Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

America sees opportunity in India-China conflict

Weeks after India and China engaged in their deadliest border clash in decades, the sight of an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier—USS Nimitz, entering the Bay of Bengal draws attention across the region., with experts calling it "symbolic" of the US's support of India

By Pranshu Verma
Published: Oct 5, 2020

Indian soldiers disembark from a military transport plane at a forward airbase in Leh, in the Ladakh region, September 15, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 

WASHINGTON — Weeks after India and China engaged in their deadliest border clash in decades, the sight of an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier entering the Bay of Bengal drew attention across the region.

The carrier, the USS Nimitz, and its strike group deployed to the area in mid-July to conduct an exercise with the Indian Navy in pursuit of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a statement by the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, whose headquarters are in Japan. But as tensions soar between India and China, two nuclear-armed neighbors, the joint operation took on a greater significance.

“It was symbolic,” said Tanvi Madan, the director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution. “It’s also signaling to China and others that the U.S. is standing by India.”

As the rivalry between India and China intensifies, the United States and India have taken their shared anger toward Beijing and forged stronger diplomatic and military ties that could alter the balance of power in the region. Officials note that while that friendship has been on an upswing over the past two decades, the border dispute with China has accelerated relations between the countries.

“Both the U.S. and India have recognized the importance of the other,” said Nisha Biswal, an assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs during the Obama administration. “It’s not a surprise that the Indians are looking for like-minded strategic and security partners, given concerns around a destabilizing environment in the Indo-Pacific.”

But social justice advocates worry that the Trump administration is turning a blind eye to India’s rights abuses against Muslims under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, prioritizing military and geopolitical alliances over all else.

“They are warming relations under the same authoritarian banner,” said Wasim Dar, who campaigns for rights of people in the disputed territory of Kashmir. “They’re prioritizing military, or hegemony, over any kind of human rights or political freedom.”

The United States and India have increasingly soured on China in recent years.

A looming presidential election in the United States — and President Donald Trump’s eagerness to paint China as a rival — has caused Washington to sharply shift its policies toward Beijing. The Trump administration has taken a series of economic, political and diplomatic actions against China, citing its crackdown on democratic protests in Hong Kong, human rights abuses against the largely Muslim Uighur minority, unfair trade practices and aggressive expansion into the South China Sea.

At the same time, India and China have engaged in increasing aggression in recent months.

In June, Indian and Chinese troops brawled along a land border in the Himalayas, killing 20 Indian soldiers. In August, a soldier in the secretive force of Tibetan refugees working for the Indian Army was killed by a land mine. In September, both countries blamed each other for firing gunshots in the same region, the first time military fire had been recorded in the area for decades.

“Nobody’s backing down. They’re going to go through the winter like this,” said Vikram Singh, senior adviser to the Asia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Now you’ve got a situation where there’s a whole bunch more flash points at a tactical level.”

Washington’s relationship with India has a rocky history. During the Cold War, the United States grew closer with Pakistan, India’s border rival, and Russia with India. U.S. relations with India started to warm in 2000 after President Bill Clinton became the first American president to visit the country since 1978. Since then, every American leader has made the trip to India and extolled the virtues of teaming with the world’s largest democracy.

Still, the United States and India have not signed a formal alliance. India, which for years has maintained a stance of nonalignment, has been reluctant to engage.

But the Himalayan crisis is helping change that.

India’s increasing focus on China — a turnaround from the days when Pakistan claimed most of its attention — is a welcome sign for American diplomats, who believe the shared anger can draw India into a strategic partnership that will help neutralize China’s growing influence in the region.

Of most interest, experts say, is whether the border dispute will move India closer into a regional partnership with the United States, Japan and Australia — known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad.”

The forum — proposed in 2007 by the Japanese prime minister at the time, Shinzo Abe — was billed as the Asian “arc of democracy.” China has seen it as a threat to its dominance in the region, saying the Quad is a U.S. attempt to create an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization directly aimed at counterbalancing its interests.

In the past, India was hesitant to fully engage in the partnership, spurned by Australia’s exit in 2008 and fearful of upsetting China and ruining its trade ties with the country. Australia has since rejoined.

But former State Department officials and diplomacy experts note China’s aggressive actions have started to backfire, pointing to recent moves that show India is more willing to participate in a coalition that is seen by most as anti-China.

Modi signaled in his call with Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, that the two countries must work together for a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region,” echoing language used by the Quad and United States.

India’s minister of external affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has also become increasingly vocal about the partnership, experts say, and will meet in Tokyo on Tuesday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the foreign ministers of Japan and Australia for the Quad’s second official meeting.

“The goal before was, don’t provoke China too much,” said Richard Fontaine, who served as Sen. John McCain’s foreign policy adviser and is now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. “But 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.”

Should India become more willing to turn the forum into a strategic alliance, it could prove beneficial for the region, State Department officials have said. “Anything of the fortitude of NATO or the European Union” does not exist there, said Stephen Biegun, the deputy secretary of state. He added that while India was a “centerpiece” of the U.S.’ strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, it cannot be taken for granted that India wants to cement a formal partnership.

But some scholars say the tide has turned, and the relationship can go only one way. “The direction of U.S.-India relations is clear now — toward closer cooperation,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi think tank. “That will be the main fallout of China’s aggression in the Himalayan region.”

Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, have pledged to ease tensions along their contested border. However, a joint statement they issued in September fails to address key differences behind the border dispute, including the exact demarcation of the contested territory.

India and the United States are also looking to increase military cooperation. Over the years, India has accelerated its weapons purchases from the United States. It is slated to buy upward of $20 billion in U.S. arms in 2020, a sharp increase from nearly zero in 2008, according to the State Department.

More recently, India has sought to fast-track a purchase 30 MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones from General Atomics in a deal that is likely to exceed $3 billion, according to industry officials. The drones could be deployed to India’s disputed border region with China and significantly expand its surveillance over the area. The news was reported earlier by India Today.

In September, the United States also signed a defense agreement with the Maldives, the small island nation hundreds of miles southwest of India, that provides the United States an opportunity to counter China’s ability to expand its presence in the region. India has been historically skeptical of foreign military presence so close to its borders but blessed the deal.

Diplomats are watching to see if India invites Australia to participate in a naval exercise it holds with Japan and the United States. It would be another sign that India is taking the concept of the Quad seriously, experts said. As of Wednesday, India was still considering whether Australia should be included, according to a senior State Department official.

But despite the warming ties, Trump and Modi, both conservatives, have not addressed human rights concerns.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist, has been criticized heavily for actions that have disenfranchised Muslims in India. Last August, Modi revoked a special status for Kashmir that had granted it greater autonomy than other Indian states. After protests erupted over the measure, he clamped down with lockdowns and a suspension of phone and internet services.

Late last year, Modi also introduced a law that laid out a path to citizenship for people from six religious minorities who arrived to India before 2015. Muslims were excluded. The action prompted mass protests across India and resulted in a brutal police crackdown.

Human rights experts say it is troubling that the United States talks so strongly about human rights abuses in China but is willing to engage in deeper diplomatic and strategic ties with India, where similar situations are occurring.

“It’s basically hypocrisy,” Dar said.

©2019 New York Times News Service