Checking China Through India

Though it has taken a back seat amidst COVID, China’s geopolitical expansion has long been a concern for United States national security officials and presidents from both political parties. Nowhere have China’s expansionist desires been clearer of late than in its border skirmishes with India over the Ladakh region, an Indian territory that is nestled in the Himalaya Mountains. If the United States is serious about wanting to limit China’s ruthless geopolitical expansion in Asia, it should continue to extend and increase military aid and unequivocal diplomatic support to India in this region. By doing so, the United States would take a substantive step towards checking China’s power in its border region with the support of other like-minded democratic nations. 

Before diving into specifics, we should have some background on what China’s geopolitical goals are. China’s basic geopolitical goal is to assert its dominance in Asia and around the world, using both territorial expansion and economic manipulation. These methods are demonstrated by two initiatives:  the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) Initiative and the “String of Pearls.” The OBOR Initiative, which is a Chinese infrastructure investment strategy that supposedly seeks to improve connectivity and enhance economic development worldwide, has been criticized by observers and officials from the United States and the EU for being “aimed at extending [China’s] sphere of influence, fostering new norms of international economic cooperation, and promoting a new world order.” Eyck Freymann, a scholar at the University of Oxford, explicitly called it an effort at “relentless global expansion” on the part of China. The OBOR Initiative lays debt-traps for the lower-income countries it supposedly helps in an effort to make these countries economically and politically indebted to China. The other key initiative—the String of Pearls—is a Chinese geopolitical project seeking to build military and commercial facilities in the Indian Ocean. The String of Pearls may be an attempt to encircle India, one of the major democratic countries and friendly nations to the United States in the region, and to expand Chinese influence and control throughout the Indian Ocean basin. This naturally poses a threat to American security interests in the region, threatening shipping routes and American military installations alike. 

China’s goal to assert geopolitical supremacy in Asia manifested itself recently in Ladakh where border skirmishes and even a brief war have occurred in the past. In June 2020, China and India came to violent blows in the region, marking the first deadly border clashes along the Line Of Control in more than four decades. Although it is not precisely known what precipitated these skirmishes, the Indian side argues that it was the result of premeditated, intentional Chinese action that “reflected an intent to change the facts on the ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.” International observers have posited various explanations themselves, with the most notable ones being that China violated the status quo in Ladakh because it is apprehensive that India has become extremely friendly to the United States and other US allies in the region, including Japan, and because it felt like India was challenging its strategic and geopolitical strength in the region. In short, to claim more of Ladakh’s territory, namely the Galwan Valley, China seized bits of Indian-controlled territory and instigated military conflict in Ladakh even though it reportedly caused more of their own soldiers to perish than those of India. 

What occurred in Ladakh is not unusual. China has border conflicts with many of its neighboring nations. Be it Tajikistan, Bhutan, Vietnam, or India, China seeks territorial acquisition beyond the status-quo to expand its influence, strengthen its geopolitical strategy, and challenge the United States. This is why the United States should continue to extend and increase military aid and unequivocal diplomatic support to India as the Trump administration has thus far done. On October 27, 2020, the United States and India signed a landmark agreement that gives India access to US geopolitical intelligence information, such as American military satellite data that will aid India in targeting and navigation. The agreement also paves “the way for deeper military cooperation between the two countries as they confront an increasingly assertive China.” Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper remarked at the signing that “based on our shared values and common interests, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific for all, particularly in light of increased aggression and destabilizing activities by China.” Given these statements, military accords, and former Defense Secretary Esper’s support for India procuring American F-18 jets, it’s quite evident that the United States is cognizant of India’s critical role in combating Chinese expansionism in Asia.

During the signing of the aforementioned agreement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated on the record that “the United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and to their liberty,” a clear reference to the issue in Ladakh. During the peak of the Ladakh conflict in June, there was bipartisan support in Congress and the State Department for India. Most notably, outgoing Rep. Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, asserted that China was “bullying” India and exhibiting aggression at the Ladakh border. While there was and is diplomatic support from the United States to India in this regard, President Trump tends to equate India with Russia and China, two countries that are explicitly hostile to the United States. During the third presidential debate, he remarked that India had “filthy” conditions. Even prior to that, he equated India’s commitments to fair international trade and fighting climate change to those of Russia and China. These comments sparked a debate that even caused an Indian politician to demand that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi issue a retort to President Trump. Interestingly, President-elect Joe Biden responded to Trump’s remark about India by tweeting “It’s not how you talk about friends—and it’s not how you solve global challenges like climate change.” For now, the President’s own words are certainly not always helping boost diplomatic or strategic ties between India and the United States, although there seems to be unequivocal diplomatic support for India from Congress and the State Department. 

While it is important to acknowledge that it is very unlikely that India will formally ally with the United States given their historical adherence to diplomatic and strategic independence, there is little doubt that there is growing cooperation in military and diplomatic matters given the threat China’s geopolitical expansionism poses for both democracies. This American support to India is paramount given that China’s geopolitical and economic expansionism throughout Asia poses threats to not just India, but also to America’s other democratic allies in the Indo-Pacific region like Japan and Australia. To prevent further Chinese expansionism in Asia, the United States, including the incoming Biden administration, has little practical choice but to continue giving military aid and diplomatic support to a democratic India that seeks to ward off Chinese aggression in South Asia, particularly in Ladakh.