By Sameer Lalwani.
Scuffles in mid-May between Chinese and Indian troops appeared to escalate with People’s Liberation Army actions of unprecedented breadth, size, and coordination across multiple fronts. Though the Indian government sought to keep a lid on the story, reports showed signs of reinforcement and military buildup along the Line of Actual Control, the disputed border between the two countries. Soon after an initial commitment to de-escalation on June 6, brawls on June 15 at the mouth of the Galwan River Valley left 20 Indian soldiers dead — and an undetermined number of Chinese casualties — the first deaths on the border in decades. Since then, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to retaliate if instigated and warned that expansionist powers would lose.
These events are of immense consequence to the United States. American policymakers have contended for years that India plays a “vital” and “pre-eminent role” in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. While U.S.-Indian ties have improved in the last two decades, New Delhi has often been reluctant to align too closely with Washington. The unprecedented violence, intensity of escalation, and recognition of India’s grim options have renewed optimism in the United States that this crisis with China will remove New Delhi’s inhibitions and “push India toward the [United States],” prompting it to “[pick] a side in the new cold war.” Indeed, China’s actions areclearly galvanizing Indian strategic elites to discard hedging for a more assertive approach to the Asian balance of power. As U.S. policymakers express support, strategists like former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy have described this crisis as an opening to “accelerate and deepen security co-operation.”
American defense policymakers and analysts should lean into this opportunity to improve ties with India, but also draw important lessons from this still unfolding episode to inform future strategy. First, India’s resolve to balance China may be hardening, but its internal capacity to do so may be faltering. Second, the crisis has exposed or exacerbated India’s problems of strategic assessment, diversion of resources to its land borders, and its dependence on Russia, which limit India’s synergy with America’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. If this crisis really precipitates an inflection point, analysts should observe a revised approach to the U.S.-India relationship where New Delhi undertakes to substantively balance China, Washington accommodates Indian constraints, and both demonstrate a tolerance for some difficult bargains and creative workarounds.
Solving the “Underbalancing” Problem
A crisis that heightens India’s fears of Chinese aggression renews opportunities for deeper alignment with the United States. Some leaders have long hailed the promise of U.S.-Indian cooperation despite the shortfalls, particularly when it comes to balancing China. But the surprise, intensity, and publicity of this crisis may have jolted India closer to Washington’s more competitive approach to Beijing. The Indian government’s longtime China hands have described this as a “turning point,” and analysts claim “‘strategic ambiguity’ is over.”
India has already shown signs of this. Recently, India expedited the procurement of advanced military equipment (including the purchase or upgrade of almost 100 fighter aircraft) and pursued the early deployment of new air defense systems. India also blocked Chinese apps and obstructed much Chinese investment. It has also publicly tipped its hand at inviting Australia to military exercises with the “Quad” — the informal grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — and disinviting Huawei from its national 5G trials.
Solidified elite consensus about the Chinese threat, however, may prove insufficient. India has “underbalanced” with respect to China for years. In other words, New Delhi has been slow to build up sufficient military power or alliances to deter Chinese territorial aggrandizement. Besides structural incentives of geography, nuclear weapons, or a perceived defensive advantage, states underbalance less out of naiveté than out of a collective action problem. Serious balancing of an adversary carries considerable costs and risks. Breaking out of underbalancing inertia requires consensus not only on the threat but also the remedy, as well as the elite and social cohesion to mobilize efforts at considerable economic and political costs. Simply put, how much defense spending will Indian society bear with “trade-offs” to development or social welfare? How much political effort will leaders expend on national security reforms at the expense of elections or social engineering? India is unlikely to easily navigate these trade-offs, particularly given eroding social cohesion, deep partisan fights, and an economy that’s reeling under the pressure of the pandemic.
Indian strategic elites, cognizant of the limits to internal balancing, will likely turn to external partners for support. This would be welcome news for U.S. policymakers whose high expectations for the U.S.-Indian relationship have been met with some disappointments due to complacency and inertia on both sides. Nevertheless, American analysts should calibrate expectations given some of the challenges revealed by the crisis.
Problems of Strategic Assessment and Decision-Making
The border crisis has exposed a range of national security “software” problems in India, including deficient intelligence, poor strategic assessment, and miscommunication that may have enabled or abetted the breakdown in deterrence with China.
Accounts of serious Indian intelligence breakdowns, starting with the surprise that a People’s Liberation Army exercise turned into an offensive military operation, are concerning. This may be a result of a combination of factors: insufficient technical means such as military satellite coverage (or misdirected applications by civilian agencies) to continuously monitor the border closely; analytical or interpretation failure without a proper appreciation of China’s intentions; an over-concentration of intelligence and analytical assets on other threats like Pakistan or terrorist groups; or simply a breakdown in the process of moving information up the policy chain. Whatever the precise cause, India failed to take the requisite defensive actions against China despite early warning in February and several intelligence alerts by mid-April.
Second, some observers suggest India may have miscalculated and insufficiently prepared for the consequences of its extraordinary policy moves last summer that helped motivate China’s actions. On Aug. 5, 2019, India took dramatic steps to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, unilaterally abrogating the autonomy provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir territory disputed with Pakistan, but also implicating its territorial disputes with China. Beijing apparently warned that India’s unilateral moves were “unacceptable” and “[challenged] China’s sovereignty and interests,” and responded with “alarm” and “vehement protest.” The first real signs of more conspicuously aggressive Chinese behavior in Ladakh began the following month. These criticisms of Indian decision-making have been made not to excuse China’s “aggressive posture,” but to question whether the Indian government exercised the strategic competence to “red team” political choices, heed warnings, and prepare for consequences that some contend were eminently predictable.
Source: Read More on Texas National Security Review.