Over the past month, Hugh White and I have exchanged opposing views on the meaning of the US-India relationship on The Interpreter.

Hugh first argued that President Barack Obama's January trip to New Delhi failed, 'because India is not willing to make the preservation of US primacy its principal strategic aim in Asia.' I replied that this was an unfairly high bar to set in terms of judging India's role in the pivot. Hugh then clarified:

India's new alignment with the US will only make a real difference if it is credibly willing to support America militarily against China if and when US primacy is at stake. Diffuse and politically acceptable diplomatic support won't cut it at a time like this. So the test of the US-India alignment is simple: does anyone think India would send forces to help America defend Japan's claim to the Senkakus, or the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea, or Taiwan? If not, how does India's support help America deter China from challenging US primacy in these flashpoints? And if it doesn't do that, what use is it to Obama? 

In his book The China Choice, Hugh fleshes this out with three arguments. First, 'as India emerges as a great power in its own right...its aim will be to maximise its own power, not support America's.' Second, 'the stronger India becomes, the less it will need America to help balance China.' And third, 'the stronger China is relative to India, the more cautious Delhi will be about sacrificing its interest in a good relationship with Beijing.'

Against this, we might raise five issues:*

First, what if Indian power is a function not just of internal factors – economic growth and defence spending – but also its partnership with the US? India is getting stronger, true, but the gap with China will be large for decades to come. The US has been willing to sell India a huge and growing volume of high-end arms, including platforms that directly augment India's capabilities vis-à-vis China, and transfer to it technology that is normally the purview of close American allies. Supporting America, and consolidating these valuable transfers, is therefore one way for India to enhance its position as a great power.

Second, should we judge partnerships primarily in terms of one country's willingness to wage war alongside another? Countries can provide significant military support without directly entering a conflict. New Delhi allowed US aircraft carrying arms to refuel at its airports during the First Gulf War despite its overt opposition to the campaign. India also offered the use of its military facilities immediately after 9/11, strongly considered sending troops to Iraq, and may sign a Logistics Support Agreement that would permit, inter alia, the refuelling of one another's aircraft and warships. And this is with the relationship at a nascent stage.

Consider, also, that China has consistently let down Pakistan in each and every one of its wars, even as the country was dismembered; yet this bilateral relationship, too, is considered a significant one for both parties. Hugh might legitimately retort that the smaller party (Pakistan) was never called upon to defend the regional position of its larger patron (China), and so the analogy is imperfect. But Beijing certainly felt that its cultivation of Pakistan had a potential, if modest and unknowable, deterrent effect on India had a crisis broken out. 

Third, to develop this point further, if China did go to war against Japan, the Philippines or Taiwan, it is obviously true that India would not send its warships straight in. But the US-India relationship could still make an important mark on any such conflict. India could allow use of its facilities and provide enablers, as described above. India's acquiescence or support would make a distant blockade of China much easier. This does not necessarily 'deter' China, as Hugh requires, but it may well affect Beijing's calculus at the margin. That seems like a good investment for Washington. 

Fourth, much depends on the origins and nature of any US-China confrontation. Hugh frames such a conflict as a Chinese challenge for US primacy, which India has little reason to uphold. But when Iraq challenged US primacy by invading Kuwait, a large coalition, including states that could have chosen to free ride on American efforts and others that would have had good reason not to alienate Saddam, came together. 

Why did they do so? Firstly because they saw that benefits might accrue from being seen as valuable partners; secondly because the success and consequent emboldening of a regional hegemon would threaten them in the future; and thirdly, perhaps also because they had some commitment to, and interest in, basic norms of international conduct, such as preservation of the territorial status quo. 

It is not hard to see how each of these three dynamics could characterise a future Asian conflict. China's heft works both ways: it dissuades middle powers from exposing themselves to a US-China fight, but if that fight is consequential enough – and in Hugh's framework, it would be – then it also means that they have a stake in supporting the US, a status quo power, against what would be a dramatic shift in the perceived Asian balance of power.

For India, the severity of the Sino-Indian border dispute gives this real force: were China to succeed in, say, invading and occupying the Senkakus, India would be profoundly concerned about the implications for its own disputed territory; both in terms of what such a development might reveal about China's risk-acceptance, and the precedents it might set in terms of maritime and territorial revision. And political scientists can shout until they're blue in the face that 'credibility' and 'reputation' are misunderstood concepts, but this isn't necessarily how Indian leaders will think under such circumstances. 

Fifth, Hugh argues that 'India has a wide range of interests at stake in its relationship with China, and India cannot afford to subordinate those interests to the concerns of America or Japan, or Australia.' The first part is undoubtedly true, but the second is less clear. India might well bandwagon in some areas, becoming gradually more interoperable with the US, and balance in others, continuing to work at odds with Washington on, say, trade or climate change. Up to a point, we can indeed disaggregate these different economic/diplomatic and security/military elements. West Germany's Ostpolitik, for instance, never fundamentally compromised its position in NATO. I have a feeling that some of this depends on how we define 'primacy', and the types of actions that destroy (rather than challenge) it. 

India is very far from thinking seriously about its potential role in American wars with China; but then we are still far from violent Chinese challenges to US primacy. The point is to note how far India has come, and how quickly things are changing.

*I am grateful to Dhruva Jaishankar for sharpening my thinking on several of these issues, though he is not responsible for the arguments here.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The White House.