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Washington can send a strong message to Beijing with support for India’s territorial integrity

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India and China once again have clashed in the remote fastness of the High Himalayas. The two powers fought a major war in 1962 in the same region that resulted in humiliating reverses for India’s forces. There have been minor clashes ever since, including an incident in June 2020 that resulted in the death of 20 Indian troops and a number of their Chinese counterparts that Beijing has yet to disclose.

India clearly does not want the confrontations to escalate. Its defense minister has downplayed the most recent incident that took place earlier this month, by noting that the line separating the two countries — termed the Line of Actual Control, or LAC — is not very clear and is subject to “an overlap in the perception of the LAC in many areas.” 

Moreover, according to retired admiral and senior military analyst C. Uday Bhaskar, the bad weather currently prevailing in the region will prevent anything more than a stalemate interspersed with local confrontations from taking place until the spring. China likewise has minimized the significance of the recent military hostilities. Nevertheless, once the weather improves, tensions between Beijing and New Delhi are likely to increase once again, especially because China has been encroaching on Indian territory elsewhere along their common border. 

For its part, Washington has been preoccupied with America’s domestic political, economic and public health troubles while the most recent clashes have taken place. Yet it cannot ignore them indefinitely. China’s encroachments into what is, at best, disputed territory mirrors Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea and — but only to a somewhat lesser extent — in the East China Sea.

It is worth recalling that some six decades ago, despite the political friction between Jawarharlal Nehru’s government and the Eisenhower administration, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had developed plans for reinforcing India in the event of a Chinese onslaught, and even coordinated with their British counterparts to provide India with a nuclear umbrella. Moreover, when India and China did come to blows in the High Himalayas in 1962, and Chinese forces appeared to be prevailing in the conflict, the Kennedy administration authorized American C-130 aircraft to support the Indian forces with arms and ammunition, as well as cold weather clothing. 

The lengths to which Washington was willing to go in order to help India defend herself were forgotten in the aftermath of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, however; the United States aligned itself with Pakistan, demonstrating its support by sending the carrier Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal.

Times have changed. American relations with Pakistan have deteriorated. At the same time, India no longer needs a nuclear umbrella such as that which British and American military contemplated in the late 1950s. It is a nuclear power in its own right. In any event, no such commitment would be forthcoming from Washington, much less London.

In the face of China’s growing military might, however, there has been a significant strengthening of American-Indian military ties in the realm of conventional forces. These are reflected both in the uptick of American sales of increasingly sophisticated equipment to the Indian military, and in the frequent army, navy and air force joint Indo-U.S. training exercises. Among the most notable of these are the Malabar exercises that include not only the U.S. and Indian navies but also those of Australia and Japan, both of which also have been subjected to Chinese harassment — trade restrictions in the case of Australia, and maritime incursions into the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands. 

It should follow as a natural consequence of the growth in Indo-American military cooperation that the Biden administration reprises Kennedy’s readiness to support India in the face of Chinese aggression. It should convey to New Delhi that, as in 1962, it would not sit on its hands were India to request assistance in the form of military equipment and supplies. If stated in no uncertain terms, it is a message that certainly will not be lost on Beijing. Nor should it be.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags China aggression China-India border clashes China–India relations

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