The Indian military’s courage, audacity and resolve appears to have delivered a major push towards stability on India’s northern borders. After Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in a skirmish in the Galwan Valley in June, disengagement was completed and verified in Pangong Tso without any additional loss of life. This may look to some as snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The drawback of troops and tanks marks a milestone and provides an example to the rest of the world on how to check China’s revisionist actions.
So how did India do it? Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh called out these aggressive actions and declared India’s determination to hold its ground. Even with domestic resources under pandemic-related pressure, the military rallied significant assets to points of confrontation. This show of resolve included surprise actions in the Kailash Range, which delivered a strategic advantage and sent a strong signal given the position’s challenging environment. Under the leadership of Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, India embarked on a multi-pronged diplomatic response, including de facto economic sanctions, public rhetoric that gave its opponent the possibility of a face-saving exit, and a demonstration of significant global support for India’s position.
The most important contribution to this international backing came from the US. Both the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations, as well as key members of the US Congress, spoke with one voice about the unacceptability of China’s actions and committed to closer defence cooperation with India. Most recently, statements from President Biden, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan doubled down on the US-India strategic partnership as a way to support stability in South Asia and have endorsed the Quad as a guarantor of a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.
Critically, India and America backed up these words with actions. In October, at the 2+2 meeting of defence and foreign ministers in New Delhi, they announced the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). The last of the three foundational defence agreements that add heft to India’s status as a major defence partner of the US, BECA gives India access to technology that enhances its ability to monitor border areas and execute military manoeuvres. A month later, India disclosed the lease of two unarmed MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones that immediately improved its surveillance capacity on the LAC. In December, the US government approved India’s purchase of $90 million in hardware and services for its fleet of C130-J Super Hercules Military Transport aircraft.
The countries also expanded their military cooperation so they could project power across multiple fronts. In November, India, the US and Japan welcomed Australia to the Malabar naval exercises, for the first time uniting all Quad members in combat drills to support their shared vision for the Indo-Pacific. These simulations enhanced their militaries’ ability to act jointly against adversaries at sea, building on the Indian government’s clearance of a $2.6 billion purchase of 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters from the US a year ago.
For China, the message was clear: A bipartisan consensus in the US supported strengthening India’s ability to defend its borders and safeguard the Indo-Pacific, and India — a sometimes reluctant partner — embraced American efforts to enhance its power projection across multiple geographies. The cost of confrontation in Ladakh and elsewhere would be higher than China originally estimated.
While India deserves credit for delivering an acceptable and peaceful resolution to this round of conflict, all is not well along the LAC. Since Independence, one of the main obstacles to India’s rapid economic and social development has been its borders’ unsettled and unstable state. Too often this has been deemed a Pakistan problem when recent events from Doklam to Galwan have shown that China, too, poses a challenge. One misstep in the next stages of disengagement could see the two countries again eyeball-to-eyeball.
India’s strategy for ending the current confrontation shows the way forward. By working with the US to enhance its military capabilities, it deters expansionist activity and enables its armed forces to nip problems in the bud. Revisiting the purchase of the armed MQ-9 Reaper drones would show that future border clashes could have higher costs. Closer coordination with America and other Quad countries creates a united front across. Matching capabilities by adding F/A-18s to the Indian Navy would send a strong signal. And enhanced cooperation on bilateral and multilateral issues — stronger US-India partnerships in trade, investment, supply chains and strategic technologies, as well as Quad-based strategies for global vaccine distribution and climate change — would strengthen the strategic logic that underpins these relationships.
This month, the Modi government sent signals that it’s moving in this direction. Singh announced an increase in defence capital expenditure — the largest rise in 15 years. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman touted measures to make India a more attractive destination for foreign investment. And Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal expressed his desire for a comprehensive trade agreement with the US. To top it, India’s official comment after the meeting of Quad foreign ministers stated their shared commitment to “respect for territorial integrity” and disclosed discussions on deeper cooperation to combat the pandemic, promote supply chain resilience, and respond to climate change. Moving from these words to actions will be a win-win for India, bringing greater stability to its borders and creating new opportunities to enhance its security and prosperity in the face of global challenges.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 4, 2021 under the title ‘Pressure and pushback’. Slater is deputy managing director and Ghadyali is aerospace and defence committee lead, USIBC
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