The strategic balance in Asia is changing dramatically, presenting both risks and opportunities for the United States. The dynamic between China and India is one important concern, particularly as U.S. relations with India have gone from tepid to friendly. Arzan Tarapore of the National Bureau of Asian Research argues that some forms of balancing China with India are unlikely to work but that helping India build up its maritime presence would be an effective counter to China's rise

by Arzan Tarapore

At the inaugural U.S.-India 2+2 meeting in New Delhi last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “we fully support India’s rise as a leading global power.” At the meeting, the United States reaffirmed its intent to help build Indian military power in an effort to counter-balance a rising China. Such a strategy has long been advocated by experts, and is a key pillar of Washington’s “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.” But how can India’s rise complement U.S. strategy? I argue here that the United States can benefit from the rise of Indian military power—but rather than simply assuming that a rising India will intrinsically counter-balance China, U.S. strategy requires a clear appreciation of India’s specific constraints and advantages. In particular, the United States should not expect India to challenge China militarily on their land border, but it should support Indian efforts to build strategic leverage in the Indian Ocean region.

Official U.S. statements have been hopeful about India, but vague. U.S. leaders have noted that India should play a significant role in regional security, and that the United States should build India’s security capacity. Thus most of the policy work in aligning U.S. and Indian strategies revolves around defence technology and trade as the primary engine of the wider strategic relationship. This general intent to build Indian power, combined with lofty statements about a joint strategic vision, creates unrealistic expectations for India’s role in the region. In the absence of clarity on India’s military capabilities and priorities, pundits in Washington are tempted to characterise India as a strategic saviour—sometimes with ideas that verge on outlandish.

Writing in Lawfare in August, Oriana Skylar Mastro took aim at one such concept – that India could compel China to reorder its strategic priorities. Some strategists have suggested that the United States should help build up Indian ground forces; that would goad China into shifting its military posture towards continental South Asia and away from maritime capabilities that might threaten the United States. Mastro argued that such a strategy would fail because Beijing continually downplays democratic India’s power to preserve the Chinese Communist Party’s own domestic legitimacy. Mastro is right to critique the goading strategy—but for the wrong reasons.

Why Goading China Will Not Work

In reality, India will not goad China to shift resources toward South Asia because of their military balance, not because of Chinese domestic politics. Immutable factors—military geography, organisation, and doctrine—limit the threat India can pose on their land border, even with significant U.S. support. The bulk of India’s forces near the border are mountain infantry units designed for border defence, rather than the concentrated mechanised forces that would be required for offensive operations into China. A new Mountain Strike Corps has been partially raised, but plans have been scaled back and slowed. Indian Army and Air Force units lack joint command arrangements and have been slow to adopt modern networked C4ISR capabilities. In case of war, Indian troops would have to contend with highly unfavorable geography—a steep ascent to the border in mountainous terrain on a few low-capacity roads. A decade-old program to upgrade border roads remains woefully behind schedule.

On land and in the air, then, India’s conventional forces lack the combat power and reach to strike anything in China except tactical military targets near the border. Indeed, China’s sparsely-populated and relatively undeveloped west would offer it enormous strategic depth in a conflict with India, and using its extensive extensive network of air and ground infrastructure, it could quickly surge heavy mechanised forces to overwhelm any border skirmishers. China’s greatest security threats in the west, by far, are its restive minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang—not India.

With this enduring asymmetric balance of military power, any feasible increase in Indian capabilities—even if supplemented by the United States—would be easily managed by China’s existing force posture. A competitive strategy of drawing China westward is likely to fail. However, this does not mean, as Mastro suggests, that there is limited utility in a strategic partnership with India. There are other, more effective ways that India can complement U.S. strategy in counter-balancing Chinese power.

Building Strategic Leverage in the Indian Ocean Region

A rising India will complement U.S. strategy if it continues to build strategic leverage against China in the Indian Ocean region. As China continues to expand its military capabilities and global interests, India would be an important counter-balance if it can, with the support of the United States and other like minded states, deny China the ability to militarily dominate the Indian Ocean or politically destabilise its littoral states. The aim would not be not to establish Indian hegemony or deny a Chinese presence, but to maintain a reliable competitive advantage in the region. Strategic leverage could partially offset China’s local advantages closer to its homeland, in the Himalayas and within its first island chain—which would be useful not only for countering Chinese actions in the Indian Ocean itself, but also for applying pressure against Chinese assets there in case of a crisis or a conflict sparked elsewhere.

In practice, building strategic leverage would entail specific military activities to counter the PLA’s expanding presence. In peacetime, leverage would require improved maritime domain awareness (MDA), using a network of shore-based radars and other sensors to develop an accurate and multilaterally-shareable picture of China’s military presence. Security cooperation with regional states, for example through arms transfers and training, is also necessary to build Indian influence among regional states’ political and military institutions. In crisis or war, leverage could come from the ability to control key chokepoints, such as the Malacca and Sunda Straits; the ability to interdict deployed Chinese forces, if they can be tracked through improved MDA; and the ability to hold at risk isolated Chinese facilities, such as those in Djibouti and Gwadar.

As these illustrative missions show, building strategic leverage places manageable demands on Indian military power. India’s military has been slow to expand its regional presence, and recognises a growing urgency for modernisation. But India need not match Chinese power to compete effectively in this region. Given its geographic and political advantages, India can build its leverage with relatively modest but strategically important capabilities. Thus, for example, rather than establishing sea control across the ocean, India need only aim for temporary and local sea denial using a surveillance screen and anti-access/area denial tactics near chokepoints and sea lines of communication.

Similarly, for the United States, building Indian leverage offers a more manageable framework for designing its defence relationship with India. The United States can and should pursue a broad spectrum of defence cooperation with India, but building strategic leverage in the Indian Ocean region demands that the United States prioritise certain activities over others. In particular, the United States should seek to build habits of interoperability, ensuring that the U.S. and Indian military organisations are mutually intelligible and mutually supporting, both bilaterally and alongside other like minded states such as Japan and Australia. The United States has already scored significant advances on this front—for example, by signing COMCASA, an agreement enabling secure communications between United States and Indian military units.

Future initiatives should redouble this emphasis on non-tangible elements of capability, which are often overshadowed by major arms transfers. For example, a U.S.-India tri-service exercise in 2019—as announced at the 2+2 meeting—should directly expose India’s only joint command, the Andaman and Nicobar Command, to U.S. best practices in joint operations. And the Quad dialog, due to hold its third semi-annual meeting later this year, should extend discussions to the military operational level to share perspectives on contingency planning.

If India continues to build this type of strategic leverage in the Indian Ocean region, its rise would complement U.S. strategy. It bears repeating that the purpose of this leverage is not to contain China or keep it out of the Indian Ocean. Rather, Indian leverage would be used to share the burden of safeguarding open oceanic waters, deter and deny possible Chinese attempts to coerce regional states, and create options to militarily pressure China—which are currently lacking—should relations deteriorate. In this way, as India builds leverage, China’s expanding military presence in the Indian Ocean region could become its expanding vulnerability. This is a dimension of India’s rise that Washington should wholeheartedly support.