Narendra Modi, once denied a U.S. visa, is now poised to be a showstopper at the White House. The Biden administration is sparing no effort as it prepares to welcome the Indian prime minister later this week at a state dinner, only the third under the current president. As Modi gets set to address Congress for a second time, it might look as if India is pivoting to the United States. But don’t be naive, my dear American friends. India will never be your ally. And this won’t change whether Modi or one of his rivals wins next year’s election. India’s collective memory of the indignities of colonization creates wide public support for an independent path. India’s policy of nonalignment began with a refusal to be entangled in the Cold War. Today this has morphed into aggressive multilateralism. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar says India should benefit “from as many ties as possible.”
So if you’re expecting monogamy, prepare to be disappointed. India has reserved the right to flirt with Russia, Iran and even China if its national interests dictate such a need. After the 9/11 attacks, Washington asked New Delhi to dispatch troops to Afghanistan. The Indian military vetoed the request. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee withheld military support despite pro-U.S. Indian media urging him to get “on the right side of history” a phrase often used today in the context of the Russian-Ukraine conflict. Resisting pressure from the George W. Bush administration was a brave move and, as it turns out, the morally superior one. These days, New Delhi similarly refuses to toe the American line on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. India’s import of cheap Russian oil continues to break records. Anyone who wants to see Indian leaders stand up and publicly assail the Kremlin one of their main suppliers of weaponry and a valuable source of raw materials is in for a long wait. India has criticized the U.S. decision to block Iranian and Venezuelan oil from the open market. The government in New Delhi has actively worked to bring Iran into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral forum created by Russia and China in 2001.
In May, India hosted the SCO foreign ministers amid border tensions with China and continuing antagonism with Pakistan. A fortnight later, unapologetic about the seeming contradiction, Modi and President Biden were hugging and laughing for the cameras at a meeting of the Quad, a loose security partnership that also includes Australia and Japan. Of course, India’s growing cooperation in the Quad raises hackles in Beijing. And yes, India’s issues with China are grave. Just three years ago, India lost 20 soldiers in a deadly mountain clash with Chinese troops along their common frontier in the high Himalayas. But don’t think for a moment that India will take its cue from America on China; New Delhi wants to manage the relationship on its own terms.
Indians have held 18 rounds of talks with the Chinese to resolve the border dispute. Meanwhile, India remains a key participant in the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. As a founding member, India holds the second-largest number of voting shares after China, which at 30 percent effectively enjoys veto rights.
There’s no question that the United States and India have much in common. They are both open and argumentative societies. Diversity is the strength of both nations. Even so, it’s not the romance of shared values that is bringing the two countries together. It’s the reality check of geopolitics. India will agree that there is a strategic and urgent need to contain the spread of China, which is already throwing money at smaller countries in South Asia Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan to buy influence. China is also flexing its muscles in the Indian Ocean NewDelhi’s strategic backyard and the broader Indo-Pacific region. But let’s not confuse strategic cooperation for a long-term alliance. In a multipolar world, India will look to be a pole, not an exclusive partner.