SINGH: India Can Counter China, But Only With A US Plan Beyond ‘Diplomatic Gardening

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Manisha Singh Global Policy Consultant
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington presents an opportunity for the Biden administration to clarify how it views India’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. It’s common for Western alliances to refer to India as a partner that can counterbalance the threats posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

This strategy, however, requires much more explanation. It’s not clear exactly the U.S. seeks from India. It’s also worth asking if Mr. Modi sees his country in this role. India has taken advantage of this proposition in both bilateral and multilateral settings. However, Mr. Modi has yet to affirmatively embrace it beyond mere acknowledgment that India is being asked to step up.

India has navigated its relationship with the PRC carefully. There are differences ranging from border disputes to a clash of civilizations. The last outbreak of conflict at the roughly 2,100 mile border, known as the Line of Actual Control, occurred in Dec. 2022. Such skirmishes, however, have not prevented Mr. Modi from visiting the PRC five times as prime minister. He has also hosted President Xi Jinping in India.

Each has acknowledged the reality that mutual economic cooperation is highly beneficial for both nations. They differ, however, on the global role of their respective countries. Mr. Modi has consistently stated that he envisions a multipolar world with diverse power centers. Despite what media may come from the PRC, it is clear that Mr. Xi is setting a course to unseat America and its Western allies.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on his recent trip to Beijing with managed expectations. He returned with little to show other than “diplomatic gardening” — a weak take home at a time when the American government should be demanding answers for PRC actions in the South China Sea among other things. There should have been an explanation for the PRC spy balloon, now being referred to by President Joe Biden as “embarrassing rather than intentional” for the Chinese. It’s hard to imagine that the Biden administration’s recent posture will inspire Mr. Modi to don his gloves and enter the ring with the PRC.

The Modi visit comes in the midst of his country’s G20 presidency. Despite their conflicts, India and the PRC have a shared interest in the success of this relatively new institution. An outgrowth of the marginally relevant G7, the G20 was created to be more inclusive and focus on the world’s largest economies. India has just overtaken the PRC in population numbers. It continues to achieve an impressive annual economic growth rate. The size of the PRC economy is larger, however, second only to America. Mr. Modi realizes that economic cooperation with the PRC is critical to maintaining India’s tremendous growth percentage. It remains to be seen how he will manage the commercial relationship when the next border clash occurs. And it will.

As for Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken’s next steps, it’s essential that their team lay out a clearer vision for the Indo-Pacific. This includes a defined partnership with India which encompasses American allies, such as Australia and Japan. They should look beyond the Quadrilateral Dialogue as well. They must engage smaller Pacific Island nations, which will easily succumb to PRC influence out of both coercion and necessity. It’s also critical that they define military objectives in the event of a potential confrontation with Taiwan.

The Trump administration redefined U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM as Indo-Pacific Command, now INDOPACOM. This made clear to India that it is central to American strategy in the Pacific rim. The Biden administration should now take the step of challenging India to come forward as a leader, not only in its region, but also on the global stage.

Mr. Modi has indicated that he feels for India, the time is now. He can demonstrate this in Washington this week. Although significant expectations were not announced in advance, a surprise substantive outcome from his visit would be welcome. It might restore confidence in the American people that they do indeed have a strong partner in India. Mr. Modi can reassure that India, along with America and its allies, will be the needed balance against the global influence of the PRC.

Manisha Singh served as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs from 2017-2021. She is currently a principal at Sunstone Strategy Group and serves on the board of advisors at the American Foreign Policy Council.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.