Indian Resistance to an Anti-China Coalition of the Willing

The lessons India can teach us about non-alignment offer proof that some analysts working for US think tanks and writing for Western publications are learning to diverge from the orthodox ideology of US foreign policy. But can the US government learn?
US India And China

National flags of China, USA and India on a light background. © Vladirina32 / shutterstock.com

May 09, 2023 21:59 EDT

In an article published in Foreign Policy, Ashley J Tellis explains to Americans why it is futile to expect India to “side with Washington against Beijing.” The lesson is important because the US news cycle regularly features dire warnings by important people of a looming US-China war over Taiwan. The Biden administration has done its job in ratcheting up tensions, but Republican politicians have taken the lead in the hate campaign against China. And they have been widely echoed in the media. 

US President Joe Biden prepared the terrain early in his reign with his oft repeated definition of today’s world order. In his words, it’s a confrontation between autocracy and democracy. No need for nuance here. “Autocracy is the opposite of democracy.” The president even appeals to common sense. “History and common sense tell us that liberty, opportunity and justice thrive in a democracy, not in an autocracy.” 

According to this reading of history, Indian democracy will quite naturally stand up, alongside the US, in its opposition to Chinese autocracy in case of conflict. Especially since these two populous Asian nations have had their own conflicts in the recent and more distant pasts. In his article, Tellis cites several reasons why this may not be the case. Entering into more precise detail, he explains one of the techniques the US uses to impose its leadership over its allies. “The U.S. goal in military-to-military cooperation,” he helpfully explains, “is interoperability: the Pentagon wants to be able to integrate a foreign military in combined operations as part of coalition warfare.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


In the military domain, a desirable state of operational order established between a nation that supplies weapons and a nation that purchases weapons that allows the supplier to control any eventual situation of conflict for its own ends, irrespective of the interests of the purchasing nation.

Contextual note

Technology can be interoperational. Ideology cannot. Technologies that are not interoperable are incompatible, especially when used for major coordinated tasks, which is the requirement in wartime. It doesn’t matter whether you share the same ideology or the same military goals. Interoperability of equipment and weaponry becomes essential in modern warfare.

As a politician, Biden seems to believe that sharing the practice of democracy – essentially organizing regular elections – defines a form of ideological interoperability. According to his binary reasoning, that should spill over into the technological sphere. India must therefore align with the US and oppose Chinese autocracy. But ideology never wins wars. And as demonstrated by the US-Soviet collaboration that ended Germany’s domination of Europe in the final stages of World War II, ideological incompatibility may at times be necessary to achieve the main goal.

The disappointing news for the US, as Tellis informs us, is that India “has resisted investing in meaningful operational integration, especially with the U.S. armed forces, because it fears jeopardizing its political autonomy or signaling a shift toward a tight political alignment with Washington.” The US is clearly not prepared to take on board the logic of an emerging multipolar world. India has no choice but to do so, and every reason to promote that logic.

After a long period of rising tensions between the US and China, in an article with the title, “China and U.S. see need to stabilise relations,” Reuters reports this week that war with China over Taiwan may not be in the offing. “U.S. ambassador Nicholas Burns stressed in particular that Washington must correct its handling of the Taiwan issue and stop the hollowing out of the ‘one China’ principle.”

Burns’s remark thus becomes doubly significant. There is a clear political reason as well as a material reason for not counting on India’s unquestioning alignment with the US on military matters. Burns’s words indicate more than just a toning down of the combative posture implicit in Biden’s Manichean insistence on framing the rivalry with China as an apocalyptic showdown between “democracy” and “autocracy.” The framing of the debate within the US may be undergoing a sea change.

In this new electoral season that has already begun and will culminate with the presidential election of November 2024, the political attitude towards China will undoubtedly become a serious feature of debate between and across the parties. This raises numerous questions. Will the Democrats seek to distance themselves from the bellicosity of the Republicans and pose as the willing managers of an evolving world order. Or will they instead, under the populist pressure of Republican jingoism and warmongering, join the chorus of warmongering voices that cannot imagine campaigning without appealing to the hatred of an enemy?

In distancing themselves from the Democrats’ now traditional, holy mission to dethrone Vladimir Putin, the source of all evil, many Republicans – including the controversial media star, Tucker Carlson – have demonstrated their preference for demonizing China, an enemy far more fearful than Russia. Whether they are ultimately represented by Donald Trump, Ron De Santis or Carlson himself, as some suggest, they have already achieved some traction among their troops by casting China as the fallen angel Lucifer challenging Divine America’s global leadership.

Historical note

The success of propaganda in favor of the nation’s support for the Ukraine war has incited US media focus on inculcating the belief that the US can and should apply to the question of Taiwan the same logic it has used in its approach to Ukraine. This essentially translates as the commitment to providing not just military capacity but also external support in the noble defense of the nation’s sovereignty against an aggressive neighbor.

The only conceptual problem with that idea is that Taiwan is not a nation, but a territory of China. It possesses no legal sovereignty to be defended. The form of reasoning was already shaky with regard to Ukraine, since the idea of sovereignty does not automatically imply the right for the sovereign nation to engage in actions that threaten the security of a neighboring country. At least since the 19th century, European diplomacy has at its core the notion of a balance of power. Following the understanding about the importance of balance achieved at the post-Napoleonic consensus of the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The historical fear of an imbalance led to some limited wars –  such as the Crimean war (1853-56) – but also to the unfathomable disaster of World War I and even World War II.

In the case of Ukraine, joining NATO and conforming to its dictates can be seen as a compromise of sovereignty, as French President Emmanuel Macron embarrassingly insisted recently when he evoked the notion of “strategic autonomy” in implicit opposition to the apparent commitment of European nations to follow every conflict endorsed by the United States.

Macron’s point correlates with Tellis’s observation concerning India’s resistance to “a tight political alignment with Washington.” Although, for reasons that can be summarized as “wartime solidarity,” no one European leader – not even Macron – dares speak up today about the implications of NATO’s engagement in Ukraine, Europeans are increasingly aware of the cost of tight alignment. German industry and the national economies of European countries have been crippled by the consequences of their solidarity. The embarrassment of the Nord Stream sabotage –which no prominent political personality dares to mention in public –  highlights this dilemma. India watches on from afar and draws its own conclusions.

For the moment, the rhetorical heat from inside the Beltway appears beginning to cool. Macron’s posturing has been probably far less significant than India’s resistance, but both combine to convey the message that the likelihood of a new “coalition of the willing,” this time against China rather than Iraq, seems to be radically diminished. The US State Department has long assumed that because India and China are not only rivals but occasional enemies, India would automatically align with the US in a war against China. European solidarity with the US over Ukraine encourages this can of reasoning based on simplistically following proverbial wisdom: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Tellis’s article brings home the point that it is unlikely to work that way this time around.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.

Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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