John McCarthy
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The West’s Wooing of India

John McCarthy is a former Australian High Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Vietnam, Mexico, Thailand, the United States, Indonesia and Japan. His assignments in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in Australia included Chief of Staff, Chief Legal Officer and Deputy Secretary.  John is currently Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Melbourne and Senior Adviser, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation.


Lately, the West - particularly the United States - has been wooing India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, with the bling of a monied Indian wedding.

In late June, Mr Modi was President Biden’s guest for a full state visit - of which there are usually only a couple a year. Modi also addressed Congress for a second time. In so doing, he was amongst a chosen few, of whom Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela have been the most notable.

Earlier, when in New Delhi in April, Biden’s Commerce Secretary, Gina Raimondo, included in a paean to Modi words such as “unbelievable”, “indescribable” and “visionary”.

Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s most senior figure on Asia, reportedly routinely describes the US-India bilateral relationship, without caveats, as America’s most important. This will be news to Japan, the United Kingdom and others.

Modi was a guest at the G7 meeting in Hiroshima in May. He then visited Australia. He has been invited by President Macron to be France’s guest for Bastille Day (14 July). The leaders of Italy, Germany and Australia -amongst others- have visited India this year.

Since India became independent, western dealings with India have had their fits and starts. However, the current courtship gathered pace with the so-called Nuclear Deal concluded between the United States and India in 2008; by this the Americans agreed to assist India’s civil nuclear development and to sell the deal internationally, despite the impediment that India was not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The deal was a turning point in the US-India security relationship and boosted India’s growing status as a major power. A stimulus for the deal was concern in both countries about the rise of China.

In the past few years, India’s attraction for the West has increased because of its size and wealth. It is now the most populous nation globally and in purchasing power parity terms has the world’s third highest GDP. Its attraction has grown as concerns about China have multiplied.

That said, there are three arguments as to why the West might reflect on the ardour of its courtship of India.

The first is that India’s economic promise - particularly as an eventual rival to China - is overdone.

Doubts about the extent of India’s promise have been around for a couple of decades - in fact, ever since some commentators started suggesting that India would one day outstrip China.

These doubts were cogently expressed recently in the publication “Foreign Policy” by Harvard academic Graham Allison.

Allison suggests inter alia a need to reflect on several inconvenient truths:

  • we have been wrong in the past about the pace of the rise of India, namely in the early nineties and the middle of the first decade of this century;
  • India’s economy is much smaller than China’s, and the gap has been increasing, not decreasing. In the early 2000s, China’s nominal dollar GDP was two to three times as large as India’s. It is now roughly five times as large;
  • India has been falling behind in the development of science and technology to power economic growth. China spends 2% of GDP on R&D, India 0.7%. On AI, the figures are startling. For example, China holds 65% of AI patents, India 3%;
  • China’s workforce is more productive than India’s. The quality of their respective workforces is affected by poverty and nutrition levels. As one example, according to the UN State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report, 16.3% of India’s population was undernourished in 2019-21 compared with less than 2.5% of China’s population.

The second argument is that India’s world view is quite different to that of most western countries.

India rightly sees itself as a force in international affairs. It aspires to be a powerful pole in a multipolar world. It adheres to a doctrine of strategic autonomy. It is guided by what it thinks is best for India, not by alliances or what others want of it.

India’s China-driven strategic congruence with the United States is not the same as a quasi-alliance relationship. It does not operate within a framework of mutual obligation. It does not expect others to come to its aid and it will not join someone else’s war.

In a recent article entitled “America’s Bad Bet on India” in Foreign Affairs, an American academic of Indian origin, Ashley Tellis, argued that New Delhi would never involve itself in any US confrontation with China which did not threaten its own security.

The Tellis piece has weight as he was a main intellectual force behind the “Nuclear Deal” concluded in 2008.

Moreover, India will differ radically from the West on some questions. True, as the Ukraine war has progressed, India has put some daylight between itself and Russia. But it declines to impose sanctions on that country. Both countries benefit from Russia’s sales of oil to India.

And, never a proponent of the western-inspired liberal international order, India is also a leader of the disparate - but re-energised - Global South, effectively the developing world.

The third argument is that the West’s line that its relationship with India is based on shared democratic values does not hold up.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times America’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, saw the long-term trajectory of the US-India relationship as being “built on the notion that democracies with shared value systems should be able to work together both to nurture their own democracies internally and to fight for shared values globally.” Come off it, Mr Sullivan!

The problem is that Mr Modi’s government can only lend itself to highly qualified identification with democratic principle.

Elections in India are generally fair and Mr Modi’s sway is vigorously contested by the main opposition party, Congress, and by regional parties. Good.

However, Mr Modi remains an unabashed Hindu supremacist whose political machine largely disregards the aspirations of Moslems and other minorities. It reacts vengefully to criticism and scores badly on most of the international indices which measure democratic freedoms. To some, India is an illiberal democracy, to others an electoral autocracy. But, for sure, it is not a liberal democracy.

Western interests dictate that we put grunt into our relationship with India with energy and determination. It is unquestionably an increasingly important country. But we must have realistic expectations of India and deal with India as it is, not as we might like it to be. Otherwise, we risk disappointment.


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