In these times of global democratic decline, Nancy Pelosi’s rhetoric while in Taiwan was like a breath of fresh air. Having split my life between the United States and India, it is great to see some pro-democracy grandstanding. But that doesn’t mean the United States and India have been the best of friends. Americans winning the Cold War and India embracing free markets in the 1990s have brought them closer. However, recent American interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine make India doubt its commitment to Taiwan.
Even amid the prevailing polarization, American foreign policy is largely driven by bipartisan consensus. Living in the United States, it is easy to buy into American exceptionalism and its do-gooder approach globally. The popular story is that Pearl Harbor dragged a reluctant America into World War II, but democracy prevailed over fascism. Yet few Americans realize that we propped up dictators around the world during the Cold War, even as we rescued humanity from communism.
An Indian perspective, though, can offer more nuance, especially regarding America’s recent conflicts.
The Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine Wars
The Afghanistan War was the closest to being a just war. The US used Afghani jihadists to defeat the USSR and then abandoned them in the 1990s. The 9/11 attackers were primarily Saudi but trained by al-Qaeda. Afghanistan’s offer to turn in Osama Bin Laden would not have dismantled its terrorist infrastructure, which posed a direct threat to America. The US went in to bring democracy to a country seemingly stuck in the 19th century. The Taliban’s dogged resistance, Pakistan’s double-dealing and a lack of yearning for democracy among Afghans precipitated in a chaotic American retreat. Two decades and billions of dollars later, the direct threat to America is diminished, but the Taliban is ruling Afghanistan again.
The Taliban-Occupied Afghanistan Threatens Global Security
Based on a deceitful premise, the Iraq War was an exercise in American hegemony. The weapons of mass destruction were never found and more than twice as many US soldiers died in Iraq as in Afghanistan during this period. Ironically, the war led to some sort of democracy in Iraq. It is still early to judge whether this democracy or even Iraq is viable. However, in the heart of the Middle East, this invasion has been more successful than all the subsequent Arab Spring uprisings. It certainly led to the rise of ISIS but it also created a democratic foothold in the Middle East. The relative success of Iraqi democracy could be attributed to Americans finding local partners willing to build institutions perhaps because Iraq was a more developed and educated country than Afghanistan. If Iraqi democracy succeeds, it would be George W. Bush’s enduring legacy.
The Ukraine War is a safer conflict for America. Instead of overthrowing a dictatorship, it is helping preserve democracy. NATO’s eastward expansion might have threatened Russia, but invading a democratic European country posed a threat to the West. US President Joe Biden has been clear-eyed about not wanting any American boots on the ground against a nuclear Russia. So, in the name of realpolitik, he is arming Ukrainians with advanced weaponry to decimate Russia. In the Cold War, America befriended China to fight the USSR. Today, neutralizing Russia through Ukraine at minimal cost would allow the US to focus on China. Even the worst-case scenario of Ukraine losing eastern territory in exchange for NATO’s expansion to the Russian border and Ukraine entering the EU will be a victory for the United States.
This American record indicates several possibilities vis-à-vis Taiwan. America has been one of the most benevolent imperialists in recent history. However, it evokes mixed feelings in India. Even if we discount Cold-War-era mutual suspicion, the United States selectively ignored Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India as long as Islamabad was supporting Washington, albeit half-heartedly, in post-9/11 Afghanistan. When the United States negotiated the withdrawal from Afghanistan with the Taliban, India was not invited despite its significant rebuilding efforts. The ongoing India-China border standoff, more than two years old, has evoked little pushback from Washington, DC. The West was a mute spectator to China’s Hong Kong takeover. Would the US come to Taiwan’s rescue if attacked by China? If it does, would India’s interests be factored in?
Han and Hindu Nationalism Come Face to Face
India cannot decouple from the United States because there is no alternative to American military might. However, India has been left to fend for itself in the past by American foreign policy. Leaving Pelosi’s pro-democracy rhetoric aside, two major factors are driving American saber-rattling: Taiwan’s advanced semiconductor industry and Taiwan Strait trade. With its $280 billion initiative to bring chip manufacturing back home, America could secure one of its national security priorities in the next decade. By then, if Xi Jinping is replaced by someone less autocratic, willing to negotiate Taiwan Strait trade in America’s favor, the West might not wage a full-fledged war with a nuclear China to save Taiwanese democracy.
Repercussions of Taiwan going the Hong Kong way could be severe for India. While advanced economies like Australia and Japan have more leverage in navigating an emboldened China, India’s still developing economy will make it more vulnerable. After the recent border standoff, India flirted with economic sanctions, but going by the latest trade numbers, India cannot compete with China economically. On the other hand, India has done well to withstand Chinese military pressure. If China unifies with Taiwan, India could be next on China’s list to make it accept China as the dominant Asian power.
Until now, by carving out waivers for India in global sanctions, the United States has softened its blows to India. More recently, continued post-Cold-War strengthening of Indo-US military ties saw, for the first time, an American naval ship repaired in India and an Indian naval ship docked in San Diego. However, reunification with Taiwan could expand China’s influence and limit America’s ability to help India. While Bush Jr.’s unjustified war might eventually reestablish democracy in the Middle East, Pelosi’s justified Taiwan visit could prove more dangerous to democracies in the Indo-Pacific. No wonder befriending America while sharing a border with China is a complicated beast!
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.