NEW DELHI — How might the United States and India, the world’s largest democracies, work more effectively together toward countering communist China’s increasingly aggressive economic and military moves across Asia?
That question loomed over a private, in-depth diplomatic conference this weekend on the future of U.S.-Indian relations.
The second annual U.S.-India forum played out under strict, off-the-record rules on reporting comments to foster what organizers said they hoped would be the most honest dialogue between high-level current and former officials and others from both countries.
But several in attendance spoke openly on the sidelines with The Washington Times about a China-inspired urgency for increased U.S.-Indian military ties and a more robust democracy- and capitalism-driven development and foreign investment plan to counter Beijing’s surging regional influence.
The Trump administration sent Alice G. Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, among others. Ms. Wells voiced concern about China’s fast-moving One Belt One Road initiative, through which Beijing pumps cash into infrastructure projects to buy access to resources around the region.
Ms. Wells told The Times that the initiative — laden with billions of dollars worth of China-funded projects in countries on every side of India, from Sri Lanka to Nepal to Pakistan — “lacks transparency and sustainability” and is saddling those nations with “predatory debt.”
“But for all of our concerns about One Belt One Road, we have to have a positive vision,” she said.
“India and the United States and Japan and Australia and others have to stand for something, and we have to be able to provide countries with alternatives, options and sensible financing that meets the highest standards,” she said.
Ms. Wells and others stressed that President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi see eye to eye on the matter.
But there are questions about how far New Delhi is willing to go, especially with regard to national security, to address concerns that Beijing may be plotting to achieve military hegemony.
Several at this weekend’s conference told The Times that the U.S. and India need to get serious about expanding their military-to-military alliance to make clear who controls the Indo-Pacific.
Beijing has spent years building up bases in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and has been sending submarines and warships to far-flung China-financed ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
“China’s activities create a large amount of impetus for a more focused and more action-oriented India and U.S. navy-to-navy, maritime-to-maritime, country-to-country engagement,” former Indian Vice Adm. Pradeep Chauhan told The Times.
The two nations should be working jointly on tracking Chinese nuclear submarines, he said, to “send a clear message to China that, you know, ‘We are on to you.’”
Nitin Pai, co-founder of an Indian think tank on international policy, went further, telling The Times that there is “no choice. We’ve got to be able to manage China’s increasing influence in the Indian Ocean region, including the military aspect of it.”
In Mr. Pai’s mind, a dangerous military strategy undergirds Beijing’s expanding investment in regional seaports, though China presents the investment as purely economic and benevolent.
“They start by saying this is all commercial, but they’re clearly keeping their military options open, so that when they’re ready, they can use these ports militarily,” he said.
An effective response, he said, would be for the U.S. and India to move quickly to bolster their joint military capabilities.
“It’s happening to a degree right now, but not nearly enough as it should be,” Mr. Pai said.
He argued that India should more deeply engage in operations beyond the Indian Ocean — more toward Chinese-claimed waters near East Asia — through joint exercises with the U.S. and others, including Japan, Australia, South Korea and Vietnam.
“India should be sending its naval forces east of Singapore so that we play an active role in the balance of power in the Western Pacific,” he said. “In my view, we have no choice but to do this.”
The ‘power of balance’
Several at this weekend’s forum, which was run by India’s nonprofit Ananta Aspen Center, raised questions about the true depth of New Delhi’s willingness to confront Beijing economically or militarily.
*India is engaged in large foreign trade relationships with both the U.S. and China, and officials in the Modi government are known to say things like “the balance of power may not be so important as the power of balance” — that India’s long-term interests may be best served by working closely and perhaps even to equivalent degrees with Washington and Beijing.
Despite uncertainty over how a U.S.-Chinese trade war might impact the balancing act, most agree that Indian-Chinese trade is headed nowhere but up.
“India cannot afford to unfriend China,” said Pradeep S. Mehta, the head of an India-based nonprofit on eliminating poverty. The reason, he told The Times, is that “China is sitting near the top” in terms of global influence and trade.
But Mr. Mehta noted that Indian perceptions of America as the true go-to partner have been bolstered by the Trump administration. Polls show Mr. Trump with a nearly 70 percent approval rating in India, where tensions often flare between the nation’s majority Hindu and minority Muslim populations.
Many say Mr. Trump’s popularity here stems from his recent halt on all nonessential U.S. aid to India’s rival, Pakistan. But Mr. Mehta told The Times that Indians were excited about the U.S. president before he cut aid to Pakistan.
“He was already popular here when he won the election because of his anti-Muslim sentiments,” Mr. Mehta said of Mr. Trump. “That really reverberated here.”
Others stressed that it shouldn’t matter who is in office in Washington or New Delhi.
“We share, like no other nations, the values of democracy, freedom and diversity,” said Rajan Navani, who manages an organization pushing digital-sector international trade for India. “It makes complete sense for India and the U.S. to align geopolitically when it comes to China.”
Questioning India’s resolve
James Carafano, the head of national security and foreign affairs research at The Heritage Foundation, told The Times that he has “misgivings about India’s ability to think as a global power.”
Can China’s surge change that? Maybe.
“India knows it can’t live in a world where Beijing is the new London, and basically what Beijing is doing right now is an attempt to re-create the British Empire in reverse,” Mr. Carafano said. “The Indians know they can’t compete with China without technology that only the U.S. is likely to deliver, and they know that’s why they should work us.
“As for why we should work with them, look, the U.S. has to be strong in Europe, the Mideast and in Asia, simultaneously, and we just can’t do that without partners,” he said. “From a military strategic standpoint, the biggest thing we get from partnering with India is geography. It’s control of the Indian Ocean, which most of the world’s stuff travels through. We have a joint notion with India to keep it open to all, while the Chinese want to control it.”
Michael Pillsbury, the head of Chinese strategy at the Hudson Institute, said “the Indians just don’t want to publicly acknowledge China as a threat.”
“But they’re clearly aware of their military inferiority on the border with China,” Mr. Pillsbury told The Times. He said New Delhi realized the gravity of the situation last summer during a standoff between Indian and Chinese troops along a disputed Himalayan border territory after Beijing suddenly begun building a road through the area.
“I predict more U.S. military sales to India very soon,” Mr. Pillsbury said.
The way forward
Some at the forum said the U.S. and India should avoid veering toward a relationship centered too heavily on defense — or on any single trade aspect.
“As Americans, we should be looking at India not just as a place where the U.S. sells arms, and at the same time Indians, I believe, should be looking at the U.S. not just as a place where India sells technology,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat who was among a bipartisan U.S. delegation at the forum.
“The U.S.-India relationship is very strong already, but it needs to get stronger,” said Mr. Krishnamoorthi, one of four Indian-American members of Congress.
With the Indian-American immigrant population rising to 2.4 million in recent years, the bonds between the two nations are increasingly cultural as well as economic. Total U.S.-Indian trade continues to rise, hitting nearly $120 billion last year, and Indians are by far the top recipients of H-1B visas, which provide highly skilled, educated Indian labor to the U.S. tech sector.
At the same time, economic expansion in India, whose population of 1.3 billion is projected to soon eclipse China as the world’s largest, presents what many see as a vital growing market for U.S. companies.
It follows, Mr. Krishnamoorthi said, that Washington might better seize the opportunity of India as a key ally to promote shared values geopolitically. In addition to pushing for India to be made “a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council,” the two should be working together in response to One Belt One Road, the congressman told The Times.
“We need to provide an alternative framework in the Indo-Pacific region for encouraging democracy, freedom and responsible economic development,” Mr. Krishnamoorthi said.
Ms. Wells, meanwhile, stressed that the wider alliance known in diplomatic circles as “the Quad” — the U.S., India, Japan and Australia — is suited to grow such a framework but needs to think more creatively about how to increase private investment.
“As democracies, it can sometimes be harder to organize, but what we’re doing right now is organizing,” she told The Times, adding that the goal is to “affirm the international standards for lending, coordinated around assistance programs [and] make sure there are synergies addressing ways our money can come into the same sectors that are strategically important and provide the boost that receiving countries need.”
“How do we tap our private sectors, which is a huge asset that we have?” said Ms. Wells. “[We must] work with our private sectors through trade development authority and feasibility studies and provide the private sectors with the information they need to be able to tap into what is a huge demand for infrastructure in this region.”
* (Correction: The original version of this article stated that China is well ahead of the U.S. as India’s top foreign trading partner. The article has been corrected to reflect that India has large trading relationships with both. U.S. officials assert that, in terms of total bilateral trade, the U.S.-India relationship is larger than that between India and China.)