Extracted from the original article titled “More strategy and less Washington in Sino-Indian relations” by Andrei Lungu, RISAP on the East Asia Forum website (https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/08/21/more-strategy-and-less-washington-in-sino-indian-relations/)
(Those parts of the original article that are not reproduced in the Huan Qiu Shi Bao article (translation below) are shown in strike through format, while any words/phrases added or substituted in the HQSB piece are shown in italics.)
Not long after the deadly border clash in June between China and India, observers were trying to ascertain the geopolitical consequences of the incident. Many focussed on how the clash would drive India closer to the United States, a popular view in the West. In India itself too, there is growing desire to abandon ‘appeasement’, get tough on China and strategically strengthen ties with the United States.
While the Sino-Indian rivalry is complex, the border dispute is for the moment the clearest manifestation of bilateral tension. This issue isn’t one that can be solved by the United States — it is the product of different levels of border infrastructure development between India and China, combined with the
Stronger US–India relations, especially in the commercial space, would stimulate economic growth in India. But reflexively strengthening military and diplomatic ties with the United States because of the border dispute — creating the impression that India has chosen sides in the US–China rivalry — will do little to ease pressure at the border and related tensions. It is more likely to convince China to take an even harsher stance against India. China could use the border dispute not only to provoke India, but to send a signal about diminishing US power in the region… general state difference in the overall situation of the two countries’ militaries. An improved US–India partnership will not solve this problem, even if it were upgraded to a military alliance buttressed by a defence treaty.
When observers talk about India moving closer to the United States, they refer to a relationship short of a defence treaty. India would benefit from access to a better range of military gear, US intelligence, joint military exercises and exchanges, as well as diplomatic support. But these will not reverse the balance of power between China and India, nor will they blunt China’s border advantages. There is a limit to how much military equipment India can buy, conditioned by its economic footprint.
That the United States and India would even sign a defence treaty is not under consideration. India still treasures its policy of ‘strategic autonomy’ and a defence treaty with the United States would radically depart from this long-held position.
It is unclear if there is any appetite in Washington, especially under the current administration, to extend military commitments to India. In the event of another deadly border conflict, the United States would either be at risk of clashing with China or jeopardise its credibility by not getting involved. China–India tensions have frequently ratcheted up as a result of border confrontations over the past decade. Yet until the clash in June, all other instances in the recent past had been victimless…
India’s weaker position compared to China isn’t a consequence of a lack of manpower, nor a lack of equipment. A lack of infrastructure remains the main impediment to expanded front-line military deployment. Washington cannot easily offer India credible assistance here in the high altitudes of the remote Himalayas. Low-level Chinese border pressure short of war is the main irritant, yet these kinds of skirmishes are beyond US reach. Some hope that a stronger US–India partnership might deter these operations, but Japan’s long-standing defence treaty with the United States did nothing to deter constant and growing Chinese pressure around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The US–Philippines defence treaty did not prevent China from taking over Scarborough Shoal. The border danger posed by Beijing isn’t that China will one day invade, but rather a threat of incremental advance. Beijing may believe that if India sides with the United States, it is lost as a non-aligned power, transforming India into the perfect tool through which to send a signal about Washington’s inability to help its friends. The border dispute will no longer be just a point of pressure against India, but also an opportunity to show countries in Southeast Asia, for instance, that the United States cannot help them in their disputes and that stronger ties with Washington will only attract problems. It is likely that Chinese pressure at the border will intensify and could extend to new areas, like the eastern sector in Arunachal Pradesh, which has been less active. China might also take other confrontational measures, such as finally materialising the long-dreaded military base at Gwadar, Pakistan.
India’s main issue isn’t that it has ‘appeased’ China, nor that it hasn’t been close enough to the United States. It is the economic and hard power gap between it and China. No alliance or foreign policy shift will solve this inequality. Trying to maintain workable relations with Beijing and manage border tensions — while catching up to China over the next decades — was and still is the wisest policy.
Strengthening economic and trade ties with the United States, as part of a general policy of increasing economic engagement with other countries to boost economic growth, will help India. But creating the impression that India has chosen a side in the US–China rivalry and joined a coalition against China will only increase Sino-Indian tensions.
If the US–China ‘Cold War’ defines the first half of the ‘Asian Century’, the China–India relationship will probably shape the second half. To meet this challenge, India’s best bet is to plan for the long term, instead of letting its strategy be driven by short-term pressures.
(translated by Qiao Heng)