The Ladakh Crisis and The Opportunity for US-India Relations—with A Catch

 By Michael Kugelman
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CLAWS (New Delhi) – Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (US) 

Joint Research Collaboration

Three months after it began, there is still much that’s not known about the India-China crisis in Ladakh. There are no clear answers to some very fundamental questions: Why did this crisis happen, and why did it happen when it did? However, what is known is that the horrific events of June 15 have plunged India-China relations to their lowest point in decades. From the perspective of Washington, where support for a deeper partnership with New Delhi is strong, sustained, and wholly bipartisan, there is a clear strategic takeaway: The crisis provides a major opportunity for the U.S.-India relationship. However, for Washington and New Delhi to fully capitalize on this opportunity and achieve real forward movement toward true strategic partnerships, some tough policy steps will need to be taken by both sides.

Deconstructing the Drivers of a Dangerous Dispute

The causes of the Ladakh crisis, to the extent that we can identify them with confidence, go well beyond local factors—such as the infrastructure building along the LAC. This is not to minimize the significance of these road projects, but there was clearly much more at play.

Road building along the LAC is not new. It has sparked many border spats in the past, including most recently the Doklam standoff in 2017, which was triggered by China’s decision to extend a border road. And yet, border spats in the past triggered by road building have not been nearly as violent and deadly as the current one. That is because road building was likely not the only trigger for the current spat. There are four other more powerful—and more global—drivers likely at play. Each of them, in their own way, demonstrates how the dynamics of the current crisis accentuate the opportunities for strengthening the US-India partnership.

First, in recent months, Beijing has adopted an increasingly muscular foreign policy meant to better pursue its interests overseas, including asserting its territorial claims. Beijing itself has given this new muscular policy a name—“wolf warrior diplomacy.”[1]This policy has manifested itself through provocations in the South China Sea, increasingly bellicose language addressed at Taiwan, and new national security law in Hong Kong—all of which happen to be deeply concerning to Washington and its treaty allies and partners in Asia. It is within this broader context that we should view China’s unusually robust provocations—multiple incursions in many areas along the LAC—in Ladakh.

Another key geopolitical driver of the current spat is the US-India-China relationship. The US-China relationship is arguably about as tense as a relationship can be without being in a hot war. By contrast, the US-India relationship is on the ascent.[2] It’s been growing rapidly since the early 1990s, and especially the early 2000s, but it’s enjoyed especially rapid growth in the Trump years. It is one of the few key U.S. bilateral partnerships that hasn’t suffered in the Trump era. Rising concern about China’s activities in Asia is a major reason why. The Trump administration’s signature Asia policy, its Indo Pacific strategy, is all about counterbalancing China, and it envisions India playing a key role in that endeavor.[3] So, looking at the Ladakh crisis, Beijing’s moves can be seen as an effort to deliver a tough message to both Washington and New Delhi: If you two are going to band together against us, then be ready to get pushed back.

The third factor is the coronavirus pandemic. Beijing has suffered a major blow in the court of global public opinion, with many key capitals—including New Delhi but especially Washington—issuing harsh criticism of Beijing for its poor initial handling of COVID-19. This criticism argues that China’s lackadaisical initial response enabled the virus to rapidly spread beyond China’s borders and in due course to become a deadly pandemic. Beijing, finding itself on the defensive, has harbored a need to go on the offensive to telegraph defiance, toughness, and strength. This likely helps explain why China acted boldly in Ladakh.

A fourth key geopolitical factor that can help explain Chinese provocations in Ladakh is India’s repeal of Article 370 of its constitution in August 2019. Beijing’s foreign ministry immediately rejected the move in a strongly-worded statement. It also responded unhappily after New Delhi published, last November, new maps reflecting changes in India’s cartography, including the reorganization of Ladakh as a union territory, following the Article 370 repeal. Significantly, while some voices in Washington—particularly on Capital Hill—publicly criticized the draconian effects of the Article 370 repeal, such as the detention of politicians in Kashmir and a communications blackout there, the Trump administration did not express any public opposition to India’s move. This fact would not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.[4]

These likely drivers of the Ladakh crisis underscore how a complex India-China relationship—one buoyed in recent years by a robust trade partnership and relatively cordial diplomatic ties, but constrained by growing strategic competition and security tensions—has become increasingly fraught. And they highlight the convergences between Washington and New Delhi.

Reviewing the Ramifications

The geopolitical consequences of the crisis underscore both a dangerously tense India-China relationship and the possibilities for scaled-up U.S.-India partnership—but only if each side is willing to take some ambitious steps.

First, the Ladakh crisis amplifies China’s rapidly deepening footprint in South Asia. The main accelerant of Beijing’s growing regional reach is the Belt and Road Initiative. There are four South Asia-focused envisioned aspects of BRI: The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (which India has not surprisingly rejected), a Trans-Himalayan Corridor involving Nepal, and a Maritime Silk Road initiative enveloping Bangladesh, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. The Ladakh crisis shows how Beijing doesn’t only use the carrot of BRI to build out its presence in the region, but also the stick of military provocations. First, there was Doklam, now there is Ladakh. This is problematic for New Delhi as well as Washington. U.S. interests are not served by Washington’s top strategic rival deepening its influence and presence in the backyard of one of its top regional partners.

Another core implication of the crisis gets to the heart of the matter.  US-India relations stand to further improve—but with a potential catch.

The Trump administration views India as a key partner in U.S. efforts to build out its Indo-Pacific strategy because it sees India as an emerging power, both economic and military, with the capacity to work with the US to counterbalance Beijing. The administration also recognizes that India and the United States are united in their intensifying concern about China’s growing power, and the threat it poses to Indian and US interests. The Ladakh crisis, for Washington, underscores the harm that China can inflict on India.

It’s notable that Washington took on an unusually public role in the Ladakh crisis. Usually, when there are India-China border standoffs, the US stays mum publicly while privately offering intelligence support to India. But in this case, several senior US leaders—Alice Wells, until recently the top South Asia official at the State Department; Elliot Engel, the chair of the House International Relations Committee; Mark Meadows, President Trump’s chief of staff; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—have been critical of China for its moves in Ladakh. Washington’s more public response this time around is certainly a function of a hostile US-China relationship, but it’s also an indication of its concern about its strategic partner India getting embroiled in a dispute with China.

The India-China border dispute stands to strengthen the US-India relationship because it crystallizes their mutual concern about the dangers of China’s growing power—the main geopolitical pillar undergirding US-India partnership. Additionally, with India-China tensions at a fever pitch, and with New Delhi’s longstanding hesitation to antagonize China melting away, New Delhi could be prompted to move closer to the United States and pursue deeper security collaborations with Washington.

But here is the catch. For all the talk of its potential benefits for US-India ties, the India-China crisis actually risks exposing the limits of US-India partnership. There are two reasons for this.

First, the crisis has exposed the constraints that India confronts in pushing back against China—the very role Washington envisions New Delhi playing, in cooperation with America and other partners, as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy. India was provoked by China, with Beijing staging incursions on multiple points along the LAC, and yet—short of fighting back hard against Chinese soldiers on June 15—India did not engage in any military retaliation, in large measure because it lacks the capacity to do so against its more powerful rival. New Delhi has engaged in economic retaliation against Beijing, including banning 59 Chinese apps, but such moves won’t impact China’s force posture along the LAC. Indeed, Chinese forces continue to be hunkered down on territory that India considers its own, three months after the incursions were originally staged.

Second, if India moves closer to the US, there will be intense American pressure on India to agree to joint patrols and other operational cooperation with the US that New Delhi has long resisted. If India continues to resist this type of operational collaboration—the type of cooperation that Washington expects of its close allies— then that could impact US-India relations. After all, if India becomes a virtual ally of the US yet still refuses to engage in alliance-type behavior, then when would it ever agree to do so?

Policy Recommendations

First, India and America should be encouraged, but also cautious, about the opportunity for stronger relations afforded by the India-China spat. Expectations should be carefully calibrated. The two sides should explore ways to transform the relationship into a truly strategic one—a partnership that goes beyond arms sales, intelligence-sharing, technology transfers, and other largely transactional measures that have characterized deepening bilateral security ties. Thanks to India’s sinking relationship with China, there may be more political will in New Delhi to do so now than at any time previously—and not just because the fear of antagonizing Beijing is not as great. The current crisis raises the possibility, albeit remote, of a future Indian conflict with China. There is little chance that America would intervene on India’s behalf in a hypothetical India-China conflict. However, the likelihood may increase if Washington viewed New Delhi as a true strategic partner, in the way that it does treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea. And this would entail some big-ticket additions to the relationship—including a series of security guarantees and other accords that go well beyond the foundational agreements that bolster the US-India military partnership today.

However, if the US-India relationship is to undergo such a transformation, it will take ample time to consummate. It would need to be carefully negotiated through a structured and sustained dialogue—a concept in which the Trump administration has taken little interest.

Second, the seriousness of the current border crisis—and the likelihood that the deadly clash of June 15 could mean more violence in future standoffs between the two nuclear-armed rivals—illustrates how the LAC is a new flashpoint in Asia. However, U.S. policymakers have traditionally viewed the Indo Pacific through a sea-based lens—and not surprisingly, American maritime cooperation with littoral states constitutes a core pillar of cooperation within the Indo Pacific policy.[5]

And yet, if Washington wants the Indo Pacific policy to focus on counterbalancing Chinese power, it will need to expand the geographic purview beyond the South China Sea, the Sankaku Islands, and other sea-based theaters for Chinese power projection and provocations, and situate it in land-based spaces such as the LAC as well. This broader geographic scope would strengthen U.S.-India relations, and it would also serve U.S. interests more broadly by expanding the scope for cooperation with Indo-Pacific states within the ambit of America’s core Asia policy.

ENDNOTES

[1]  Ben Westcott and Stephen Jiang, “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy: China Is Embracing a New Brand of Foreign Policy,” CNN.com, May 29, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/28/asia/china-wolf-warrior-diplomacy-intl-hnk/index.html.

[2] For recent appraisals of the US-India relationship, see Michael Kugelman, “Post-Trump’s India Visit, the US-India Partnership is in a Good Place,” Asan Forum, April 6, 2020, http://www.theasanforum.org/post-trumps-india-visit-the-us-india-partnership-is-in-a-good-place/ and Jeff Smith, “Rising Above the Fray: The Trump-Modi Chapter in India-US Relations,” The Heritage Foundation, February 19, 2020, https://www.heritage.org/asia/commentary/rising-above-the-fray-the-trump-modi-chapter-india-us-relations.

[3] For a recent official articulation of this policy, see “A Free and Open Indo Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision,” U.S. Department of State, November 4, 2019,  https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Free-and-Open-Indo-Pacific-4Nov2019.pdf

[4] For a useful assessment of Beijing’s thinking in the context of the Ladakh crisis, see Yun Sun, “China’s Strategic Assessment of the Ladakh Crisis,” June 19, 2020,  https://warontherocks.com/2020/06/chinas-strategic-assessment-of-the-ladakh-clash/.

[5] See “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region,” U.S. Department of Defense, June 1, 2019,  https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.


Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC

This piece is part of a joint research collaboration project between the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi.

Perspective from CLAWS written by Lt Gen (Dr.) VK Ahluwalia, Director CLAWS can be accessed through the link https://www.claws.in/chinas-adventurism-in-eastern-ladakh-a-strategic-miscalculation/