US wants a stronger Indian military to deter, not provoke, conflict with Chinahttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/us-wants-a-stronger-indian-military-to-deter-not-provoke-conflict-with-china-mind-the-dangerous-gap/

US wants a stronger Indian military to deter, not provoke, conflict with China

If the United States could flip a switch and make the Indian military more powerful than it is today, it would have every interest in doing so

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Indian Army soldiers display their skills as they take part in a combat demonstration during Army Day in New Delhi. EXPRESS PHOTO BY PRAVEEN KHANNA

If the United States could flip a switch and make the Indian military more powerful than it is today, it would have every interest in doing so. The US has other interests as well, such as maintaining its military edge and ensuring that its “crown jewel” defence technology doesn’t find its way into the hands of adversaries like Russia. But for the foreseeable future, the US has interest in a stronger Indian military. This was not always true. Indeed, this was not the case about 20 years ago. The most significant difference between now and then is the growing capability and assertiveness of the Chinese military. Now, it is very important to be very clear about the very big difference between an interest in a stronger Indian military and an interest in an Indian military that is in conflict with China. America has no interest in the latter. In public, Americans often skirt around the topic of China in discussions of the US-Indian defence partnership. There are a number of good reasons for this, including the fact that this partnership is important for a range of reasons that have nothing to do with China. But one reason that mention of China is avoided is because of concern that public discussion will feed into a false perception that the US is trying to push India into a conflict with China. Unfortunately, ambiguity seems to have fed the Indian public’s anxiety.

So it is important to highlight the widespread consensus among thought leaders in Washington DC that no one seeks a military conflict with China. And we don’t want to see India in a conflict either. In fact, this is precisely the reason why a stronger Indian military is in America’s interest. Relative military weakness is provocative. The trajectory of China’s growing military capabilities threatens to widen the gap between China’s military capabilities and those of India. This is the kind of gap that increases the chance of conflict. And the US and India have an undeniable common interest in trying to prevent it from growing further.

Unfortunately, this common interest is often overshadowed and, instead, there is focus on the “foundational defence agreements”. As someone who worked on these issues while serving in the US government, it’s difficult to understand why this is the case because as Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently noted in this newspaper, these are “prosaic agreements” (‘The American hug’, April 2). They are basic arrangements that facilitate rather than compel military-to-military cooperation and certainly do not “prematurely foreclose” India’s options. They are a far cry from anything approaching a treaty or alliance, which suggests they are widely misunderstood or being criticised for political purposes. I hope that they are signed because they do help facilitate military cooperation, but they will not lead to some kind of military alliance.

Yet, Mehta raises an important topic in his article that warrants a substantive response. He suggests that signing these agreements portends “momentous shifts” in Indian foreign policy and positions India as a “frontline state” on a faultline between the US and China. With all due respect to Mehta, whose scholarship is quite impressive, this is an anachronistic assessment. Today, India is a global power. Even if the US sought to push India into becoming a “frontline state”, America does not and will not have the power to do so. It bears repeating that conflict between India and China isn’t in America’s interest, but even if it was, neither the “foundational agreements” nor anything else can compel India to take actions vis-a-vis China that aren’t in India’s national interest.

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Indians should be more confident in the independence of their own government. The Indian government is fully capable of bolstering its defence relationship with the US while maintaining its complete sovereignty. India is a strong country, and the great irony in this debate is that it’s in America’s interest to see it become even stronger.

If the United States could flip a switch and make the Indian military more powerful than it is today, it would have every interest in doing so. The US has other interests as well, such as maintaining its military edge and ensuring that its “crown jewel” defence technology doesn’t find its way into the hands of adversaries like Russia. But for the foreseeable future, the US has interest in a stronger Indian military. This was not always true. Indeed, this was not the case about 20 years ago. The most significant difference between now and then is the growing capability and assertiveness of the Chinese military. Now, it is very important to be very clear about the very big difference between an interest in a stronger Indian military and an interest in an Indian military that is in conflict with China. America has no interest in the latter. In public, Americans often skirt around the topic of China in discussions of the US-Indian defence partnership. There are a number of good reasons for this, including the fact that this partnership is important for a range of reasons that have nothing to do with China. But one reason that mention of China is avoided is because of concern that public discussion will feed into a false perception that the US is trying to push India into a conflict with China. Unfortunately, ambiguity seems to have fed the Indian public’s anxiety.

So it is important to highlight the widespread consensus among thought leaders in Washington DC that no one seeks a military conflict with China. And we don’t want to see India in a conflict either. In fact, this is precisely the reason why a stronger Indian military is in America’s interest. Relative military weakness is provocative. The trajectory of China’s growing military capabilities threatens to widen the gap between China’s military capabilities and those of India. This is the kind of gap that increases the chance of conflict. And the US and India have an undeniable common interest in trying to prevent it from growing further.

Unfortunately, this common interest is often overshadowed and, instead, there is focus on the “foundational defence agreements”. As someone who worked on these issues while serving in the US government, it’s difficult to understand why this is the case because as Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently noted in this newspaper, these are “prosaic agreements” (‘The American hug’, April 2). They are basic arrangements that facilitate rather than compel military-to-military cooperation and certainly do not “prematurely foreclose” India’s options. They are a far cry from anything approaching a treaty or alliance, which suggests they are widely misunderstood or being criticised for political purposes. I hope that they are signed because they do help facilitate military cooperation, but they will not lead to some kind of military alliance.

Yet, Mehta raises an important topic in his article that warrants a substantive response. He suggests that signing these agreements portends “momentous shifts” in Indian foreign policy and positions India as a “frontline state” on a faultline between the US and China. With all due respect to Mehta, whose scholarship is quite impressive, this is an anachronistic assessment. Today, India is a global power. Even if the US sought to push India into becoming a “frontline state”, America does not and will not have the power to do so. It bears repeating that conflict between India and China isn’t in America’s interest, but even if it was, neither the “foundational agreements” nor anything else can compel India to take actions vis-a-vis China that aren’t in India’s national interest.

Indians should be more confident in the independence of their own government. The Indian government is fully capable of bolstering its defence relationship with the US while maintaining its complete sovereignty. India is a strong country, and the great irony in this debate is that it’s in America’s interest to see it become even stronger.

(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Mind the dangerous gap.’)