India and the United States have rediscovered each other after the cordial hostility of the Cold War. Those years of isolation have made India’s political and financial elites susceptible to flattery. America’s courtship of India, lubricated by the economics of globalization and the post-9/11 zeal to spread democracy, is now being consummated in the American search for a democratic counterweight to China. But India is a chaotic democracy in a volatile neighborhood. Can it hitch itself to America without forfeiting its autonomy?

Foreign strategic experts exhort India, which is non-interventionist to its marrow, to act like...

India and the United States have rediscovered each other after the cordial hostility of the Cold War. Those years of isolation have made India’s political and financial elites susceptible to flattery. America’s courtship of India, lubricated by the economics of globalization and the post-9/11 zeal to spread democracy, is now being consummated in the American search for a democratic counterweight to China. But India is a chaotic democracy in a volatile neighborhood. Can it hitch itself to America without forfeiting its autonomy?

Foreign strategic experts exhort India, which is non-interventionist to its marrow, to act like a global power. Encouraged by a Washington consensus that has crashed American foreign policy and now offers to do the same for their own, India’s leaders envisage an external role its internal realities simply cannot sustain. The lure of a grand democratic alliance has addled the imaginations of India’s governing elite. In 2003, a coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party contemplated sending soldiers to Iraq as part of George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” The idea died when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s first BJP prime minister, evoked pan-Asian solidarity: “Indian soldiers will never be sent to kill their Iraqi brothers,” he told his cabinet, before pushing a resolution through parliament denouncing the war. But Narendra Modi, the BJP prime minister since 2014, has unhesitatingly signed on to Washington’s policy of containing China.

At first, the State Department worried that Modi might upend the emergent partnership. The Bush administration had banned Modi from entering the US for his failure to stop thousands of Muslims from being killed by Hindu mobs in 2002 when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. But Barack Obama aggressively courted Modi, and Modi reciprocated by reviving a logistics agreement with Washington that previous Indian administrations, wary of being dragooned into America’s endless wars, had rejected.

All the logistics agreement does, its proponents say, is formalize existing military-to-military arrangements. Each side’s armed forces can access the other’s designated facilities to retool and refuel. America’s massive assets are theoretically accessible to India, but they’re of no practical use, unless India goes to war with Guatemala. India’s assets, on the other hand, are immensely valuable to the American pivot to Asia.

Is Delhi putting too much store in a democratic alliance against China? “There is no bond that is stronger than a bond between two democracies,” Modi asserted in 2014. History, however, is replete with the miscalculations of those who mortgage their security to others. A pragmatic partnership with Washington is indispensable to India’s security and economy, but the pace of Modi’s pro-American tilt risks turning India into a frontline state in someone else’s China strategy. To its neighbors, India looks less like a defender of democracy and more like America’s latest recruit — a foot soldier for a Washington that, as an editor in Lahore put it to me, “may be dangerous as a foe but is deadly as a friend.”

The deepening security relationship with Washington has certainly not deterred India’s prime adversary. In 2020, when Chinese soldiers invaded Indian territory in the Himalayas, slaughtering Indian forces, Washington made noises but left India to fend for itself. Under Joe Biden, America has become even less dependable. The Biden administration portrays the crisis on Ukraine’s borders as an existential threat to democracy itself but maintains a meek silence about the threat to the world’s largest democracy from China.

Biden’s abrupt exit from Afghanistan has profound implications for India. Biden incinerated American credibility and granted Pakistan — a quasi-theocratic state for which India’s defeat is a religious imperative —the strategic depth against India it has always craved. For two decades, successive American administrations denied India a role in Afghanistan and instead made themselves dependent on Pakistan’s duplicitous cooperation.

The US’s preferred partner in the fight against the Taliban was the Taliban’s active patron and protector. The Bush administration upgraded Pakistan to the status of major non-NATO ally and filled its coffers with cash and its warehouses with weapons. The Obama administration overlooked Pakistan’s support for terrorism even after Osama bin Laden was discovered inside Pakistan in what appeared to be the protective embrace of its security services. As Afghanistan once again becomes a launchpad for terrorism, those weapons will now be directed at India’s border forces and civilians in its major cities.

India pays handsomely for American weapons, but have ordinary Indians gained from Washington’s friendship? American pressure on India to halt imports of Iranian crude oil resulted in soaring fuel prices for Indian consumers. Meanwhile China is allowed to stockpile Iranian oil at discounted rates. Last summer, at the peak of India’s second wave of Covid, the Biden administration refused to ease restrictions on the export of raw materials for vaccines to India. As the bodies piled up in the worst humanitarian catastrophe in India’s recent history, Russia stepped in with emergency supplies of oxygen and 400,000 doses of antiviral drugs a week. Yet the Biden administration now expects India to alienate Moscow in the cause of protecting democracy in Ukraine.

A security alliance in Asia comprising India, Japan, Australia and the United States is not only unavoidable; it may even be necessary. But Modi has granted the US unprecedented influence over Indian policies — and India is not getting a fair deal. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, advised his compatriots to “avoid any dependence on the USA.” The past few years have vindicated Nehru. India and China are ancient civilizations that are tied by geography and history. The US is an outsider and a latecomer, and it looks to Asian eyes like an empire decaying from its addiction to war. Rather than abase itself for America’s attention, India should take responsibility for its own security and prosperity.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India (Hurst). This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2022 World edition.