In 2020 and into early 2021, the military forces of the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) clashed multiple times in hand-to-hand combat in northwest India along the nuclear-armed neighbors’ 3,500 kilometer-long disputed border—resulting in their deadliest skirmish in 45 years. Given the tension between these two global powers, the United States is seeking to strengthen defensive ties with the Republic of India to signal its commitment to defending the world’s largest democracy.
The origins of the border conflict go back more than 100 years. After 1914 talks between Great Britain, the Republic of China, and Tibet, the Republic of China rejected the British proposal while Tibet did not. Today the Republic of India affirms that its Himalayan border is outlined in that agreement while the PRC opposes that demarcation. In 1962, India and the PRC fought a war in which the PRC defeated India, but the border issue remained unresolved.
In June of 2020, Indian and Chinese military forces engaged in brutal night-time hand-to-hand combat along the disputed Sino-Indian border near Ladakh, India. The conflict left 20 Indian and officially four Chinese soldiers dead, but both US and Russian intelligence suggest that Chinese casualties were higher. Tensions remained high through most of 2020 and escalated again in January of 2021 after a Chinese patrol attempted to enter Indian territory, but Indian forces repelled it. Amidst these conflicts, the US Navy deployed its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Nimitz and its strike group to the Bay of Bengal to engage in a military exercise with the Indian Navy. A Brookings Institute scholar said that the operation “…[signaled] to China and others that the US is standing by India,” despite a rocky history during the Cold War and the continual lack of a formal alliance. India possesses the world’s most numerous military ground force of 1.4 million troops compared to the 975,000 of the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force–making it a critical US ally in the event of, and to deter, a future war with China. Additionally, with India’s attention focused on Ladakh, China launched a controversial military-backed “village-building spree” to bolster its claims to territory along the countries’ eastern border in Arunachal Pradesh”—a strategy comparable to its construction of islands in the South China Sea. In March of 2021, India’s minister of state, Vellamvelly Muraleedharan, acknowledged China’s infrastructure development in the region and said India is engaging in similar efforts to “facilitate economic development and meet the country’s strategic and security requirements.”
Beginning on January 24th, Chinese and Indian commanders reached a deal to ease tensions and disengage from the Ladakh border. Yet, the 11th session of the bi-lateral military-led talks on April 10th yielded no significant progress towards ending the conflict further. In 2020, President Trump offered to moderate the dialogue, but China asserted that US involvement would not be necessary. The US has yet to play a role in the negotiations but continues to signal its support for India through other means.
One such example was the US involvement in the first-ever “Quad Alliance” summit, composed of India, the US, Japan, and Australia, that occurred on March 12th, 2021. The alliance was initially formed in 2007 but quickly fell apart due to the four parties’ reservations and resistance from China. In the face of escalating Chinese aggression, such as the quarrels along the northern Indian border, the Quad has resurged, and military ties have expanded. For example, on Monday, April 5th, the four countries and France engaged in a three-day joint naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal. That exercise marked the first cooperative military training between the “Quad” countries since the March summit.
Despite the progress made earlier this year towards cooling the heated border situation, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had approximately 15,000 troops stationed in the region last June. That figure has now increased to around 50,000. The Indian military has matched the Chinese presence and has even redeployed combat air squadrons and tanks to the area. Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and several senior military officials were in Ladakh in June to review the results of these adjustments and India’s military preparedness. In light of these developments, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson claimed that the border situation remains stable and controllable; however, the aggressive build-up on both sides suggests that diplomatic action is needed to discourage an active arms race.
The most recent incidents at the Sino-Indin border have opened the door for greater US-Indian cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region—an invaluable relationship necessary for countering Chinese hostility. The clashes, and China’s growing naval presence in the Indian ocean, have aggravated India, which is now committed to pushing back. A foreign policy adviser to former Senator John McCain said that: “…now, with China acting the way it is, there’s no longer the sense of as much restraint on what India might do with the United States.” Moving India away from the PRC and towards a formal US-led Indo-Pacific alliance will pose a significant threat to China, relieve some of the burdens of policing the region from the US and onto a stable coalition, and hopefully deter future conflicts with the PRC.
Additionally, stronger US-Indian relations in a future China-related crisis provide the duo with greater leverage (such as the threat of US military technology combined with the sheer size of the Indian armed forces) to negotiate with the communist power. The Indo-American relationship’s essential relationship to Asian peace and prosperity necessitates that fundamental differences between the two countries must be cleared away relatively soon. Furthermore, the cooperation in the Sino-Indian region between the Quad powers last year, suggests that the US will be sharing the responsibility for the security of the Indo-Pacific region with its allies for years to come.