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India: Tilting Westwards


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India's muted criticism of the war in Ukraine, its close partnership with Russia, and a foreign policy that leans toward multipolarity and strives for strategic autonomy may suggest otherwise, but New Delhi is steadily moving closer to the West. Increasing tensions with China have awakened India to the need to balance strategic autonomy with aligning with like-minded partners on fundamental geopolitical issues. India has consequently diversified its partnerships in recent years, in part by strengthening its ties to the United States, Japan, France, and Australia. The partnership with Europe as a whole has never been as strong as it is currently, as the Indian foreign minister recently noted. India will still continue to pursue an independent foreign policy, but it is already a predictable partner for the West given the challenges it faces with China. 

Seeking New Security Partners

India’s stance on Ukraine is not as publicly critical of Russia as the United States and Europe would like, but New Delhi does share Western assessments of the war. India is held back by an unwillingness to relinquish its partnership with the Kremlin primarily because the country views China as the bigger threat, and it wants to avoid a scenario in which an isolated Moscow forges an ever-tighter alliance with Beijing. Structural factors, such as dependence on Russian armaments, further constrain India’s room for maneuver.

China, unlike Russia, is increasingly a point of convergence between India and the United States, and the two countries are already closely aligned on Indo-Pacific security. They are not treaty allies though they are “moving towards a partnership that increasingly has some of the characteristics of an alliance”. The United States is a significant supplier of Indian defense equipment and India’s largest military exercise partner. The two also have bilateral agreements on logistics sharing and cooperate on intelligence, defense technology, and maritime security. They increasingly concur on strategic issues.

Although India supports a multipolar world order, declining US power or a move toward retrenchment would be a source of concern. Significant US involvement in the Indo-Pacific reassures New Delhi.

Despite those many US ties, France is actually India’s most important security and defense partner. Paris is India’s second-largest military equipment provider, trailing only Russia, and is key to India’s decade-long quest to reduce its dependence on Moscow. In addition, Indian and French national security advisers and defense ministers regularly consult one another, and other high-level government officials coordinate their positions on global issues.

India is also exploring joint weapons production with several other European partners and has stated its eagerness to work with the EU in the Indo-Pacific. On China, however, New Delhi is skeptical of European policy and considers European countries to be swing states.

India stats

Westerly Trade Winds

Since India walked out of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations with other Asia-Pacific nations, its trade interests have focused on the West. New Delhi recently dispensed with its long-held reluctance to free trade agreements and is now negotiating several with the EU, the United Kingdom, and Canada, among others. The shifting stance comes as the United States recently surpassed China to become India’s top trading partner. The United States accounts for 11.6% of total Indian trade, with the EU in third place, trailing China, at 10.8%. The United States and the EU are also the top two destinations for Indian exports.

India’s economic approach clearly tends toward protectionism, though pressure to move away from that may be rising. The country is eager to attract US and European companies drifting away from China or seeking a China+1 diversification model.

Technological Upgrades

The United States and Europe are also India’s preferred technology partners. In fact, India’s recent push to strengthen European partnerships is predicated on greater technological cooperation, be it on green technology, defense technology, or renewable energy. India has also established its sole Trade and Technology Council with the EU. With the United States, India recently founded the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET), which will expand bilateral cooperation on artificial intelligence, quantum computing, space, defense technology, semiconductors, and telecommunications technology, including 5G and 6G. The idea is to broaden the collaboration beyond governments and include the defense, business, and academic communities. The United States, in a bid to insulate critical technology supply chains from China, eyes India as a partner for semiconductor production.

The Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group is, for India, another important platform for cooperation, and one in which the country is diplomatically and bureaucratically invested. The payoff is handsome as the working group makes progress on the critical aspect of setting technological standards.

Certain Indian approaches and domestic legislation, of course, still diverge from those of the transatlantic partners, even if they have not hindered closer technological cooperation. This is particularly true for data protection and privacy. At the same time, India’s quest for self-reliance, including on e-governance and e-commerce platforms, has intensified since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The conflict starkly revealed in New Delhi the dangers of overreliance on any one partner.

The Age of “Minilaterals”

India’s engagement with multilateral institutions and groupings, including the G20, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the BRICS, is another foreign policy mainstay. The country is also regularly invited as an observer to other gatherings, such as G7 summits, which New Delhi relishes. India consistently argues for reform of global governance organizations and for international representation, most prominently in an expanded UN Security Council, that more accurately reflects the changing world order. In this regard, as in many others, such as sanctions policy, India sides with its partners in the Global South. The American framing of global challenges in terms of democracies versus autocracies generates little resonance. New Delhi stays away from democracy promotion as a foreign policy instrument, and its efforts in that area are confined to building technical capacities and strengthening electoral institutions.

Still, India increasingly sees itself as a bridge between the West and the Global South. Its positions on many issues no longer automatically align with, say, its BRICS or G20 partners. Policy instead aligns more closely to that of other middle powers. The “minilaterals” that India has joined are the clearest evidence of this. Flexible arrangements, such as the Quad, are much more consequential and important to Indian foreign policy than other groupings. In fact, India’s engagement with the Quad continues to grow, despite Russian and Chinese objections, and is now deeper than that with any other format. Its various trilaterals, whether with France, Australia, Japan, or others, are geared toward achieving goals that have eluded traditional institutions, especially those in the Indo-Pacific.

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