally like Japan, no matter that country’s distaste for nuclear platforms and weapons, or Australia before regional geostrategic conditions led to Washington’s decision to give Australia access to its submarines.

It is, nevertheless, disheartening that the opinion piece, just like another one, also from an ex-Indian military officer, refers to an “Anglo” aspect of the matter. That appears to give the entire issue a tinge of incipient racism, which is evidently not the case. History demonstrates that the UK has been the US’s strongest ally. Australia has, in turn, historical ties to it. The US and Australia are bound by the ANZUS Treaty, which could partly explain why Australia has fought on Washington’s side in several wars since the Second World War. The two countries continue to share close security and economic ties; Pine Gap in Australia, for instance, is a major US intelligence collection centre and, as of 2020, Australia had invested around $860 billion in the US, its primary foreign investment destination, and a further $615 billion in the UK, its second-largest foreign investment destination. The three countries obviously share deep ties. It is precisely that foundation of trust developed over time upon which the AUKUS alliance is predicated. The fact that they share a common language has much to do with history and little with the offer of nuclear submarines.

To conclude, there could be little doubt that the US would benefit greatly if it could enter into a security alliance with India, just as India would the US. It truly is time to formalise their bilateral relationship, as two senior political figures in the US wrote recently. It takes two to tango, however. While the US is prepared to enter into such a relationship, India is not so sure that that it can or even wants to. Until that thinking changes in New Delhi, there is little chance that a security treaty could be negotiated. That is a pity because the combination of the world’s largest and most powerful democracies would constitute an unstoppable force. What we are left with, instead, is a vast potential that is unlikely to be realised.


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