Colombo, April 12: The US think tank, Center for New American Security (CNAS) in its report published in March, recommends that US policymakers must “closely monitor” the Sino-Indian border conflict and be prepared to respond “quickly” if the conflict escalates.
The authors of the report, Lisa Curtis and Derek Grossman, admit that India does not seek direct US involvement in the India-China border dispute or any crisis that may arise there, but noted that New Delhi is confident that it can count on the US for some forms of support, if requested.
The report entitled: “India-China border tensions and US strategy in India” says that Indian officials believe that China is trying to contain India by forcing it to divert more resources into defending simultaneously both its western border with Pakistan and eastern flank with China. China’s basic aim is to prevent India from challenging its bid to dominate the region.
Developments along the LAC in 2020 had brought clarity to India’s strategic approach to China. India’s views of the China challenge are starting to converge with those of the US, the report says.
To help deter and respond to Chinese aggression along the border with India, the report recommends that the US does the following: –
- Elevate Indian territorial disputes with China on par with Beijing’s assertiveness against other US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.
- Offer India the sophisticated military technology it requires to defend its borders and initiate co-production and co-development of military equipment.
- Assist India in strengthening its maritime and naval capacity.
- Conduct joint intelligence reviews with India and enhance coordination with Indian officials on contingency planning in the event of an India-China conflict.
- Establish an official or unofficial organization charged with collating unclassified commercial satellite imagery on the position of PLA troops along the LAC and disseminate these images routinely for public consumption.
- Criticize Beijing’s efforts at land-grabbing in multilateral forums.
- Message Pakistan—and enlist help from Pakistan’s other important partners to convey similar points— about the need to stay neutral in the event of a potential future India-China border flare-up.
- Be prepared to extend full support to India, in the event of another border crisis or conflict.
The US had responded to the 2020 border crisis by extending full diplomatic and material support to India, the report says. It provided information and intelligence and expedited delivery of equipment, including two MQ-9B surveillance drones and specialized gear for extreme cold weather conditions.
The Biden administration, in its October 2022 National Defense Strategy, had said that it will support its allies and partners when they face “acute forms of gray zone coercion from the PRC’s campaigns to establish control over the East China Sea, Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, and disputed land borders such as with India.”
Chinese Build up
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Beijing’s defense budget reached an estimated $207.3 billion compared to India’s $65.1 billion in 2021.
The PLA’s capabilities are advancing rapidly nearly across the board, from more numerous and capable platforms to cutting-edge technologies derived from Beijing’s military-civil fusion plan and increasingly “informatized” and “intelligentized” forces, along with the C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), space, electronic warfare, and logistics capabilities to enable them.
China maintains an estimated 60,000 troops along the LAC opposite the Ladakh region, even during harsh winter conditions. Forces along the border also are bolstering integrated air and missile defense capabilities, including reported deployments of S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems at bases in Xinjiang and Tibet.
China also deployed H-6K long-range strategic bombers to the region in late 2021. In the summer of 2022, Beijing deployed long-range artillery and rocket systems, with a multiple-launch rocket system test at an altitude of over 17,000 feet in Xinjiang that potentially could target critical Indian bases across the border.
China is constructing the G695 highway, connecting Xinjiang and Tibet through the China-controlled Aksai Chin region, which would enhance its ability to deploy PLA troops to the LAC, especially along the disputed India-Tibet border. Beijing is also building a bridge—its second—across disputed areas of Pangong Lake.
China’s expanded facilities over the past two years may have boosted its troop accommodation capacity from 20,000 to 120,000 troops—all within 60 miles of the Sino-Indian border.
On the contrary, India spends less than one-third of what China spends on its military each year. Around 70% of that limited budget is dedicated to fixed costs such as pensions, salaries, and force sustainment. The scarcity of resources, environmental concerns, and interagency differences have often left long-standing plans to construct and modernize critical border infrastructure, the reports points out.
Much of India’s force increases along the LAC since the 2020 clash have come from redeployments and force rebalancing. For example, in June 2021, India shifted approximately 50,000 troops to the LAC in Ladakh—20,000 of which were pulled from India’s disputed western border with Pakistan.
However, India has also boosted its defensive capabilities along the LAC by deploying drones for surveillance operations in eastern Ladakh and conducting airborne drills in the area.
To meet the costs of sustaining the military presence along the border (as well as modernizing the Navy and Air Force and encouraging indigenous defense manufacturing), the 2023–24 defense budget of $72.6 billion marked an increase of about 13% above initial estimates of defense outlays for 2022–23. The defense budget sets aside $605 million for construction of border roads—a 43 % increase over last’s years allocation for this purpose.
As of November 2022, New Delhi reportedly had narrowed the “infrastructure differential” with Beijing at the LAC.
Joint US-India Exercises
The 2023–24 defense budget allocates $22.6 million for Joint exercises such as Yudh Abhyas take place in high-altitude terrain and provide realistic training to improve the warfighting skills of U.S. and Indian Forces. In December 2022, the U.S. and Indian militaries completed the 18th edition of Yudh Abhyas, which was held in the mountains of India’s Uttarakhand state, just 60 miles from the LAC.
India is developing four theater commands that would enable different branches to combine resources and address threats along the borders with Pakistan and China.
However, India needs to speed up modernization of its forces “as soon as possible”. While increasing India’s indigenous defense manufacturing capabilities is a worthy long-term goal, the government can ill afford to ignore its immediate defense requirements, many of which can be filled only by foreign purchases, the report says.
As border tensions between China and India simmer, Pakistan could play a significant role in whether these two nuclear-armed Asian giants get along in the future. India is wary of deepening China-Pakistan strategic partnership.
Although Islamabad may exercise caution in any potential border conflict between China and India—as it has done in the past—Pakistan’s strategy and activities nonetheless must be considered in any comprehensive assessment of China-India border disputes.
When China and India went to war in 1962, Pakistan chose to avoid opening a second front due to pressure from Washington.
However, despite the long-standing China-Pakistan partnership, Islamabad has reiterated its position that it does not wish to become overly dependent on Chinese assistance and would like to improve its relationship with the US. There also are fears in Pakistan about a Chinese “debt trap.” These factors may help to dampen prospects for Pakistani military intervention during a future China-India border flare-up.
However, there are ways Pakistan could assist China— short of opening a second front. It could send terrorists across the border.
Sino-Indian Negotiated Settlement Unlikely
Prospects for negotiating a political settlement of the Sino-Indian dispute remain low, the report said.
Since 2002 China has been uninterested in clarifying the LAC through an exchange of maps, as India has suggested. China is resisting the map exchange process likely because territorial ambiguity favors exaggerated claims and supports maintaining military advantages.
According to China expert Yun Sun, Beijing prefers to use the unresolved border issue to undermine Indian global power and influence.
During a brief period in the late 1970s under Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, China made fresh overtures toward India and proposed a “package deal” to resolve their border disputes in which China would give up its claim to Arunachal Pradesh in exchange for India ceding its claim on the Aksai Chin. This was during a time of high tension between the former Soviet Union and China, and the offer was rescinded by the late 1980s.
More recently, Beijing has signaled its unwillingness to give up its claim to Tawang district within Arunachal Pradesh, further demonstrating the “package deal” is no longer an option for Beijing.
Several border agreements signed between India and China from 1993 to 2013 are becoming increasingly irrelevant, or at least out of date, as both sides fail to respect them and violate established protocols.
India wants to convey to its people that it alone can handle military operations competently and successfully, even in a wartime scenario. Indian officials would prefer to avoid the perception of being dependent on Washington to manage the border dispute with China. Thus, there are built-in limitations to what New Delhi might ask for from Washington, the report says.
Additionally, India remains largely reluctant to speak out against Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Thus, US policymakers are in a tough spot.
However, if the Galwan Valley and, more recently, Tawang incidents are any indicator, the prospects for China-India armed conflict are high enough for Washington to engage in deeper consideration of the potential implications such a conflict on its goals in the Indo-Pacific region, the report says.
India’s position vis-a- vis China can harden. That could facilitate Washington’s “integrated deterrence” strategy.
What Should Be Done?
The report suggests that to facilitate US-India cooperation, India should buy more defense equipment from the US. Total US military sales have increased to over $20 billion in the last 15 years, but India has not made a major military purchase from the US since the $3.5 billion helicopter deal signed during Donald Trump’s visit to India in February 2020.
On its part, Washington should offer the most sophisticated technology to India and also incentivize US companies to co-develop and co-produce high-tech military equipment in India, to satisfy India’s urge to boost indigenous production.