India Can’t Say It Wants U.S. Help Against China
The Sikkim clash and a declassified Indo-Pacific strategy raise tough questions for New Delhi.
The conflict between China and India in the Himalayas has been less active over the frozen winter months, even though the troops remain deployed at 15,000 to 18,000 feet in temperatures that drop to minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit. But as the snows melt, the 8-month-old military standoff is set to resume. While New Delhi was busy with the dual challenge of a raging pandemic and an economy in recession, Beijing moved in to construct a new village in Indian territory in another border area, Arunachal Pradesh, some 1,000 miles away from the original conflict in the Galwan Valley. Last week, there was a nonfatal clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers at Naku La in northern Sikkim, some 750 miles from Galwan. Yet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has largely maintained his silence on China so far. Unsure of what to expect next from Chinese President Xi Jinping in the summer, New Delhi has been looking toward its friends and partners for support and help, the United States being the foremost among them.
After investing a lot in the relationship with former U.S. President Donald Trump, Modi got a parting gift. The outgoing Trump administration declassified its 2018 Indo-Pacific strategy, originally meant to be secret for three decades, in the first week of January, with the aim of potentially boxing in his successor’s approach toward China. But while the strategy might warm some hearts in New Delhi, it’s not an approach that India can commit to publicly—not least because it raises vexing questions about the country’s own military and economic capabilities.
The strategy document has no major surprises, but nevertheless the news that the Trump administration envisaged bolstering India’s capacities to enable it to work with other countries to act as a “counterbalance to China” was music to the ears of strategists in New Delhi. The stated goal was to ensure that India remains “preeminent in South Asia and takes the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security, increases engagement with Southeast Asia, and expands its economic, defense, and diplomatic cooperation with other U.S. allies and partners in the region.” If this was not enough, the document envisaged U.S. “support to India through diplomatic, military, and intelligence channels—to help address continental challenges such as the border dispute with China and access to water, including the Brahmaputra and other rivers facing diversion by China.”
The premature declassification of the document was, however, a minor embarrassment for New Delhi. It made public that the primary reason for India’s attractiveness to the United States was not any virtue of its own but its usefulness in countering Chinese influence. New Delhi, which has always stressed its strategic autonomy and independent foreign policy, has publicly maintained that its relationship with any one country—read, the United States—is not about containing any other country—in other words, China. In June 2019, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said at a joint press conference with his American counterpart that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept was “for something, not against somebody.”
The current geopolitical landscape forces India to seek strong partnerships with like-minded countries to counter the live Chinese threat at its borders, but it still has no desire to be seen as a U.S. cat’s-paw. Hard realists will argue that giving up the pretense and acknowledging the reality of being an ally of the United States, when China is so hostile to India, would be par for the course. But such a move would limit India’s space to negotiate with China, at a time when New Delhi is still refusing to take a directly confrontational approach toward Beijing and banking on diplomatic engagement. Moreover, making India completely dependent on the United States would seriously constrain the country’s strategic space.
India has a long-standing history of pursuing nonalignment, but the current thinking in New Delhi is driven by an unresolved paradox of power. The United States wants a strong India to counter China, but only a weak India actively seeks friends and partners. A strong India would be content leveraging the strategic space for an independent foreign policy, pursuing hedging with all the major powers. If the tensions on the borders with China were to subside suddenly, would India still be as enthusiastic about cooperating in the Indo-Pacific? After all, India remains an active member of the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the largest borrower from China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Last year, China again emerged as India’s biggest trade partner, relegating the United States to the second position after two years. Evidently, New Delhi’s preferred option is to cooperate with Beijing when possible and compete only when necessary.
There can be no doubt that India benefits from the higher visibility that the declassified Indo-Pacific strategy provides for its global role and for its immediate region. The Indian government understandably chose to focus on the incoming U.S. administration rather than highlight its close ties with the outgoing one. The strategy, in fact, got buried in the extensive coverage of the shocking events at Capitol Hill around the same time. Moreover, Modi had a partisan political interest to not remind Indians of the military challenge posed by China on the borders and attract unwanted public attention to the loss of Indian territory. A low-key response also helped allay Beijing’s fears about Indian actions being solely at the behest of the United States. Going by the official Chinese response, which focused solely on assailing the United States, it seemed to have worked.
One of the key instruments for executing the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, an informal forum comprising India, Australia, Japan, and the United States, which held the latest Malabar naval exercise last November. The group was elevated to the ministerial level in 2019, and there were conversations about formalizing the Quad ahead of the second ministerial meeting in Tokyo last year. The Quad is a significant development, but India is the odd one out in this grouping: The United States has treaty alliances with Japan and Australia, and the latter two have developed a strong security partnership in recent years.
The Quad has succeeded as a mechanism for signaling that all the major Asian powers are on the same page about dealing with China, as evidenced by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s harsh response comparing it to NATO. But the Quad still remains a consultative institution, far short of a collective defense institution with a formal security architecture. If the perception of its strength and importance is exaggerated, as was the case under the Trump administration, it could alarm China into a strong reaction, without the Quad itself having the mechanisms in place to react.
In India’s case, such a pushback would come on the 2,200-mile continental border with China, which is also the site of its most immediate and pressing challenges from its trans-Himalayan neighbor. The Quad, in its current form, is incapable of ameliorating those pressures or compensating for India’s continental weaknesses. India’s own maritime capabilities are badly limited in the Indo-Pacific, and the country cannot effectively anchor a security architecture in the wider Indo-Pacific—or even in the Indian Ocean. The burden of expectations is too much to bear for India, with its weak economy and glacial pace of military modernization.
The Biden administration has placed a renewed emphasis on U.S. foreign policy focused on values and democracy, both alongside and as part of its own Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at managing the rise of China. A recent Chatham House report from London placed India as part of the “difficult four,” in the company of Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, due to the democratic backsliding under Modi’s Hindu majoritarian government. As instances of illiberal majoritarianism, state-approved and -tolerated violence, and the lack of equal protection to minorities under rule of law in India receive more attention, it could place the Biden administration in an awkward position. Any calls for imposing costs on U.S. allies that undermine democracy are likely to be discarded in favor of a realist Indo-Pacific policy, but the tensions between its professed values and its real interests in the region will persist.
There is concern in some quarters that with its domestic focus, the Biden administration could let the Indian Ocean slip away even as it prioritizes the Pacific. As New Delhi works out a pragmatic strategy to deal with a more antagonistic and assertive China, it is bound to look toward the United States as an essential partner in the Indo-Pacific. Even if the destinations are aligned, the journey ahead will be marked by tensions, frictions, and strains—regardless of the grand hopes laid out in the Trump agenda.
Sushant Singh is a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in India. He was previously a lecturer in political science at Yale University and the deputy editor of the Indian Express, reporting on strategic affairs, national security, and international affairs. He won a Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for his reporting in 2017 and 2018. Twitter: @SushantSin