Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, and United States Army. In addition to Divergent Options, he has been published in the Center for International Maritime Security, the Washington MonthlyMerion WestWisdom of CrowdsCharged AffairsBraver Angels, and more. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki, on Medium at https://mdpurzycki.medium.com/, and on Substack at The Non-Progressive Democrat.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Options for the U.S. to Approach India as a Fellow Superpower

Date Originally Written:  June 12, 2022.

Date Originally Published:  June 27, 2022.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes good relations between the United States and India, including respect for India as a fellow superpower, are vital for confronting challenges to U.S. interests, especially those presented by China. The author views India as a fellow superpower to the U.S. due to its population, gross domestic product, economic expansion in recent decades, military strength, and possession of nuclear weapons.

Background:  Across the early 21st century, the U.S. has developed closer political and security relations with India. The two countries participate in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“the Quad”)[1], a forum for coordinating security activities and holding joint military exercises[2], alongside U.S. allies Australia and Japan. In 2016, the U.S. designated India a Major Defense Partner (MDP), a status similar to that of Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA)[3].

Significance:  How Washington chooses to approach India will have extremely important implications for U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. efforts to confront and balance China. Respecting India as a fellow superpower will help the U.S. maximize the potential for positive bilateral relations.

Option #1:  The U.S. upgrades its MDP with India to a bilateral military alliance, placing India on the level of a fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member.

Risk:  A formal U.S.-India alliance would frighten and anger China, seemingly confirming the fears of Chinese officials that the U.S. is seeking to surround it militarily. China would likely seek to increase its already close military and political ties with Russia[4]. Furthermore, if China believes it is about to be completely encircled geopolitically, it may believe it has a limited window of opportunity to bring Taiwan under its control, thus encouraging an invasion of the island.

This option would also frighten and anger Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state that has been a rival of India since their mutual independence from British rule in 1947. Although Pakistan is an MNNA of the U.S.[5], it is also a long-standing partner of China, a relationship motivated in large part by their shared rivalry with India[6]. Among other things, Pakistan may respond by refusing to cooperate with the U.S. in its approach to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Gain:  The prospect of two nuclear-armed states allied against China could make Beijing think twice about any aggressive move it made against the U.S. (either directly, or against a U.S. ally or partner like Japan or Taiwan) or against India (such as renewed border conflicts in the Himalayas)[7]. Option #1 would also mean that all of the U.S.’s fellow Quad members would be treaty allies[8][9], potentially turning the Quad into an Indo-Pacific equivalent of NATO. A formal alliance with the U.S. could also pull India away from Russia; the effects of India’s close relations with the Soviet Union, including in the area of arms sales, have lingered into the 21st century[10].

Option #2:  The U.S. tightens its security links to India short of a formal alliance, including efforts to build up India’s defense industrial base.

Risk:  Even without a formal alliance, any increase in U.S.-India defense cooperation will still worry China and Pakistan. Additionally, U.S. efforts to make India less dependent on foreign sources for its military equipment could irritate France, which sees increased defense exports to many countries, including India[11], as a key component of its security policy[12]. The diplomatic row in 2021 over Australia’s decision to cancel its purchase of French submarines in favor of U.S. vessels is a precedent the U.S. may want to avoid repeating[13].

Gain:  As well as deepening U.S.-India security cooperation, the U.S. building up India’s defense industry can decrease its reliance on Russia as a major provider of military equipment[14].

Option #3:  The U.S. Navy reactivates the First Fleet, and assigns a portion of the Indian Ocean as its area of responsibility.

Risk:  If the First Fleet takes waters away from the Seventh Fleet[15], it risks dividing the Indian and Pacific portions of U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. This division could complicate any comprehensive U.S. effort to balance and counter Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region[16].

Gain:  Devoting a numbered fleet to the Indian Ocean[17] would signal a U.S. commitment to good relations with India, indicating that a good relationship is not merely an adjunct of Washington’s approach to China.

Option #4:  The U.S. defers to India as de facto hegemon of South Asia, intentionally putting U.S. interests in South Asia second to India’s.

Risk:  If the U.S. treats part of the world as India’s sphere of influence without any prioritization of U.S. interests there, it could set a dangerous precedent. This option would give rhetorical ammunition to Russia in its attempt to forcibly incorporate Ukraine (as well as potential attempts to bring other Eastern European countries into its sphere), and to China in its desire to gain control of Taiwan and expand its control in the South China Sea.

Encouraging India to see itself as rightfully dominant in its region could also make conflict between India and China more likely in locations where both powers have security interests, such as Afghanistan[18] and Tajikistan[19][20]. Option #4 would also run the risk of making Pakistan more anxious, and of curtailing U.S. efforts to fight Islamist extremism in Afghanistan.

Gain:  Deferring to India in South Asia would free up U.S. time, attention, and resources to protect its interests elsewhere, particularly interests related to competition with China in the Western Pacific, and with Russia in Eastern Europe. 

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendations:  None.


[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. “Japan-Australia-India-U.S.(Quad) Leaders’ Meeting.” May 24, 2022. https://www.mofa.go.jp/fp/nsp/page1e_000402.html

[2] Rajagopalan, Rajeswari Pillai. “The Quad Conducts Malabar Naval Exercise.” The Diplomat, August 27, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/the-quad-conducts-malabar-naval-exercise/

[3] U.S. Department of State. “U.S. Security Cooperation With India.” January 20, 2021. https://www.state.gov/u-s-security-cooperation-with-india.

[4] Kofman, Michael. “The Emperors League: Understanding Sino-Russian Defense Cooperation.” War on the Rocks, August 6, 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/08/the-emperors-league-understanding-sino-russian-defense-cooperation/

[5] U.S. Department of State. “Major Non-NATO Ally Status.” January 20, 2021. https://www.state.gov/major-non-nato-ally-status/

[6] Khalid, Masood. “Pakistan-China Relations in a Changing Geopolitical Environment.” Institute of South Asian Studies, November 30, 2021. https://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/papers/pakistan-china-relations-in-a-changing-geopolitical-environment/

[7] Slater, Joanna. “Soldiers injured in fresh border skirmish between India and China.” Washington Post, January 25, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/india-china-clash-sikkim/2021/01/25/7d82883c-5edb-11eb-a177-7765f29a9524_story.html

[8] U.S. Department of State. “U.S. Relations With Japan.” January 20, 2020. https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-japan/

[9] U.S. Department of State. “U.S. Relations With Australia.” June 9, 2022. https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-australia/

[10] Sharma, Ashok. “India to boost arms output, fearing shortfall from Russia.” Associated Press, April 7, 2022. https://abc17news.com/news/2022/04/07/india-to-boost-arms-output-fearing-shortfall-from-russia/.

[11] Shiraishi, Togo and Moyuru Baba. “France and India partner on weapons tech in blow to Russia.” Nikkei Asia, May 6, 2022. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/France-and-India-partner-on-weapons-tech-in-blow-to-Russia.

[12] Mackenzie, Christina. “Here’s what’s behind France’s 72% jump in weapons exports.” Defense News, March 10, 2020. https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2020/03/10/heres-whats-behind-frances-72-jump-in-weapons-exports/

[13] Willsher, Kim. “France recalls ambassadors to US and Australia after Aukus pact.” Guardian, September 17, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/17/france-recalls-ambassadors-to-us-and-australia-after-aukus-pact

[14] Banerjee, Vasabjit and Benjamin Tkach. “Helping India Replace Russia in the Value Arms Market.” War on the Rocks, May 20, 2022. https://warontherocks.com/2022/05/helping-india-replace-russia-in-the-value-arms-market/

[15] “USN Fleets (2009).” Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USN_Fleets_(2009).png

[16] White House. “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States.” February 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific-Strategy.pdf

[17] Eckstein, Megan. “SECNAV Braithwaite Calls for New U.S. 1st Fleet Near Indian, Pacific Oceans.” USNI News, November 17, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/11/17/secnav-braithwaite-calls-for-new-u-s-1st-fleet-near-indian-pacific-oceans

[18] Adlakha, Hemant. “Will the China-Pakistan-Taliban troika in Afghanistan make India irrelevant?” Hindustan Times, January 18, 2022. https://www.hindustantimes.com/ht-insight/international-affairs/will-the-china-pakistan-taliban-troika-in-afghanistan-make-india-irrelevant-101642409043057.html

[19] Dutta, Sujan. “India renews interest in running its first foreign military base in Tajikistan.” Print, October 11, 2018. https://theprint.in/defence/india-renews-interest-in-running-its-first-foreign-military-base-in-tajikistan/132454/

[20] Shih, Gerry. “In Central Asia’s forbidding highlands, a quiet newcomer: Chinese troops.” Washington Post, February 18, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-central-asias-forbidding-highlands-a-quiet-newcomer-chinese-troops/2019/02/18/78d4a8d0-1e62-11e9-a759-2b8541bbbe20_story.html