The border standoff between India and China continues to evade a quick solution. Tension continues even as talks are on at multiple levels between the two sides. Amidst the tension, a top United States official says India needs Washington’s support more than ever before.
But is that really the case? In the triangle of nations, that is the US, India and China, who is dependent on whom and to what extent? Practically speaking, can the US come to India’s help in the event of a conflict, or can it thwart China from upping the ante? Or, would it make sense for India to strike a deal with China independently, without involving the US in any way? And, finally, will China-US ties be affected in the event of a conflict with India?
“They absolutely need the United States to be their ally and partner in this fight,” US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said at a recent meeting of the US-led Quad alliance that includes India, Japan and Australia. The US may want to believe that, in the face of Chinese belligerence, India would be dependent on Washington. This is good news for the US as it will enable the administration in Washington to extract a slow price in return, going forward. As is well known, there is no “free lunch’ especially in realpolitik.
Each of the three countries has extensive bilateral ties independent of the other and none can really afford to push the other two to a point of no-return. That probably is the reason why New Delhi is sweating it out amidst a diplomatic chill to find a solution to the frustrating standoff on its own terms.
If, in the event of India getting adventurous in the hope that the US will back it, even militarily, that would be risky as the US is hardly in a position to do anything substantial to help India. Moreover, there is no guarantee that Washington will realistically commit any of its military equipment or come to India’s aid in any substantial manner.
A more practical hope could be that the Quad will intervene in favour of India. But again, Japan and Australia are logistically too far away and, secondly, share strong functional ties with China even if they are not too friendly with Beijing. They wouldn’t want to burn bridges with China over India.
The Quad can symbolically show its support to India by sending their naval fleet or by moving the United Nations. But the efficacy of such shows will not deter China, a permanent veto-holding member of the UN Security Council, which sees itself as a big power with a vast arsenal and a huge economy.
Moreover, the experience of Japan in the East China sea in its feud over Diaoyu/Senkaku islands with China has until now indicated that Beijing cannot be easily pushed around. In fact, India’s alliance and involvement in the Quad is in itself a reason for Chinese aggression in Ladakh and elsewhere across the nearly 4000 km border.
India’s entry into the Western alliance in conjunction with its move last August to declare Ladakh a union territory followed by extensive build up of infrastructural activities including construction of roads have apparently alarmed Beijing which sees it as a long-term threat to its security.
The Indian establishment may not want to accept this premise, but objectively speaking, the entire border fracas could be a ploy by Beijing to assert its dominance over New Delhi. If India backs off, China too will probably let go its belligerence with a tacit unwritten conclusion over which of the two is superior.
It is clear that India is on the defensive and stands to lose more if the current standoff continues endlessly. In the latest military Commanders’ meeting, China has reportedly agreed to move back to Finger 8 provided India too moves back to Finger 1 in the region adjoining the Pangong Tso lake.
Prior to the current standoff that began in May, Indian troops were patrolling up to Finger 8. So, if India agrees to the Chinese proposal, it will in effect mean it has lost control over the territory from Finger 1 to Finger 8, which would become a buffer zone.
In other words, it amounts to loss of territory for India. If the proposal goes through, it would mean peace would prevail, but that would be on Chinese terms. India, on the other hand, wants status quo – that is, China should move back beyond Finger 8 and Indian troops should be able to patrol up to Finger 8.
Howsoever close India gets to the US, or to the other Quad nations, it is no position to enforce this proposal unless it militarily attempts to push back the Chinese. That means war, even if a limited one.
If earlier wars involving India in the subcontinent were to be taken into account, one can see that in none of the conflagrations did any outside power intervene to change the narrative. If at all they did, that was within diplomatic channels.
The 1965 and the 1971 conflicts involved only the two countries – India and Pakistan.
According to reports, it was on Chinese instigation that Pakistan started the war with India in 1965. After the initial surprise, Indian troops retaliated and continued to gain advantage over Pakistan. Contrary to Pakistan’s expectation, China, beyond issuing ultimatums and warning to India, did not militarily move to help the Ayub Khan government.
The US and Soviet Union viewed the war through the prism of the Cold War and did not intervene besides calling for an end to the conflict. Pakistan was particularly piqued with Washington as it preferred to be neutral despite being avowedly closer to the government in Islamabad.
As for the 1971 war, by which time, the India-Soviet and the US-Pakistan axes were firmly consolidated, the support extended by the superpowers was largely symbolic. US warships arrived in the Indian Ocean while the British sent theirs to the Bay of Bengal, in support of Pakistan. The Soviets despatched submarines and destroyers backing India. China remained uninvolved in the war and was, for all practical purposes, neutral.
In the 1962 war with China, again neither of the two superpowers played any active role in terms of intervention or support to the two countries in conflict. There were reports to the effect that the Soviet Union pressured China diplomatically to back off. Even if true, they were in the nature of back channel talks, and its effectiveness is anyone’s guess.
Reports later said the Indian government, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, did approach the United States for military supplies and even personnel to train troops in their use. Whether the US, in conjunction with the UK, would have obliged is open to speculation as China announced a unilateral ceasefire a month after the war started and moved back its troops from most positions it had occupied in India, particularly in the north-east.
These instances clearly show that India cannot take for granted any kind of substantial support from the US administration in the event of an all-out conflict with China. Pompeo will continue to hold out veiled promises, but it is up to the Indian government not to fall for the trap.