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Ashutosh Varshney writes on PM Modi’s US visit: Why Indian democracy’s liberal deficits are not a dealbreaker for the US

Reflecting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States, this column is about the primacy of geopolitics, or national security, over economics and democracy in international relations. Whether that should be so is not my principal concern here. That geopolitics typically overrides other considerations is my principal argument. Let me first state why.

In the field of international relations, which deals with the external, not internal, conduct of modern states, a central assumption is that nations are primarily guided by security. The underlying philosophical claim comes from Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), whose book Leviathan (1651), written during the English Civil War, made the argument that without public order and security, which only a government could provide, lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Basic human life requires order and security.

While Hobbes wrote this argument about the English Civil War, the international system has been the site of its greatest application in modern times (though it has been tried internally, too). Unlike national polities, the international system does not have a government. The United Nations is not a sovereign authority. Lacking world government, it is the primary task of nations to make themselves secure. If there is no security, societies can’t pursue freedom or development, protect citizen rights, or provide justice.

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How are these considerations relevant to the emerging shape of Indo-US relations? As US-China tensions began to escalate and as India-China border clashes re-surfaced after decades, India acquired a “sweet spot” in American calculations. Between 1996-2016, the central assumption of US foreign policy was that as China got more deeply entangled in the international economic networks, it would abandon its Communist past and become more like the West. Markets and trade would lead to political liberalisation. The rise of Xi Jinping in 2012 cast doubts on the validity of this proposition, but a new revisionist conclusion did not instantly emerge. Revisionism crystallised first under Donald Trump’s Republican administration (2016-20). Now under Joe Biden’s democratic dispensation, the assumption appears ready for burial. Republicans and Democrats agree on virtually nothing today, but there is a bipartisan consensus against China. China is now viewed as the prime adversary, bigger than Russia.

With China as the elephant in the room, India’s security concerns about China and those of the US have begun to overlap. By giving India access to the kind of defence technologies reserved only for allies, the US has for all practical purposes announced that even without a formal alliance, which India’s independent international stance would in any case not have allowed, India is a close strategic partner.

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The changing US narrative about China under Xi Jinping, of course, has larger implications. Likely now is a revitalisation of an otherwise shaky Quad, which brings India, Japan, Australia and the US together. Feeling insecure due to an alliance of a nuclear North Korea and a nuclear China and unsure about the US security guarantee, Japan and/or South Korea may well consider acquiring nuclear weapons. Whether such moves will deter China or inflame it further, making security worse, remains unclear. But that need not detain us here.

Overall, guiding these emerging rearrangements is the assumption that Deng Xiaoping’s China was a partner, but Xi Jinping’s China is a threat. The Ukraine war has crystallised the fear that China might seek to capture Taiwan militarily. China’s Taiwan claim mirrors Russia’s Ukraine argument. Both say that these smaller countries were historically part of their territories and should, therefore, have no independent existence. But compared to Ukraine, Taiwan’s GDP is four times larger, its per capita income seven times bigger, and Taiwan is also a world capital of the semiconductor industry. Added to the fact that China is the second largest economy in the world, a Chinese attack on Taiwan has the potential of reshaping the world order in a way that the Ukraine war simply cannot. Whether or not China invades Taiwan, the US is preparing for that possibility.

Ironically, if China had not occupied miles of territory around the Sino-Indian border, deepening India’s concerns, India would not have been in such a sweet spot. India made no great compromises on Ukraine in Washington (nor was that expected), yet India has received an alliance-like partnership. The joint statement is comprehensive, ranging from investment in defence and civilian technologies to clean energy, trade, supply chains and scientific collaboration. The US is clearly making a long-term bet on India. Xi has produced what Deng could not.

Under this framework, let us now discuss economics and democracy. That Modi’s meetings in Washington included the top corporate elites of the US suggests that some of the biggest private US corporations are beginning to think of India as a bigger part of their long-term planning. With a $3.3 trillion GDP, India’s current attractions pale in comparison to China, whose GDP, second only to the US, is five times larger. But big investments are made on the basis of long-term calculations, not profits here and now. If US-China tensions go up further, especially if Taiwan is invaded, American and Western private investments will no longer be an economic, but a security matter. Willy-nilly, corporations have to pay attention to US security. Hence, India’s markets become important.

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What about democracy? Fundamentally, right since the 1950s, US foreign policy has repeatedly given primacy to geopolitics over democracy. During the Cold War, it partnered with an authoritarian Pakistan rather than a democratic India. And, with marginal ups and downs, its alliance with a dictatorial Saudi Arabia has been enduring. Besides, India’s polity today remains democratic in one significant sense. Currently, 13 out of 28 states have non-BJP governments. India has democratic deficits, especially on minority rights and freedom of expression and civil society, but it is not undemocratic. To put it in theoretical terms, it is not a liberal democracy, but it is an electoral democracy. That difference should certainly matter to India’s minorities and the liberals worldwide, but it does not make India into a China or a Russia.

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Effectively, it means that India will be reminded of its liberal deficits, by Democratic legislators and even by an Obama, as he did. But for the present US government, it simply isn’t a deal breaker. For the US, a red line might well appear, though not for sure, if India ceases to be an electoral democracy.

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The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at the Watson Institute

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