By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Following recent military clashes between the Indian and the Chinese forces in the Ladakh region, many Indian political pundits, including the proponents of a “strong” Indian response to China, have started arguing for an even deeper Indian alliance with the US to counter what are regarded as Chinese expansionist and hegemonic regional designs.
This is inevitable, the argument goes, given that the US interests against China converge naturally with India’s. India, as it stands, already features prominently in the US’s ‘Asia-Pacific’ strategy and is also a member of the “Quad,” a quasi-military anti-China alliance comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia.
But while there may be nothing wrong with the argument per se that India needs the US on its side, supposing that the US will or might become directly involved in a border military conflict between the two Asian neighbors, if it were ever to take place, is far from reality.
Even during the present crisis, with India already a declared US ally, having only recently done “2+2 dialogue” and deepened its defense cooperation with the US, the latter didn’t offer its ally anything more than an offer of mediation. US President Donald Trump, whatever his rhetorical belligerence, is not going to risk angering US voters in an election year by sending troops to get involved in a muddy conflict in the middle of the Himalayas
Wherever the very limited and in some ways only formal US response has led in the first place, there is little to likelihood that the US itself would have any appetite for getting involved, even indirectly, in any military conflict in Asia, particularly at a time when it is already struggling to end its two-decade-old war in Afghanistan.
Having said that, even though there may never be any large-scale conflict, defense co-operation between the United States and India, with an eye on China, has been increasing steadily for the past several years. For instance, when similar border clashes happened as early as 2013 and the Indian media reported “Chinese intrusion” and “new Chinese military activism” in the border region, calls were made for greater defense cooperation between the US and India. Indeed, these calls led to an intensification in the already on-going India-US talks around the Defense Trade Technology Initiative (DTTI).
In 2013 again, when Manmohan Singh, the then-Indian PM visited the US and met the US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session, a “Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation” was issued that aimed at enhancing their partnership in military technology transfers, joint research, and co-development and co-production of certain types of military equipment.
Defense ties between both countries have consistently continued to grow under the Modi government. A 2014-15 report, for instance, by the Indian Ministry of Defense concluded that India needed to modernize its military forces to tackle China, “a major factor in India’s security calculus.” The assessment followed the new Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship in June 2015.
It was yet again the China factor that led the US to change its Pacific command to ‘Indo-Pacific’ command and release its Indo-Pacific strategy that defines China as a “revisionist” power. The continuing 2+2 dialogue between the US and India is a continuation of the same drive towards giving more and more depth to defense cooperation that India sees as a vital source of its military preparedness vis-à-vis China.
Accordingly, from 2008 through the end of 2016, US-India trade in defense equipment has increased massively, from roughly US$1 billion to more than US$15 billion. This, however, continues to lack practical substance when it comes to border clashes. Hence the question: if India’s already deep defense ties with the US haven’t worked to its advantage vis-à-vis China and haven’t deterred China at any stage, will a further deepening work?
When the US president visited India in early 2020, the visit produced not only a “Global Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” but also a vision of India that led Trump to contrast it with “a nation [China] that seeks power through coercion, intimidation and aggression,” a recognition of India’s growing importance for the US.
Indeed, despite Modi’s description of this global relationship as the partnership of the century, political forces in India continue to call for enhancing it even further because it continues to remain insufficient.
Modi, however, seems to have chosen a different course this time, a policy that seems to be rooted in an understanding that border disputes with China can only be resolved on the negotiating table. That was perhaps the reason why Modi, instead of submitting to the loud calls for a “strong response” to China over the Ladakh incident, chose to call an All-Party Conference (APC) and design a policy. The outcome of this conference has been the opening of a direct political channel between the foreign ministers of both countries.
With a mutual emphasis on bilaterally finding a middle ground, Indian policymakers seem to have realized that a merely “deep” alliance with the US wouldn’t work for them and that an alternative course is needed.
There can, of course, be severe political implications of such border clashes as the recent one that killed 20 Indian soldiers, and the Modi government can only ill afford any more killings. This was the underlying reason for India’s participation, despite the ongoing tensions with China, in the recent Russia, India, China meeting. Whereas nothing substantial came out of it, the fact that the meeting still took place and that both India and China were able to come out of the ongoing tensions to sit for a regional setting does speak volumes about the changing policy perception in New Delhi.
It is not to suggest that India will no longer seek to deepen its alliance with the US. What does seem possible, however, especially when Russia and Australia, with the latter being a member of the Quad, have both refused to mediate India-China tensions, is that India will soon come to the conclusion that only an intense bilateral engagement with China can resolve the territorial dispute. But at the same time, India’s military engagement with the US will continue to be India’s lifeline for maintaining the balance of power vis-a-vis China.