For two and a half decades, it has been a top and consistent goal for the United States across very different presidencies — encouraging the rise of India.
As New Delhi takes the global stage by leading the Group of 20 summit, President Joe Biden will be there as a cheerleader, even as US policymakers come to accept that India’s interests will at times be at odds with Washington’s.
The gathering comes the same year that India topped China as the most populous nation and surpassed its former colonizer Britain as the fifth-largest economy, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi being feted on visits to Washington, Paris and elsewhere.
“I think in some ways, Prime Minister Modi has wanted to make it India’s coming-out party to the world — as a major power, with its own independent voice, whose time has come,” Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said of this weekend’s G20 summit.
The United States has viewed the fellow democracy as a natural ally that can rival an autocratic and increasingly assertive China, which has clashed with India on their disputed border.
But India has stood firm against another US priority by refusing to isolate Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, a nod to its historic ties with Moscow. Heading into the G20, India has sought to play down geopolitics and seek consensus on development issues such as debt relief and climate change.
Rights groups also charge that the Western courting of Modi comes despite democratic backsliding under the Hindu nationalist leader, with attacks on religious minorities and harassment of critical media.
– Bridge between West and South –
Alyssa Ayres, who helped build relations with New Delhi as a State Department official, said it should come as no surprise that India, a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, remains “fiercely independent.”
She said that India saw no contradiction as it seeks “ties with all across the board.”
“It’s a mark of how India sees its leadership role that it has explicitly focused its G20 presidency on bridging concerns of the world’s largest economies with those of the Global South,” said Ayres, now dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
The Biden administration has repeatedly saluted Modi’s leadership and said it will work with India to achieve success at the G20, including on reforming international economic institutions.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, has said the United States also wants to show that the G20 can deliver — boosting the role of the US-backed group representing some 85 percent of global GDP at a time that the BRICS club of emerging economies, which includes India but has been championed largely by China, is expanding.
Aparna Pande, a South Asia expert at the Hudson Institute, said that India, in its quest to boost its own global role, has always favored a multipolar world rather than one dominated by a single power.
Despite its differences with the United States, India still offers a strong partner at a time that China is wooing developing countries, she said.
“India’s strong ties to the Global South — the former developing and non-aligned world -– make India the ideal bridge for the US and its allies,” she said.
– Agreeing to disagree on Russia –
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are both skipping the G20, an absence Biden is sure to use to his advantage.
Xi may have faced a frosty, sidelined reception in New Delhi. While India has not joined sanctions on Russia, Putin’s presence would have proven a major distraction as he is shunned by the West and faces an international arrest warrant.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States was “very concerned” about India’s position but has “grudgingly accepted it,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the nonpartisan Wilson Center think tank.
“I think that Washington may even see India’s position as one that could have advantages for the US if there is a desire down the road to try to push for some type of mediated, negotiated end to the war,” Kugelman said.
Kugelman added he believed the Biden administration, which has called human rights a priority, was “quietly concerned” about domestic developments inside India but has decided it is best to “stay quiet.”
The administration has decided that “if the US were to start flagging the rights and democracy issue, that would risk imperiling a relationship that is much too important for the US to lose,” he said.