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Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

No bilateral relationship has deepened and strengthened more rapidly over the last two decades than the one between the United States and India. In fact, Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to the U.S. will be his eighth as India’s Prime Minister, and his second since U.S. President Joe Biden took office. The U.S. has at least as much to gain from the growing closeness as India does.

India just overtook China in population size, and although its economy remains smaller, it is growing faster. In fact, India is now the world’s fastest-growing major economy, with GDP having already surpassed that of the United Kingdom and on track to overtake that of Germany. India thus represents a major export market for the U.S., including for weapons.

But commercial opportunities are just the beginning. In an era of sharpening geopolitical competition, the U.S. is seeking partners to help it counter the growing influence – and assertiveness – of China (and its increasingly close ally Russia). India is an obvious partner for its fellow democracies in the West, though what it really represents is a critical “swing state” in the struggle to shape the future of the Indo-Pacific and the world order more broadly. The U.S. cannot afford for it to swing toward the emerging Russia-China alliance.

Consider America’s quest to bolster supply-chain resilience through so-called friend-shoring. As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has explained, India is among the “trusted trading partners” with which the U.S. is “proactively deepening economic integration,” as it attempts to diversify its trade “away from countries that present geopolitical and security risks” to its supply chain.

India is also integral to maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Its military standoff with China – now entering its 38th month – is a case in point. By refusing to back down, India is openly challenging Chinese expansionism, while making it more difficult for China to make a move on Taiwan.

Fortifying the strategic relationship with India is one of the rare issues eliciting bipartisan consensus in the U.S. The latest invitation to Modi to address the U.S. Congress – he is the first Indian leader to do so twice – came from Democratic and Republican leaders alike.

Nonetheless, plenty of skeptics in the West believe that U.S. efforts to cement strategic ties with India will disappoint. A key concern is India’s commitment to retaining its strategic independence. While India has rarely mentioned non-alignment since Mr. Modi came to power, in practice, it has been multi-aligned. As it has deepened its partnerships with democratic powers, it has also maintained its traditionally close relationship with Russia.

But India’s relationships with the U.S. and Russia seem to be moving in opposite directions. India is building a broad and multifaceted partnership with the U.S. – covering everything from cooperation on human spaceflight to the construction of resilient semiconductor supply chains – whereas its relationship with Russia now seems limited almost exclusively to defence and energy.

Nonetheless, India is not prepared to shun Russia, as the West has since the invasion of Ukraine, not least because India still views Russia as a valuable counterweight to China. In India’s view, China and Russia are not natural allies at all, but natural competitors that have been forced together by U.S. policy.

This is not the only area where India believes that U.S. policy undermines Indian security interests. India also takes issue with America’s insistence on maintaining severe sanctions on Myanmar and Iran, while coddling Pakistan, where mass arrests, disappearances, and torture have become the norm.

The U.S. is not accustomed to being challenged by its partners. Its traditional, Cold War-style alliances position the U.S. as the “hub” and its allies as the “spokes.” But this will never work with India. As the White House’s Asia policy czar, Kurt Campbell, has acknowledged, “India has a unique strategic character,” and “a desire to be an independent, powerful state.” Far from a U.S. client, India “will be another great power.”

Mr. Campbell is right. But that does not mean that the skeptics are also right. While a traditional treaty-based alliance with India would not work, the kind of soft alliance the U.S. is pursuing, which requires no pact but does include, as Mr. Campbell also underlined, “people-to-people ties” and cooperation on “technology and the like,” can benefit both sides.

The U.S. and India are united by shared strategic interests, not least in maintaining a rules-based Indo-Pacific free of coercion. As long as China remains on its current course, so will the Indo-American relationship.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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