To tackle the challenges ahead, the US should devote more resources and attention to India than Pakistan, which is acting like a Chinese tributary

The latest border clash between Indian and Chinese troops on 9 December has underscored the enduring challenges of Beijing’s surreptitious land grabs along India’s disputed boundary with China. People’s Liberation Army soldiers have frequently been trying to encroach on Indian territory, which has pushed New Delhi to take several countermeasures, however symbolic they may appear.

Whether China wants immediate war with India can’t be ascertained right now. What is indisputable, though, is that China will continue to climb up the escalation ladder to settle the boundary issue on its own terms. However, the rising military build-up and tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have increased Washington’s importance in New Delhi’s strategic calculations to counter Beijing’s aggressive policies, particularly on the cold Himalayan frontier.

India, A key Asset For The US

In the context of China trying to change the territorial status quo in its favour through coercive measures, the India-US partnership becomes more salient. New Delhi’s mistrust toward Beijing converges with Washington’s declared strategic objective to contain China’s hybrid aggression. Therefore, from bilateral defence cooperation to multilateral cooperation under the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) partnership, India is aiding the US in its Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China, becoming a key American partner in the process. Though India pursues strategic autonomy, New Delhi is extremely worried about Beijing’s intentions to expand its influence in India’s geographical periphery. Combined with the existing differences on many issues, China’s hostile attitude toward India has further increased the importance of the US factor.

Gone are the days when India shared Chinese distrust toward the US hegemonic world order. New Delhi has long forgotten its previous concerns about co-governance of the global order by China and the US. Having signed four foundational agreements with the US, India seems ready to become a partner in defence secretary Lloyd Austin’s ‘integrated deterrence’ strategy against the Chinese navy in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s border tensions with China have figured thrice in the 80-page US National Defence Strategy released in October. It says the US will advance “our Major Defence Partnership with India to enhance its ability to deter PRC [People’s Republic of China] aggression and ensure free and open access to the Indian Ocean region”.

Chinese Aggression Shaping South Asian Politics

Since India has largely embraced the Indo-Pacific vision in its strategic orientation, China’s hostility has begun to shape geopolitical configurations in South Asia. From the Indian point of view, the Indo-Pacific strategy can effectively rebalance regional stability, which has been disturbed by China’s coercive tactics. In November, India-US military exercises were held in Auli, Uttarakhand, about 100 kilometres from the LAC. India dismissed Beijing’s objections to the military exercises, arguing that no third party can be allowed any “veto” on the issue. Such annual exercises are part of deepening military cooperation between India and the US, driven by mutual concerns over China’s regional assertiveness. There are many other instances of the Chinese side objecting to the Indian government’s efforts to improve ties with the US.

The US highly values India as a counterweight against China. The Donald Trump administration had even committed to “offer 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.” New Delhi is now more amenable to receiving Washington’s support to balance Beijing, as reflected in the willingness to tolerate American presence in India’s immediate neighbourhood.

US Support Crucial For Indo-Pacific Region

One positive aspect of this trend is that the US might be willing to provide some indirect support to strengthen India’s nuclear deterrence capability. Strategist Ashley Tellis has proposed to set up a security arrangement involving India, France and the US (INFRUS)—like the Australia-United Kingdom-US (AUKUS) model—to encourage France to provide naval nuclear propulsion technology to India. Such a strategic alliance has enormous implications on the strategic, economic, and political calculus of not just South Asia but the Indo-Pacific region as a whole.

India has rightly linked the boundary dispute resolution with the development of an overall bilateral relationship with China. India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, has reiterated on multiple platforms that India’s relationship with China cannot become normal without peace in the border regions. But Chinese President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian impulses, failures of misguided Covid-19 policies, and hawkish border security vision have pushed China to take an assertive stance on the border issue with India. Thus, there have been more tense border incidents during the past few years.

China’s antagonistic stance makes it difficult for India to reset the bilateral relationship, especially because of the sensitivity and complexity of the border issue. The actions of the Chinese government and the state media rhetoric on border issues have demonstrated that India and China’s positions are too far apart to be reconciled easily. Moreover, China’s growing focus on using offensive cyber capabilities—as reflected in its alleged involvement in the recent cyber attacks on AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) servers in Delhi—implies its determination to expand the battlespace against India.

There is an urgent need to counter the ‘middle-kingdom concept’. According to this theory, China is the ‘civilised’ centre of the world, and other countries are mere ‘tributaries’. It has not only pandered to the inflated egos of Chinese rulers but has also led to an appalling disregard for rules-based global order. China’s highly illegal claim on Indian territory based on fabricated historical accounts by Communists as part of criminal propaganda is also an outcome of this middle-kingdom mentality. The US must help India overcome its traditional reluctance to confront China and stand up to it instead.

US Attention On India, Not Pakistan

To tackle the challenges ahead, the US should devote more resources and attention to India than Pakistan, which is acting like a Chinese tributary. This way, the delicate strategic balance in South Asia can be restored in India’s favour. Dealing effectively with China is impossible without managing Pakistan considering their nexus. It is not surprising to see Pakistan at the top of the China Index 2022, as revealed in a new study on China’s global influence. Both share a historic rivalry with India, and their strategic ties have deepened since the US accelerated its efforts to bolster India to counter China’s growing ambitions.

The US has prioritised geopolitical competition as a much more severe challenge than global terrorism—manifested in its withdrawal from Afghanistan. With the Afghan Taliban becoming more autonomous and nationalist, Pakistan’s worst nightmare, that of Afghanistan becoming a haven for anti-State terrorists, is becoming a reality. Since Pakistan has played a duplicitous role in the US’ counter-terrorism war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden’s South Asia policy needs to be more India-centric. Such actions will force Pakistan to rectify the structural anomalies in its security and foreign policies. Biden had recently described Pakistan as “one of the most dangerous nations in the world,” possessing “nuclear weapons without any cohesion.”

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s recent personal attack on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a poignant reflection of Pakistan’s inability to change its zero-sum security mindset vis-à-vis India. Obsessive hostility against India has only frustrated Pakistan’s development potential while impeding South Asia’s regional integration. Pakistan’s so-called ‘National Security Policy’, which emphasised its transformation from geo-politics to geo-economics, is a farce nobody believes in.

The US claims to have a “global strategic partnership” with India and a “deep partnership” with Pakistan, as recently revealed by US State Department spokesperson Ned Price. This could be interpreted as Washington’s placement of New Delhi as far above Islamabad in its South Asia calculus. Given the structural realities of Pakistan’s domestic politics due to the Imran Khan factor, Bhutto’s efforts to repair his country’s ties with the US will not bear fruit. Irrespective of the official rhetoric, the magnitude of externalities emanating from a Taliban-led Afghanistan will primarily shape the US-Pakistan engagement.

What is at stake in South Asia is not just India’s security but the very existence of a ‘rules-based international order’. Thus, US support for bolstering India’s predominance can force China to moderate its aggressive policies and restore strategic balance in the region. Nevertheless, New Delhi’s own strategy must acquire an offensive orientation while discarding the current matrix involving accommodationist and defensive strategies. India needs to note that its aspirations to be counted as a global power cannot be achieved without acquiring the ability to inflict punishment on those crossing the proverbial red line.