Washington – A flare-up in a long-running border dispute between China and India has raised the temperature in their bilateral relationship. Yet it may be just as significant for the trilateral U.S.-China-India relationship, which will do a great deal to shape the strategic landscape of the 21st century.
As the U.S.-China rivalry goes global, India may be the only nonaligned country that can, by itself, make a major difference in the balance of influence and advantage. The good news is that the geopolitics of the triangle are producing a tighter U.S.-India partnership. The bad news is that trade frictions and India’s internal politics are getting in the way.
The details of the border crisis are murky, in part because both governments are remaining tight-lipped. But it’s clear that China and India are in the midst of one of their most serious showdowns in decades, 4,270 meters above sea level in the Himalayas. There are reports of several Chinese incursions into Indian-held land, including territory beyond what Beijing has traditionally claimed. China has sent thousands of troops to reinforce its presence in the area; both sides are reportedly deploying heavy weapons to bases near the area in dispute.
For the time being, though, neither side seems eager to escalate into a shooting war.
Nationalist newspapers in India are already crowing about a Chinese retreat. This seems dangerously premature. Beijing has succeeded in reminding India that it has powerful coercive capabilities along their shared frontier — that the “salami slicer” China uses to carve away at its opponents’ positions is ultimately backed by a meat cleaver.
That’s trouble for India, but it may offer an advantage for the United States. Since American officials started worrying about China’s rise in the 1990s, they have looked to India as a counterweight. India’s nuclear tests in 1998 temporarily threw a wrench in the relationship, but U.S. President Bill Clinton nonetheless visited India in 2000, and a series of Democratic and Republican presidents have made cultivating a strategic relationship with New Delhi a priority.
Indian governments rarely move as quickly as their U.S. counterparts might like, in part because the bureaucracy moves glacially even when there is a meeting of the minds among political leaders, and in part because of the residue of India’s Cold War tradition of nonalignment. U.S. cooperation with Pakistan on counterterrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was also a sticking point. More recently, Indian officials have been reluctant to do anything that risks making an outright enemy of China, a natural rival that they must nonetheless find ways of living with.
Yet the geopolitical logic of a U.S. partnership has grown stronger over time, mostly because China has become more assertive. Indian strategists can be forgiven for wondering if Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative is an encirclement campaign, given how determinedly China has been building its presence in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other points along the Indian Ocean.
That China now appears to have conducted a small-scale invasion of Indian-controlled territory, less than three years after a tense standoff in 2017, has reminded Indian officials of what living next to an aggressive, autocratic superpower might mean. India’s having to impose a nationwide lockdown to deal with a virus that began in China has hardly improved the tenor of the relationship.
The pace of U.S.-Indian affairs has quickened in recent years. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East policy — an evolving effort to increase ties with countries in East and Southeast Asia — and the increasing U.S. emphasis on the Indo-Pacific has created a framework for better security cooperation.
The Quad, an informal strategic partnership between the U.S., India, Australia and Japan, constitutes an implicit (if still nascent) anti-China coalition of democracies. In 2019 and 2020, Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump exchanged visits, featuring Trump’s “Howdy, Modi” rally in Houston and Modi’s “Namaste, Trump” reciprocation in Gujarat.
Defense sales and other military ties have increased, with Trump announcing a $3 billion weapons deal after his visit in February. India is also maneuvering to displace China in certain global supply chains, a welcome initiative given U.S. officials’ concern about dependence on Beijing.
India would be a demographically young and vibrant friend at a time when many of America’s traditional allies are going gray. Symbolically and geopolitically, India is a billion-plus person democracy to balance a billion-plus person autocracy.
In regional terms, U.S.-India cooperation is critical to ensuring the security of the Indian Ocean and bringing greater leverage to bear in the Western Pacific. If Washington were ever to mount a far-seas blockade against China, it would benefit enormously from access to India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A U.S.-India strategic partnership would confront China with a heightened challenge on its Western flank in the event of war in East Asia.
Still, there are hurdles. The trade relationship is contentious, with both sides slapping tariffs on each other’s goods and the Trump administration ending India’s ability to export certain goods duty-free through the Generalized System of Preferences. Trump’s obsession with trade deficits and Modi’s own moves to protect domestic manufacturing bode ill.
Then there are Modi’s domestic policies. A crackdown in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, the enactment of a citizenship law that has been criticized for giving privilege to non-Muslims, and recurring anti-Muslim violence have stirred concerns that Modi is reverting to the incendiary Hindu nationalism that once earned him a U.S. visa ban by President George W. Bush’s State Department. Although Trump seems little bothered by these issues, an India that regresses politically will make a less comfortable partner for the U.S. down the road.
Yet it is worth keeping these issues in perspective. The economic disputes are small beer compared with the strategic stakes. The U.S. tolerated worse forms of economic discrimination from some Cold War allies as the price of strengthening them against communist expansionism. India is still more pluralistic and democratic than other key countries the U.S. will have to hold close in the coming years, such as Vietnam and, under the authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines.
U.S. officials should speak candidly, in public and in private, when human rights are abused or civil liberties are abridged. They should aggressively encourage economic reforms that India needs to become more of a match for Beijing. But Washington should meanwhile keep the relationship focused on what is bringing India and the U.S. into closer alignment: They have a great deal to gain if they can hold the line against China, and much to lose if they cannot.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.