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India-China border clashes create opportunities for US national security

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Last week’s border clash between India and China that led to mass casualties on both sides is a significant escalation in their long-running dispute over territory. The clash may have profound implications for regional and international security, potentially presenting a complicated security situation but also an opportunity for the United States to advance its interests with both countries.

As the rift in Sino-American relations grows, the U.S. should take steps to further engage with India in an effort to bolster the country as a geopolitical bulwark against China’s growing regional hegemony.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to strengthen his country’s position vis-à-vis China. Modi has generally engaged bilaterally with President Xi Jinping while also working to reassert India’s interests in the broader Indian Ocean region — sometimes at the expense of China. This Indian reassertion is evident in Modi’s “Neighborhood First”’ foreign policy in which India has sought to enhance regional partnerships while emerging as a leader on the continent. 

But Modi has tried to encourage ties with Xi, most notably through an “informal summit” in Wuhan in 2018, which sought to soothe tensions over a 2017 border standoff. But subsequent events rooted in Wuhan (the coronavirus) have reignited Indian concerns. Modi’s government has taken economic steps to decrease its reliance on Chinese supply chains while also initiating further diplomatic outreach to regional partners in the context of COVID-19.

But the current border situation may subvert the India-China relationship entirely, especially as the United States has in recent years initiated warmer relations with India while turning frostier towards China. Some analysts have suggested that China’s aggressive posturing in Ladakh is a “show of force” to warn India against a closer relationship with the U.S., and is in line with other activities in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and even domestically in the U.S. that demonstrate China’s assertive behavior.

The timing of these actions is key, as China’s leaders would assume that India does not have the capacity or willpower to respond militarily, due in part to multi-faceted crises spawned by COVID-19. The Trump administration, which has sought to pin the blame for the global pandemic on China, had previously signaled support for India’s stance in the Ladakh situation. President Trump offered to negotiate an agreement between India and China back in May.

The U.S. needs a multi-pronged approach to address growing Chinese political, economic and military hegemony. An India that perceives itself being surrounded by this Chinese encroachment is key. The Chinese government has already made inroads with heavy Belt and Road Initiative investments in Sri Lanka and India’s longtime rival Pakistan. It has thereby established a presence in India’s immediate periphery. China’s involvement with Sri Lanka, especially given its acquisition of the strategically valuable Hambantota Port on the island’s southern coast, may portend a future military or security threat in the Indian Ocean. The United States needs to be aware of this regional encroachment and take the first steps in establishing a pseudo-security alliance with India.

To advance U.S. interests at this critical time, the Trump administration should consider a series of military, economic, political and even publish health measures to signal its resolve to both China and India. From a military perspective, the United States should consider a new arms arrangement with India to supply much-needed military equipment that would offset India’s current limitations when matched against China’s arsenal.  

Economically, the U.S. should also deepen trade negotiations with India to show the depth of its commitments and relax current tariffs or find new products to export to India, which, like China, has an enormous consumer market. 

On the political front, the United States should arrange a U.S.-India security summit in Washington, D.C., that signals the growing ties between the two countries and how these ties will help bring much needed stability and prosperity in the region at a time when previous U.S. ties to Afghanistan and Pakistan appear to be receding.

Lastly, the United States should deepen public health ties with India given the lessons learned from the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and India’s current struggles combating the disease. Such a move would send a strong message to Beijing regarding the missed opportunities at the beginning of the outbreak in China, where requests for U.S. medical assistance and collaboration went unheeded

It is unclear how far China and India will continue to escalate beyond last week’s clashes.  Both countries, armed with large militaries, nuclear weapons and increasingly nationalist-driven domestic political agendas, could advance closer to further hostilities with even more far-ranging consequences. The U.S. has an opportunity to mitigate these tensions by deftly maneuvering to a warmer relationship with India that will generate multiple benefits for both sides — while also demonstrating to China that its aggressive behavior in the region and against U.S. interests will be curbed.

Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and has over 20 years professional experience in Washington, D.C. on national security issues, including senior roles at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Council. A’ndre Gonawela is the former president of the Michigan Foreign Policy Council.

Tags Belt and Road initiative China China–India border China–India relations China–United States relations Donald Trump Foreign policy of the Narendra Modi government India Narendra Modi Politics of China Wuhan

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