Ashley Tellis explains why the logic of U.S.-India ties is misunderstood by so many and why exactly the United States and India share a strategic convergence when it comes to China.
For nearly twenty years, relations between the United States and India have been on the upswing. Once a nuclear pariah and a country tagged as an important partner of the former Soviet Union, India has steadily grown closer to America since the start of the George W. Bush administration.
This week, Milan talks with Ashley J. Tellis, co-author (with former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill) of a new essay in Foreign Affairs called, “The India Dividend.” Ashley holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and was a key protagonist, during his time in the U.S. government, in the project to bolster U.S.-India ties. Ashley explains why the logic of U.S.-India ties is misunderstood by so many and why exactly the United States and India share a strategic convergence when it comes to China. Milan also asks Ashley about how the two countries can resolve flashpoints like Russia, Iran, and trade and how to assess the significance is of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent trip to the United States.
Introduction: 00:00 "Unabashed" "The most unpredictable" "becomes a headline." "The most volatile" "outrageous behavior." “Unsubstantiated narratives" "A battle of personalities."
Milan Vaishnav: 00:11 Welcome to the Grand Tamasha. I'm your host Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. For nearly 20 years, relations between the United States and India had been on the upswing once a nuclear pariah and a country tagged as an important partner of the former Soviet union. India has steadily grown closer to America since the start of the George W. Bush administration. I guess on the show today, Ashley J. Tellis occupies a unique role. He was a key protagonist facilitating the gradual warming of ties between America and India. Outside of government, he has been one of America's foremost scholars of Indian foreign policy. Ashley's the coauthor with former us ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill of a new essay in Foreign Affairs called "The India Dividend." I'm pleased to welcome him back to the show today. Ashley, thanks for coming on.
Ashley Tellis: 00:52 Thank you, Milan. It's a pleasure to be back.
Milan Vaishnav: 00:54 In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs. You've written an important piece with Ambassador Bob Blackwill with whom you served when he was the ambassador to India on the U.S.-India relationship. In the piece you write, and I want to quote "the logic of the U.S.-Indian partnership remains misunderstood by many." So let's start from the beginning. In your view, how should we understand the U.S.-India relationship and in what way has the bilateral ties, what ways have they been misunderstood?
Ashley Tellis: 01:22 Well, the key misunderstanding is that many Americans expected that the relationship with India would slowly evolve into an alliance-like relationship where India would move in lock step with the United States on key issues of international importance. I think that is a big misunderstanding because the expectation that we had when we were rebuilding the relationship was that India's partnership with us would not result in any fundamental abrogation of India's right to make its own sovereign choices. We would, however, work closely on the issues where our interests were aligned. And the big question of course was China. And even with respect to China, we wanted India to be able to work with us in balancing China in its own way as opposed to becoming a camp follower of the United States. And because many expect that India should be a camp follower in repayment for all the benefits that the U.S. Has afforded it. It's opened the door to enormous frustrations of course in Washington and also New Delhi.
Milan Vaishnav: 02:34 So I want to ask you a little bit or push you a little bit on this alliances point because I think it's something that some of our listeners who may not be as familiar with Indian foreign policy don't instinctively get. Where does this allergy of alliances come from within the establishment in New Delhi? You know, the United States of America has alliances with, you know, dozens of countries around the world and that's part and parcel of American foreign policy.
Ashley Tellis: 02:58 I think it's a deep legacy of India's colonial experience where India felt subjugated by the West and when it got its independence in '47, it saw that as a moment when India would now have the freedom to sort of plow its own path in international politics. And it's not that Indians don't want to have preferential relations with certain countries. They certainly do, but they want to have those preferential relationships on their own terms. And when Americans think of alliances, they think of alliances in much more restrictive ways. And so the allergy that the Indians have is to the restrictive version of alliances that comes very naturally to Americans when they think of alliances. And that's really, I think what, what, what the nub is.
Milan Vaishnav: 03:47 So you mentioned the role of China and I want to come back to this. So in the essay you write that, you know the Bush administration, which you are a part of, set aside, you know, sort of conventional U.S. Non-Proliferation policy in order to embrace India and build the latter's position as a way of balancing or hedging against China. Now you and I both know many Indians sort of shrink at that description of, you know, the partnership between the U.S. And India, somehow China balancing strategy. Do the two countries have fundamentally different views about what they're getting out of this warm embrace?
Ashley Tellis: 04:20 I don't think so, but the relationship is clearly susceptible to misunderstanding, which is why we also wrote the piece. India wants to balance China because India has a rivalry with China that is quite apart from the U.S. Rivalries with China. So I don't think there is an issue about India's balancing of China. The question really is whether India will be a foot soldier in the grand American plan to balance China. And I think that is a bridge too far. So what we tried to do in the Bush administration was to recognize that the U.S. Has an interest in balancing China. India has an interest in balancing China independently of U.S. Engagements with China. What is the point of intersection of these two interests and is there enough space there in that intersection to forge a collaboration? And I think we concluded that there was sufficient space as long as we were willing to do things subtly with a nod and a wink and give India the freedom to go its own way without having to constantly look to the U.S. For its own bearings, visa each China.
Milan Vaishnav: 05:32 Now underpinning the sort of us bet was this policy which you call the piece strategic altruism now in a world of sort of a real politic in which countries have to take, you know, very hard nose calculations about the future. Any policy built on altruism seems, you know, somewhat Pollyannish but you have a different view, you know, describe why.
Ashley Tellis: 05:56 Well because I think you can't understand altruism without the preface. Strategic, the United States has been a strategic altruist in the international system towards its allies since 1947. The entire hegemonic compact of the post war order has been that the United States will bear extraordinary costs to create an open economic system so that its partners can trade, grow rich and become more capable and would not have to pay quote unquote their fair share for security. The U.S. Would take those responsibilities because a well-ordered international system is ultimately in America's own interest. So the strategic altruism that we are advocating with respect to India is really an extension of the strategic altruism the United States extended to Western Europe and to its Asian partners like Japan and South Korea. It's no different because it's not saying that the U.S. Essentially has to open the floodgates and given the all the goodies that it wants, it just means that the U.S. Has to be more open to the idea that it will make supernormal contributions in the bilateral relationship.
Milan Vaishnav: 07:12 Because our strategic objective is to elevate India's power and the elevation of Indian power provides us an additional form of reassurance in the effort of balancing China. And so we will all base look at altruism from the viewpoint of our own self interest. But what, worries us is that the evolution of the Trump administration has resulted in us being excessively transactional and urging India to essentially pay its own way. And I think that is essentially an untenable foundation to sustain this partnership.
Milan Vaishnav: 07:45 So I want to come to the Trump administration because you spend a fair amount of time in your essay talking about what's changed and what hasn't. And in the piece you argue that, you know, the Trump administration in many ways, has sort of complicated us India ties because I'm gonna quote here, president Trump has a narrower and more self-centered conception of U.S. National interest, which raises the obvious follow on question, which is how does this particular president view India?
Ashley Tellis: 08:12 Okay, so there are two parts to that. Let me start with the first actually Trump's view is that all alliances must be partnerships of equals and everyone has to make essentially equal contributions. And that's the reason why he's gone after European partners and our Japanese partners to increase their contributions to alliance management. The traditional us view was that there would always be differences in the contributions, right? That same principle has now been applied to India, that if India is to enjoy the full benefits of the partnership of the United States, it must step up. And stepping up, I think for many in the Trump administration, means that India must reform its economic policies first and foremost to allow for greater trade openness. So that market access for American goods increases to India must circumscribe its foreign policy choices and make hard decisions between China and the United States.
Ashley Tellis: 09:16 For example, initiatives with relating to 5G. Make hard decisions for the United States against Russia for example, on issues relating to the S-400 and so on and so forth. I think this sort of an approach is going to be very difficult for the Indians to comply with it. And that's what puts at risk the achievements of the last 20 years. We've got to think of the relationship with India in a much broader sense, which is we are trying to build a partnership for the future in a world that's going to be very complex and where we are going to have many challenges and it really doesn't serve our self-interests to be negotiating with India over nickels and dimes over the price to be paid in order to make that partnership real.
Milan Vaishnav: 10:00 But you know, just to play devil's advocate, Ashley, a view you often hear in kind of establishment Delhi is okay, you want to have a closer relationship. You, Washington, want to have a close relationship with New Delhi, but we also have a preexisting history with other other countries and other powers and Russia is one of them. And Russia historically has been a major defense supplier of ours. So we are purchasing the S-400 missile system and in that in no way should impinge on U.S.-Indian relations. Now the Washington response as well if you buy this major piece of Russian defense material we have real problems if you also want to buy us equipment because you know, then you've kind of given the Russians of backdoor into to everything and that's fundamentally not in our interest. You know, how do you, how do you balance this trade off?
Ashley Tellis: 10:50 So those are difficult choices that India will have to take a call on because if India is willing to sacrifice the lack of opportunities offered by the U.S. Down the line because of certain choices, it makes, it will have to live with those choices. I think all of that the United States needs to do is to alert India to the complications that its choices make. But if we attempt to compel India to make certain choices, no matter how sort of enlightened long-term interests may be, I fear that India will resile and we will lose the opportunity to build that productive partnership. So for me, the question really is this, an enlightened American policy would be one that creates space for India to enjoy its relations with other powers as it sees fit, except when there are fundamental U.S. National security interests at stake. And at that point it is completely understandable if the U.S. Asks its partners to make hard decisions. I cannot convince myself that the S 400 represents that issue, which is a fundamental strategic interest of the United States and therefore requires us to compel India to forego a preexisting agreement with Russia and agreement that predates the Trump administration.
Milan Vaishnav: 12:16 And if that's your view on Russia, what about your view on Iran? I mean, India has historically imported lots of oil from Iran. Again, there's a preexisting relationship. They have a lot of mutual interests including in Afghanistan and among others. Is that something that meets the threshold in your view of, you know, violating a kind of U.S. National security red line?
Ashley Tellis: 12:36 Well, I think the Indians have, luckily for us actually complied very much with our requests are to minimize the offtake of Iranian oil. In fact, India went far beyond what we had asked them to do with respect to Iranian oil imports. So, you know, the Indians can make choices based on their understanding of their own interests and we have to trust that they will make those choices in the right way. On Iran they've made those choices on Russia. They can't. And I think on an issue like the S-400, which again is so marginal to the U.S.-India relationship, I just don't think that is the sword we ought to, you know, force the relationship to fall on simply because we are unwilling at this point to give them the waiver that Congress has provided the opportunity to give them.
Milan Vaishnav: 13:28 So we have a Trump administration which comes in a, with a different point of view from the Obama administration and certainly the George W. Bush administration. To what extent in your mind have us Indian relations suffered from the fallout of what you described in the piece as often disruptive and counterproductive foreign policies? I mean, have we seen a real reckoning or have we managed to kind of dodge some bullets?
Ashley Tellis: 13:52 We've dodged a lot of bullets, but we've dodged a lot of bullets because the Indian prime minister has been determined to try and keep the relationship on an even keel to the degree he can. And the reason he has done that is partly because of sunk costs. He's invested a lot in the U.S. Relationship. He doesn't want it to come apart. Second, he recognizes that there is a China problem. There is a Pakistan problem, there is a question of disorder in the global system, which India cannot manage on its own except in partnership with the U.S. So, the decision that they have made, sometimes holding their noses, is to sort of temporize. They want to do what is necessary to keep the U.S. In their corner or for India to stay in the U.S. Corner while minimizing the inconveniences caused by the Trump administration's policies on many counts.
Milan Vaishnav: 14:45 But if you look at it from Washington's perspective, you know they are deeply concerned about a rising economic nationalism in India, forces of protectionism that throwing up of trade tariffs and barriers and other shall we say anti competitive or anti liberal reforms, which really go against the broad swath of the last 25 years in Indian history, which is pushing largely in a pro-reform direction. So, you know, isn't one response that, well, the Trump administration is only responding to economically regressive measures that, you know, India is taking in the first place.
Ashley Tellis: 15:26 And on this issue, I'm actually very sympathetic to the administration and sympathetic to the administration because the choices that India has made in the last several years, which in many ways are quite anti-market and as you point out, run against the grain of the evolution post-1991 are they will have consequences that bear on India's rise in power. And so we've argued in the article that just because we are arguing to Washington that the administration should rediscover strategic altruism doesn't give India pass with respect to making it harder to sustain Washington's interest in India. And to the degree that India continues to close its markets to the degree that India makes unhealthful choices even for itself, that becomes unhelpful for building the relationship that we want to see built. And so you're absolutely right to point out that there is a half of the obligation that falls squarely on India shoulders. And it is really unfortunate that at least so far, India has not stepped up and found the solutions not just as a favor to the United States, but fundamentally for itself.
Milan Vaishnav: 16:39 I mean, this gets back to a larger question and debate that exists kind of in the U.S.-India space, which is, you know, the assumption underlying U.S. Underlying to some extent is that you know, India needs to invest in its own development and its own growth and its own human capital and its own education, its own domestic capabilities and that will allow it to then translate that material and resource base in order to project power overseas. And I think the U.S. Bet is if they're able to do both of those things, the U.S. Will will benefit directly and indirectly.
Ashley Tellis: 17:18 Absolutely. And in fact, in 2001 I, in fact in a paper published at the Carnegie Endowment, I argued that India success will be fundamentally a choice as a function of the choices it makes for itself. The U.S. Can assist on the margins, but we cannot help India succeed against India's own will. And this is where I think India needs to take a long and hard look at the choices it is making primarily in the economic realm, but also in the social realm, the political realm, and in other realms. To the degree that India makes the right decisions, the U.S. Will be a full partner to the degree that India supports its own rise. There is little that the U.S. Can do to neutralize that impact.
Milan Vaishnav: 18:07 Now we are recording this conversation before Prime Minister Modi's visit. But the episode will air after the visit. So we, we don't know what's going to happen, but we do know that the prime minister will be attending the UN general assembly. He will be addressing a crowd of 50,000 people plus in my hometown of Houston, Texas alongside the president of the United States. Tell us a little bit about what the significance of of that is. You know the organizers of this event are billing it as the largest visit of any foreign leader to the United States barring, I think the Pope w what does this mean and why is Modi doing it?
Ashley Tellis: 18:46 Well, it is certainly a spectacle that I look forward to watching, but I think there are several calculations here in play. One is both the U.S. And India looking for ways to demonstrate solidarity the partnership that they have built, which has come under stress in the last few years in part because of the subtle shifts in Trump's policy. Both sides want to be able to show the Indian American community in the U.S., the wider global community that India and the United States still stand shoulder to shoulder as, as democratic partners. So that's one calculation. I think the second calculation is they want to show that there are fundamental convergences of interest that transcend the difficulties of the moment. And so I expect that during this visit India will make extraordinary efforts to satisfy USTR's list of complaints about India's trade policy in the other make efforts to close on some of the deals that have been sort of underway for months, sometimes years now all this is to show that like normal democratic states, there will be difficulties, but there is much more that unites us than otherwise.
Ashley Tellis: 20:03 And third, I think Modi wants to reach out to Indian Americans because you know, the BJP's worldview has always been that the Indian diaspora represents India special asset in the world. And to the degree that Modi can, you know, go to Houston and energize you know, Indian Americans living in the U.S. It becomes for him first a validation of the traditional BJP view of Indian Americans. But it also becomes an asset that he can use over a period of time to help India reach its own goals, economic, political, geopolitical, both within the U.S. And in the wider world. So I expect that there will be multiple calculations at play as the events unfold.
Milan Vaishnav: 20:48 Now, when you say that India, you expect India will take extraordinary measures to try to accommodate U.S. Stances on things like trade on things like defense potential deals, which have been kind of gummed up. But you know, maybe unleashed what does the United States need to do for India in return?
Ashley Tellis: 21:08 I don't think we have to do much beyond what we are already doing because the Trump administration has the view that the U.S. Is already doing much, perhaps too much. India is not doing enough. So whatever India does at this point from the view of the Trump administration will be helping equalize that balance of obligations. I don't think the U.S. Needs to do much more. From a U.S. Point of view, you know, American generosity is sort of already on display and has already been in the works now for 20 years. So the real question from the viewpoint of policymakers in Washington is, can Indian policymakers know you know, step up and provide some evidence of commitment on their part to taking the relationship forward?
Milan Vaishnav: 21:59 I wanna end with the final question about the future. So you sort of conclude your piece writing that, you know, both the United States in India going forward should prioritize practical cooperation to balance China's rise. And I'm wondering if you could give our listeners some tangible sense of what are some of the elements of what that practical cooperation could look?
Ashley Tellis: 22:21 Well, I think there are two or three areas. First in the broad area of politics, I think India has already moved a good distance in affirming that it would like to see an Indo-Pacific region that is essentially free of great power coercion and that's essentially code for China. Throwing its weight around India can work much more closely with the smaller countries of the Indo-Pacific to realize that vision of a region free of coercion and the U.S. Would be extremely supportive of whatever India wants to do in terms of its partnership with the smaller countries. The second is in the area of economics. We would like to see a more open trading regime in India only so that India can become part of the emerging economic arrangements in the Indo-Pacific space. This is something that is held back by India's own reticence with respect to trade liberalization and third, we would like to deepen cooperation in the military. We've already come a long distance, but there are things that we can begin to do operationally now that several of the foundational agreements have been signed that actually bring the U.S. And Indian militaries working together on a day-to-day basis with respect to managing China's presence in the Indian ocean and beyond. So I think there's a huge agenda that potentially is open to both countries.
Milan Vaishnav: 23:44 My guest on the show today is my Carnegie colleague Ashley Tellis. He's the author of a new essay in Foreign Affairs called "The India Dividend." Ashley, it's always a pleasure to speak with you. Thanks for coming back.
Ashley Tellis: 23:53 Thank you so much.
New Speaker: 23:56 The Grand Tamasha is a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review. It helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website GrandTamasha.com. Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.