After months of border standoff from May 2020, Indian and Chinese troops had successfully carried out disengagement at the northern and southern banks of Pangong Tso lake, a move that aims to ease tensions along the border.
And in another attempt to bring peace and stability along the Line of Actual Control, India and Pakistan implemented a cease-fire agreement from midnight February 24/25.
New Delhi made these moves after careful calculations of its interests. It knows well that long-term confrontation with China consumes its resources, and there is no way that it could force Beijing to step back or compromise. Against the backdrop of lagging logistics and weapons procurement and the pandemic-stricken economy, India has no chance of winning a large-scale conflict or war.
Similarly, India did not gain anything from its skirmishes with Pakistan. The fact that India’s national strength exceeds that of Pakistan does not necessarily mean India has absolute advantages in particular regions. This is especially the case since Pakistan has nuclear weapons. India dare not wage a war against such a well-armed country.
Some analysts believe these developments at the borders with China and Pakistan show that India’s regional strategy is rapidly adapting to the reality of the post-Trump era.
It could be argued that India’s cease-fire with Pakistan is influenced by US factors. The administration of US President Joe Biden is likely to extend the May 1 deadline set by the Donald Trump administration for withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan. As the Afghan issue remains unsettled, the US has to maintain its presence on Afghanistan, so it needs cooperation with Pakistan. After Biden took power, the US may treat India and Pakistan equally.
India is also weighing the China policy the Biden administration would adopt. It is anticipated that the Biden administration’s foreign policy will stress multilateralism and international cooperation, and will be different from the confrontational approach of the Trump administration. Biden’s team has signaled its readiness to explore areas of cooperation such as climate change with China, and it describes China as “the most serious competitor” to the US rather than labeling it as a “security threat.”
Therefore, the role that India can play in the US strategy to contain China will be reduced. And India’s policy of regional aggression by taking advantage of the US will also meet some setbacks.
Washington will attach more importance to its relationship with New Delhi under the framework of the great power competition, as it always does. But the realpolitik-centric US will attach importance to India only for US’ own agenda.
For instance, American support for India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council has proven to be nothing but lip service for more than a decade.
What may be a relief for India is the fact that it still has a place in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, which the Biden administration will likely continue though it was introduced by the Trump administration. There has also been discussions about whether the US and India will form a real military alliance. But this actually puts New Delhi into dilemma. It not only matters to other Asian countries, but also signals the formation of the Cold War-like military camps in Asia. India cannot bear the responsibility of destroying regional stability.
During the Trump era, India made the strategic mistake of rash advances by having border conflicts with China, Pakistan and Nepal. Although military cooperation between New Delhi and Washington was boosted with US arms sales to India and some defense agreements signed, such cooperation did not effectively enhance India’s own strength. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” ambition is in structural conflicts with Trump’s policies to bring manufacturing back to the US.
If we predict the India-US relations in the Biden era, we can refer to the Barack Obama administration. As the international landscape has not changed that much, the impact of leadership changes on bilateral ties will only be partial. If India truly wants to lift its international status, it must enhance its own strength. India has been relying on the US or Quad, an informal security grouping of the US, Japan, Australia and India, to counterbalance China. This shows it understands its lack of strength. Major powers are master practitioners of realpolitik. India will only end up being a US pawn, rather than the grandiose power it desires to be.
The author is a senior research fellow with the Academy of Regional and Global Governance at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs.