News September 10, 2020

U.S. Policymakers Cannot Assume the Fixity of Indian Strategic Preferences, Argues South Asia Research Scholar Arzan Tarapore

In a special report published by the National Bureau of Asian Research, Tarapore analyzes possible scenarios for India’s strategic future that expose risks and tensions in current U.S. policy.
An Indian Army soldier looking through a military monocular over hills in the background
An Indian Army soldier guards the line dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Farooq Khan-Pool/ Getty Images

U.S. policymakers are counting on India as a natural strategic partner. They focus on India’s increasing national power and its enticing potential as a counterbalance to China. But what happens if India’s strategic preferences shift? Will it fulfill its potential so that the U.S. strategic bet pays off?

In a special report, Exploring India's Strategic Futures, published by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), APARC South Asia Research Scholar and NBR Nonresident Fellow Arzan Tarapore identifies a set of challenges for American strategists, illustrating alternative futures of India as a strategic actor and focusing on futures that may pose challenges to U.S. security interests.

Tarapore uses a novel method of major/minor trends to demonstrate that India’s strategic preferences are not fixed but could vary discontinuously under different environmental conditions. Based on detailed historical analysis, this method offers a powerful tool to sensitize decision makers to a range of possible futures. He analyzes three plausible scenarios:

First, a revisionist India driven by Hindu-nationalist ideology to settle the score with Pakistan, which will require it to keep the China front quiet and accommodate China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Eurasia. This scenario may severely complicate U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific and its efforts to counterbalance China.

Second, a risk-acceptant Indian military that engages in brinkmanship, which may endanger strategic stability with both Pakistan and China. In this scenario, rather than keeping the Chinese military in check, India may paradoxically have the opposite effect.

Third, an India that expands its competition with China into continental Eurasia, making common cause with U.S. rivals such as Russia and Iran. This scenario illustrates the tensions in a U.S. global strategy that lacks prioritization and prompts Washington to more carefully consider its preferences in Central Asia.

Tarapore by no means suggests that such futures are likely — they are decidedly unlikely — but rather that U.S. strategists should consider them plausible. Indeed, the three scenarios are all grounded in political processes that have long existed in India, from communalism to military adaptation, to the balancing of external threats. Therefore, argues Tarapore, U.S. policymakers should not assume Indian strategic preferences are stable. They must consider scenarios in which India might challenge U.S. security interests.

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