A brutal day of hand-to-hand combat on the India-China border last month may accomplish what years of Pentagon and White House outreach has struggled to achieve: draw the U.S. and India closer militarily.
U.S. strategists have long wanted to get India firmly on America’s side, seeing the nation of 1.3 billion as a powerful counterweight to China. But while India has historically tried to balance its ties among global powers, the clashes with China at 14,000-feet (4,300 meters) laid bare the potential longer-term risks of not having the U.S. more clearly behind it.
“My former Pentagon colleagues see the India dust-up as nothing you’d want but a great opportunity for further strengthening U.S.-India cooperation,” said Randy Schriver who stepped down as assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs in December. “Our defense strategy is really getting a boost from all this.”
Closer ties would represent a big strategic win for President Donald Trump, who has courted Prime Minister Narendra Modi since taking office in 2017. In 2018, the two nations signed a defense agreement that allowed India to purchase advanced American weapons and share sensitive military technology. In 2019 the U.S. approved the largest defense deal between the two countries in four years when it confirmed the sale of $1 billion in naval guns to India.
Last year the U.S. and Indian militaries also conducted their first-ever joint land, sea and air exercises. In February, just before the covid-19 pandemic exploded in the U.S., the two leaders confirmed that $3 billion in defense deals would go forward, including $2.6 billion for MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters built by Lockheed Martin. They promised more to come.
Then came the border clash on the Tibetan plateau, just as tensions were soaring between Washington and Beijing. Trump, who used to regularly praise his friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, now lambastes Beijing over the origins of the coronavirus, its growing intervention in Hong Kong and its treatment of Muslim Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang.
That’s all playing out to New Delhi’s benefit as well as Trump’s.
One official with Modi’s government who asked not to be identified discussing policy said India is now more likely to pursue complex military exercises with the U.S. and to purchase offensive weapons platforms. The official said India has become less concerned about provoking China since the clash along their remote Himalayan boundary that left 20 Indian troops and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers dead in a fierce skirmish.
In the latest sign that New Delhi is open to closer military ties with the West, the country plans to invite Australia to join the annual Malabar naval exercise later this year that has so far included just Japan and the U.S. That would mark the first joint military drills by all the nations that take part in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also referred to as the “Quad.”
In the past, India was hesitant to engage in high-level defense exchanges with the other three powers to avoid irritating China, said Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, a distinguished fellow at the Aspen Center in New Delhi. Now, however, “India has no choice or incentive anymore to stay away from the U.S.,” Chaudhuri said.
In Beijing, too, there’s a recognition that Sino-Indian tensions are likely to draw the U.S. further into South Asian geopolitics.
“India has wanted to strengthen its military alliance with the U.S. in recent years, so the border incident with China may expedite this trend,” said Zhu Jiangming, a senior researcher at the Renmin University’s Overseas Security Research Institute.
The geopolitical maneuvering comes after the Trump administration sought to build on an Obama-era effort to brand the region stretching from India to Hawaii as the “Indo-Pacific.” In 2017, Trump delivered a speech in Vietnam stressing the U.S. commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” A year later, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis renamed U.S. Pacific Command the “U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.”
The Pentagon’s strategy report for the region calls out the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to “reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations and predatory economics to coerce other nations.” The Indo-Pacific alliance, the document says, is meant to counter that effort.
Enhanced cooperation is also likely in the field of military intelligence, according to Schriver, the former Pentagon official.
“When it comes to things like PLA deployments in the Indian Ocean, it means sharing information, shadowing vessels and looking at whether you can hold a vessel and pass it onto another,” he said, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army. The two sides are also likely to move beyond naval cooperation, branching out into ground force cooperation, Schriver said.
Deteriorating U.S. ties with India’s South Asian rival Pakistan are easing the way for a closer U.S.-India defense relationship. In September 2018, the U.S. cut $300 million in military aid to Pakistan after longstanding frustration that the country was providing safe haven to the Afghan Taliban. The shift opened a path for “better and more fulsome engagement” with India, the Aspen Center’s Pal Chaudhuri said.
U.S.-India ties also have been strengthening for reasons beyond the border spat. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has touted India as a potential supply chain partner as the U.S. seeks to reduce its dependence on China’s economy.
Still, many of the obstacles that have stymied US-India military cooperation in the past are likely to persist.
New Delhi has continued to maintain friendly security ties with Moscow, going as far as to buy a Russian S-400 air defense system, echoing a move that hobbled U.S. ties with Turkey. Russia remains India’s largest arms supplier, accounting for 56% of its weapons imports from 2015 to 2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
For India, analysts say, the pursuit of closer U.S. military ties will be just part of a broader strategy to hedge against Chinese influence.
“India will continue to have multiple alignments,” said Kashish Parpiani, a research fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai. “While the U.S. will be the biggest gainer, major partners like France, Israel, Russia and Japan will gain too.”
“India is not going to wholeheartedly pick a side,” Parpiani said. “It will signal, and signal hard. But unless the Chinese troops actually start marching down and India is cornered, it will not pick a side.”