First, Ashley Tellis’ new piece in Foreign Affairs is an eyebrow-raiser because he has been a foremost proponent of closer India-US ties, both while in government and since. The headline is perhaps a bit hyperbolic (“America’s Bad Bet on India”) but the piece is nevertheless striking. I’ve expressed skepticism about the ceiling of India-US strategic alignment in this 2018 War on the Rocks article (some of which has held up well, some of which hasn’t) and noted many countries’ lack of interest in the “liberal international order” in this 2018 Lawfare piece, so have sympathies with some of the claims.
That being said, I’m just not sure how much “the bet” being good or bad rests on India becoming tightly aligned with the United States – it all hinges on what you expected and what you think is a “good enough” outcome. It would not shock me at all if India was able to extract some benefits from the US partnership while also partnering with Russia, France, etc, and possibly even arriving at a rapprochement with China, and avoiding an overwhelmingly prioritized relationship/alignment with the US in doing so.
That would certainly be very far from India being a core strategic ally building a pro-American order in Asia as a major importer of US weapons systems, a goal which appears in some of Tellis’ own past writings (see his contribution here, for instance). But such a dramatic outcome always seemed fairly unlikely to me, so it’s hard to get too exercised about its failure to come to fruition. A more muddling-along, better-but-not-harmonious approach seems potentially plausible and adequate, too, shorn of high-flying rhetoric and accurately characterized in public discourse.
Much also rests on how you think about the need for, nature of, and best approach to US competition with the PRC – is a broadly bigger, richer India a net benefit for the US, regardless of anything else, or does it need much closer integration into America’s security infrastructure in Asia? If you’re more relaxed about China, or think it primarily needs economic/diplomatic responses, then the former seems just fine; if you see a highly-militarized, rapidly intensifying present-danger arms race in which the US, Japan, and India are seriously on the backfoot in the face of the PRC, then a more institutionalized, security-oriented partnership, a la the latter outcome, is more necessary. That answer might also affect what you are interested in offering India.
Anyways, it’s an important piece worth reading and reflecting upon:
“Washington’s current expectations of India are misplaced. India’s significant weaknesses compared with China, and its inescapable proximity to it, guarantee that New Delhi will never involve itself in any U.S. confrontation with Beijing that does not directly threaten its own security. India values cooperation with Washington for the tangible benefits it brings but does not believe that it must, in turn, materially support the United States in any crisis—even one involving a common threat such as China.
The fundamental problem is that the United States and India have divergent ambitions for their security partnership. As it has done with allies across the globe, Washington has sought to strengthen India’s standing within the liberal international order and, when necessary, solicit its contributions toward coalition defense. Yet New Delhi sees things differently. It does not harbor any innate allegiance toward preserving the liberal international order and retains an enduring aversion toward participating in mutual defense. It seeks to acquire advanced technologies from the United States to bolster its own economic and military capabilities and thus facilitate its rise as a great power capable of balancing China independently, but it does not presume that American assistance imposes any further obligations on itself.
As the Biden administration proceeds to expand its investment in India, it should base its policies on a realistic assessment of Indian strategy and not on any delusions of New Delhi becoming a comrade-in-arms during some future crisis with Beijing.”
Second, Laxman Kumar Behera has a working paper with IGCC on how he characterizes India’s approach to strategic competition with China. It comes in quite differently on the India-US relationship (“India has forged a strong defense and security partnership with the United States. This is evident on multiple counts”) and has a much greater focus on geoeconomics and economic innovation, as opposed to hard security, compared to Tellis (who differentiates “high politics” from “low politics” in his piece). It’s definitely a different lens for thinking about where India’s strategy focuses, and I found a lot of the data pretty interesting as someone how doesn’t focus on technology or economic statecraft. Go forth and read (it’s less copy-and-paste summarizeable than the much shorter Tellis article).