Not the Hedge You’re Looking For: Why India’s Rise is Not the Fix for Great Power Competition (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Sean J. Spata, Spring 2024 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The United States has the opportunity to adjust its strategic partnership with India to account for its most pressing geopolitical rivals. Namely, China’s continued domineering of Southeast Asian waterways, expansion of its “no limits” partnership with Russia, and expanding economy could provide pressure for the United States to clamor for new allies. In India, American policymakers see the potential to hedge against a rising China and empower a growing democracy and technological powerhouse. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ushered in a new era of Indian prosperity, and India’s interest in being a lynchpin in global affairs continues to rise.

However, relying upon India in this manner would be a grievous error. The United States has a history of collaboration with states whose intentions it does not fully understand in order to defeat or deter their current rival. Sometimes, this approach has generally benefitted the world, as with the alliance with the Soviet Union in order to defeat the Axis Powers. In others, it has played a part in creating the next great geopolitical rivalry, as the United States expanded its relationship with China to hedge against the Soviet Union, only to end up embroiled in great power competition with Beijing decades later. India’s recent rise and relatively unknown goals for the future are hard to assess, but recent trends do not bode well for a formal alliance. The expansion of a sometimes-violent Hindu nationalism, the suppression of opposition forces, and the sudden uncoordinated assassination attempts of Indian targets in North America show an India that wants to steer for itself.

The United States benefits most by planning parallel to India versus planning with it. Interacting periodically through mini-lateral organizations provides a reasonable framework to both build a secure relationship with India while continuing to make more informed assessments on the world India envisions. Embracing this new, powerful India with little regard for where they see the United States in the future could be a recipe for future direct competition and conflict.

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