The boundary crisis between India and China is a watershed moment in the bilateral relationship of the two Asian giants. In the most serious confrontation between India and China since 1967, 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers lost their lives. Both armies are locked in a confrontational position on multiple points—Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains—on the Ladakh-Aksai Chin boundary. Further military escalation and casualties cannot be ruled out as both sides refuse to budge.
A full account of the crisis and its implications can only be given once it is over. However, there is already enough being speculated about how it will drive India and China further apart, and how India will move much closer to the US in particular, and other rivals of China in general. At the heart of this forecasting are three issues: First, How much did India’s external partnerships, most crucially with the US, figure in its plan to manage the competitive aspects of its relationship with China before this crisis erupted? Second, Has India’s behaviour changed ever since the crisis became public knowledge in early May? Third, What are the possibilities and constraints in realignments going forward?
Even though the India-China border saw no fatalities for 45 years before the current crisis, there was no doubt a competitive element to the relationship between the two countries. An unsettled boundary, history of war, overlapping spheres of influence, and conflicting visions of the world ensured that New Delhi and Beijing looked at each other with suspicion even as their trade and economic relationship moved forward relatively unimpeded. China’s much bigger economic and military might has meant that Delhi has had a weaker hand when it comes to dealing with Beijing on its own. In order to balance China, India’s relationship with the US has blossomed in the last two decades, starting with a nuclear deal and then moving to defence deals, partnership in high-tech domains like civilian space exploration, and complex and regular joint military exercises. The US has supported Indian ambitions to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and memberships in export control regimes for sensitive technologies, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Unsurprisingly, China has worked to thwart India’s rise to the global high table.
However, India has not attempted to put all its eggs in the external balancing of China. Nor has it relied solely on the US. India pursues a trifecta of policies to manage the competition with China: a multilateral external balancing through partners, an internal balancing by building military and economic might often with the support of external partners, and pursuing deep economic and diplomatic contacts with China in order to reduce the incentives for Beijing to be openly confrontational.
The progress of political and diplomatic coordination has also been quite significant. India and the US have elevated their diplomatic engagement to a 2+2 ministerial-level dialogue involving both their respective external affairs and defence ministers. India and the US have come together with Japan and Australia in a quadrilateral grouping which aims to preserve and promote a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. India has also significantly upgraded its partnerships with Japan and Australia in recent years. Often left unsaid, China has been a crucial factor in all these developments. India and the US have also been at the forefront of criticising the Chinese flagship belt and road initiative (BRI), which involves what Beijing’s critics call “predatory lending” and “debt-trap diplomacy”.
The India-US partnership so far has mostly been a political alliance where the two countries coordinate their efforts in the Indo-Pacific and beyond to check the rise of China. However, there has also been an element of enhancing the interoperability of the armed forces and beefing up India’s military strength. However, these steps do not go to the extent of making a true military alliance, in which states are expected to come to each other’s aid when attacked by a hostile power. The intelligence cooperation and the defence purchases do help India in important ways but a military conflict with China will inevitably involve the use of Russian platforms. The presence of so much Russian hardware in the Indian arsenal puts hard and significant upper limits to the high-tech defence purchases from the US. Both Russia and the US fear that their rivals will get access to their high-tech defence systems. There is also the problem for the Indian armed forces to integrate weapons bought from different sellers. The most serious issue that had recently come to the fore was the US threat of sanctions on India’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles.
With the US providing political support overtly and intelligence support covertly, and Russia and France agreeing to meet India’s defence shortfalls on a priority basis, it looks like India’s external partners are not letting it down. At least, not so far. Of course, Russia might still decide to delay the transfers either in deference to Chinese sensitivities or explicit pressure from Beijing. In 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had decided to delay the transfer of Mig-21s till the border war between India and China had ended. If all the support that India receives (or does not receive) from its foreign partners, including the US and Russia, falls short in meeting the current challenge of China on the borders, then Delhi has itself to blame.
The story of China’s rise and the threat it poses to India is not a sudden development. India had sufficient time to either build internal capacities and/or rework its external partnerships to meet Chinese aggression. The fact is that India made a deliberate call to continue to rely on Russia for defence firepower and agreed to limit the partnership with the US. While the Russian hardware is one reason for the limits on India-US cooperation, the other is India’s own hesitations. Delhi fears that a tighter strategic embrace between India and the US will provoke China. This fear has played out in its most visible form as Delhi has prevented Australia from joining the Malabar exercises. Unsurprisingly, India has been perceived as the weakest link in the Quad countries. China has, however, not been impressed with Indian hesitations. Beijing anyway counts India as a part of the US-led coalition. In short, the tightrope walk that the government of India has managed to perform between the US and China has a solo admirer around the globe, and that is the government of India itself.
To be sure, there are other points of friction between India and the US. The current administration under Donald Trump has cracked down on H-1B visas that are meant for immigrants eligible for specialised jobs in the US. The move has disproportionately affected Indian immigrants. The Trump administration has also been quite keen on reducing the trade deficit with India and the President himself has been vocal against Delhi’s “unfair” trade practices. The decision of the Narendra Modi Government to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 did not go down well with some legislators, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who were then still in the presidential race. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal also introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives urging India to end the communication restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir and release political detainees. The return of a Democratic president to the White House could reactivate the disagreements on Kashmir. However, the realpolitik requirement of both sides to deal with the common threat of China is likely to swing the balance in favour of propitious bilateral ties.
HOW CAN India remould its external partnerships to manage the China threat better? The crisis might encourage India to take a hard relook at how it uses its external partnerships to balance China. First, India should now be clear that close economic and diplomatic ties with China, while useful in several respects, have failed to stop Beijing from resorting to aggression on the disputed border. Second, Delhi should have now learnt that resisting a tighter embrace with the US and others like Japan, Australia and Vietnam too hasn’t fetched any goodies from China either. Therefore, it now needs to focus to a greater extent on internal and external balancing, and how the two could reinforce each other.
The Russia dependence of the Indian armed forces is not going away anytime soon. This puts some limits on India-US defence cooperation. However, there is still a lot that the two countries can do together. By allowing Australia to participate in the Malabar exercises, the Quad will move from a purely political group to one with a genuine military vision. India and the US can move to quickly finalise the one remaining foundational agreement—the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA)—that will further facilitate sharing of confidential information between the two countries. Short of a treaty alliance, India and the US can expand the scope and sophistication of joint military exercises and explore joint operations and joint command-and-control. India and the US could develop a shared understanding of potential contingencies and evolve a joint crisis management plan in the region. Other Quad countries can contribute significantly to these plans.
India and the US could go for joint naval patrols in the South China Sea, an idea that has been on the radar for some years. Another idea that was fleetingly pursued was planting seabed listening arrays in the Indian Ocean to detect and study the patrols of Chinese submarines. The key problem with this idea is that it would also detect Russian submarines operated by the Indian navy and their acoustic signatures might fall into American hands. Some careful workarounds like stationing the intelligence analysis centre on Indian soil might help Delhi keep control over the data generated from the passive acoustic systems.
None of these steps would obviate the need for India to develop its own sinews of power, both economic and military. High rates of economic growth and a focus on defence modernisation will be essential if India has to catch up with China. This is especially relevant for the conflicts on the Himalayan border where India is likely to be alone—its partners will be more useful in the maritime arena. Economic growth will allow it to spend more on weapons procurement as too little is left after paying for salaries and pensions. If India is saddled with Russian platforms, it is better to have more Migs and Sukhois than less. As a developing country with several competing demands on scarce capital, India can ill-afford to simply redirect the share from development and welfare needs towards defence purchases. The only sustainable option is to grow the total size of the economic pie. India cannot start a day sooner.