Foreign Policy Essay

Can India Help the United States Against China?

By Oriana Skylar Mastro
Sunday, August 26, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: As the United States struggles to contain a rising China—a top priority under any administration—many strategists look to India. They hope that close U.S. relations with New Delhi and India's own military strength will be an important pillar of regional containment. Oriana Mastro, my colleague at Georgetown, warns that relying on India will be harder than it seems and that the United States will need to move carefully to extract maximum strategic benefit.

Daniel Byman

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In his November 2017 APEC Summit speech in Vietnam, President Trump outlined his administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, elevating the importance of the “single strategic arena” of the Indian and Pacific Oceans as part of the geopolitical competition between China and the United States. The shift is a policy response to broad U.S. government concerns regarding China’s continued expansion into the Indian Ocean through initiatives such as “One Belt, One Road,” an infrastructure investment project intended to integrate Asian markets and expand Chinese influence, and the creation of a Chinese military base in Djibouti.

One of the drivers of the strategy is to bring together like-minded democracies to defend against Chinese attempts to disrupt the international rules-based order, universal liberal values, and free access to the maritime global commons. Notably, previous U.S. presidents have also attempted to convince New Delhi to take on a more proactive role in balancing against China. The Indo-Pacific strategy elevates India’s importance to the United States as a key partner in the region and calls on New Delhi to play a larger role as “a nation that can bookend and anchor the free and open order in the Indo-Pacific region.” The hope is that India’s active involvement will force China to divert and spread more thinly its resources, efforts, and capabilities from its eastern borders to its western borders.

But whether this U.S. strategy of strengthening its relationship with India in order to impose caution on Chinese aggression works primarily depends on how China perceives this move. In a recently published article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, I demonstrate that China is not responding proportionately or enough to India’s military build-up, even along the disputed border. For example, India has increased the number of mountain troops in its order of battle since 1996, adding two additional mountain infantry divisions to the Eastern Command responsible for defense of the Sino-Indian border in 2009 and announcing the formation of a 90,000-strong mountain strike corps in 2013. In 2015, nine of the Indian army’s 36 divisions were oriented toward the borders with China, Bangladesh, and Burma, compared with 18 divisions stationed in the states bordering Pakistan.

In contrast, according to PLA expert Dennis Blasko, the PLA, the largest ground force in the world, dedicates about six border defense regiments and five battalions in Tibet and a few less in southern Xinjiang for an estimated 40,000 border personnel. But PLA troops are widely dispersed along the 2,520 miles Sino-Indian border, manning static positions near the border and usually patrolling between guard points on foot, on horseback, or in vehicles in groups of ten men or fewer. Farther from the border are the “mobile operational units,” but those are still relatively few in number for such a large area, especially compared to the Indian border forces. Even Chinese commentators note that India has many more troops along the border than China does; India also has the world’s largest mountain forces, which are particularly useful along such a mountainous disputed border. Moreover, even though the Western Theater Command covers almost half of China’s total land area, contains some of the most difficult terrain, and has the important mission of protecting the disputed Sino-Indian border, China dedicates less than 25 percent of the PLA to that region.

I argue that concerns about regime legitimacy are the primary reason for China’s lack of balancing: The Chinese Communist Party needs to interpret China’s external environment in a way that supports its right to power at home. As economic growth slows down, the CCP is pushing the narrative that only with the Party in charge can China achieve its “national rejuvenation,” in the words of current leader Xi Jinping. This narrative of return to a rightful place of regional preeminence contributes to Party legitimacy by appealing to the public’s sense of Chinese exceptionalism and civilizational pride.

If the Indian military can present a challenge to the Chinese military, then the Chinese government must tacitly acknowledge the possibility that another country, and a democratic one at that, can rise successfully without the CCP at the helm. The Party fears that such an admission, even if not explicit, would undermine the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people. In short, internal stability depends on the Chinese people’s continued belief in the often-heard argument that “there is no developing country in the world that achieves prosperity and stability under Western-style democracy.”

China’s unique response to India’s military modernization has important implications for U.S. policy. The good news is that, because of Beijing’s concern over regime legitimacy, the threshold that the Indian threat must reach to spark a strong Chinese response is higher than that of other regional actors. This means that U.S. attempts to contribute to Indian military modernization are less risky than originally thought; they are unlikely to strongly provoke Beijing or lead to an arms race. But the United States must work with India discreetly, because the more Indian efforts are tied to the United States, the more likely China is to react strongly and negatively. An overt U.S. role could contribute to the CCP’s argument that strength cannot be built from within without the Party’s strong hand. It would allow China to recognize the military threat without implying that India is successfully undergoing military modernization. Therefore, to minimize a destabilizing Chinese reaction, the United States should think of ways to help improve Indian capabilities without being involved directly in operations with India in the region. For example, instead of pushing for joint exercises, the United States could pursue more low-key efforts, such as joint-training programs at the unit level. Additionally, the United States could support India indirectly by encouraging its partners and allies to support India’s military modernization, to include selling New Delhi critical technologies, platforms, and systems. In some ways, “the Quad,” an informal consultative mechanism between India, the United States, Japan, and Australia, is a step in the right direction. The bottom line is that the United States should prioritize programs that actually improve Indian capabilities discreetly instead of those that primarily focus on messaging and signaling to China their enhanced willingness to collaborate.

But there is also bad news. First, China’s need to downplay India’s military modernization also suggests that a competitive U.S. strategy of building Indian partner capacity is unlikely to have the desired effects. A strategy that relies on increased Indian military presence along the Sino-Indian border to goad China to invest more in ground capabilities at the expense of maritime ones is unlikely to succeed because China will not respond in a traditional balancing fashion to progress in Indian ground capabilities. This is a critical point given the new U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and its emphasis on encouraging a greater Indian role in countering Chinese assertiveness in East Asia.

Second, the need to show military superiority to domestic audiences likely extends to any encounters with Indian forces. This could create some dangerous incentives for China to escalate in a crisis in an attempt to convey its superior military might instead of attempting to defuse the issue and offer off ramps. These escalation pressures create a unique degree of crisis instability in which China may be tempted to resort to force instead of relying on diplomatic means to resolve the issue. Even if China does not want to fight a war with India, displays and maneuvering of military forces to convey a strong message to India to back down could have the opposite effect. The two-month military standoff at Doklam, sparked by the Chinese military’s attempts to extend a road through territory disputed by China and Bhutan, demonstrate some of these problematic escalatory dynamics.

In sum, a stronger U.S. defense relationship with India is unlikely to distract China from its aggressive policies in the South and East China Sea. But the risks of such a strategy are relatively low, so it doesn’t hurt to try.

Note: This article was updated on August 29, 2018, with more recent information regarding the Chinese military's border security.