US Containment of China
America has High Expectations for India. Can New Delhi Deliver?
India is a big deal in Washington these days. A wave of think tank reports, books and op-eds identify India as a key component of US grand strategy. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the US National Security Strategy heralded an important Indian role in containing China. India is also a part of “the Quad” of democracies worried about the rise of China, along with Japan, the US, and Australia. President Donald Trump has even encouraged a greater Indian role in Afghanistan.
India is a ray of optimism about the ability of the United States to sustain its position in Asia. Successive administrations have been strongly pro-India since 2000, but the rise of China has heightened the urgency of the threats the United States faces in the region. Closer ties with India are seen by many as a key component of, in Ashley Tellis’ words, “protecting American hegemony” by keeping China out of the Indian Ocean, occupying its conventional forces, supporting America’s balancing efforts in Southeast Asia, and underpinning the broader US-led economic and political order in Asia. This strategic bet on India — providing diplomatic support and offering valuable deals in exchange for closer future ties — makes long-term sense.
But Washington should not talk itself into excessive optimism about India’s ability to help the United States manage the pressing challenges it faces in Asia in the years to come. India is a hard-pressed power, facing deep domestic challenges and tightly constrained by powerful adversaries on its borders. There are real limits to what it can deliver, yet these often seem better understood in Delhi than in Washington DC. American policymakers and analysts need to keep their expectations for India limited and realistic to avoid unpleasant surprises.
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