Photo Credit: Boeing
The Border Clash
On June 15th, 2020, Chinese and Indian forces clashed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) resulting in the deaths of twenty Indian soldiers and at least six members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This clash, the first border incident between the two nuclear armed powers to lead to the loss of life in 45 years, sent reverberations throughout the Indo-Pacific. The initial Indian response to the clash and Chinese incursion was lackluster. The Modi government repeatedly refused to publicly admit that India had lost any territory despite overwhelming open-source imagery evidence to the contrary. The Modi government eventually decided to retaliate by banning Chinese made apps and threatened tariffs all while engaging in diplomatic talks with the Chinese. At the time of writing, these talks are still ongoing. While this lackluster response was decried publicly by domestic opposition parties, the Indian government had few good strategic choices. Senior retired members of the military were quick to acknowledge an asymmetry in capability between the armed forces of the two countries in the aftermath of the clash. This asymmetry in capabilities vis-à-vis China is exacerbated by the Indian need to station a large portion of its forces on its border with Pakistan, which remains its main security threat. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since partition in 1947 and China remains closely aligned with Islamabad. Furthermore, in June 2020, India was still struggling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic downturn.
Vague Notions of an Asymmetric Response
This conundrum led some naval thinkers in the Indian strategic community to advocate for an asymmetric response to overcome India’s acknowledged asymmetry of capabilities. The argument put forth is relatively straightforward: India sits astride China’s sea lines of communication and should exploit its favorable geographic position to threaten or act to cutoff China’s energy supply. In this arena the Indian Navy, with the support of the United States, would dominate the PLA Navy and be able to apply pressure to the Chinese economy at will. In short, India could theoretically change the rules of the game from one it would lose to one it could win.
This logic is appealing given the seeming ease at which India could deploy its navy to sea to solve a problem that was unsolvable on land. This logic is also deeply flawed. Some academics suggests that distant naval blockades of energy imports would fail to greatly harm the Chinese economy due to alternative shipping routes and shipments through third parties. This asymmetric solution would also, according to a recent Lowy Institute article, be tantamount to an act of war, invite escalating retaliation against the Indian homeland, and present no realistic chance of success.
India has little chance of reaching a symmetry in the LAC given its geopolitical position and post-COVID-19 defense budget, and asymmetric responses like a naval blockade do more harm than good. What then can the U.S. do then to help a fellow democratic nation stand up to Chinese aggression?
Planes, waivers, and a little bit of patience
Firstly, the U.S. should continue and expand the sale of ISR aircraft, both manned and unmanned, to the Indian military. The Indian military was allegedly caught flat footed by the PLA buildup and actions across the LAC, a problem solved in part by the supply of U.S. manufactured ISR aircraft. The U.S. should continue its sale of P-8I maritime patrol aircraft to the Indian Navy. These systems were so helpful to the Indians that existing Indian Navy P-8I’s were deployed to the LAC for surveillance duties. Additionally, while the sale of more maritime patrol aircraft would enhance Indian ISR capabilities the P-8’s lack of substantial offensive capability would temper domestic proponents of a blockade.
More controversially given their potential use against domestic Indian insurgent groups in Kashmir, the U.S. should continue and expand the sale of MQ-1 predator drones. These UAV’s, with their long range, high endurance, ISR and strike capabilities, would be a welcome addition to the Indian military. The Indian navy has ordered 10 unarmed naval variants of the UAV from the United States and the US has offered to sell a total of 30 unarmed-maritime variants. However, Indian concerns over the price-tag of the drone and its lack of weapons have thus far thwarted larger sales. Given declining Indian defense budgets in the aftermath of COVID-19, favorable financing from the US government might be necessary and should be made available for the continued and expanded purchases of these aircraft. The U.S. should be aware that providing armed variants of these drones could have profound human rights implications in Jammu and Kashmir and could further complicate US-Pakistani relations. The Biden administration will have the unenviable tasking of weighing these potential downsides against the potential benefits to Indo-Pacific security.
Secondly, the Biden administration should grant a waiver for India’s $5.5 billion dollar purchase of the S-400 Russian missile system. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) became law in 2017 and legally obligate the U.S. government to impose sanctions on any country purchasing large numbers of weapons from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s defense exporter. CAATSA is a well-intentioned act intended to punish Moscow for electoral influence, but the failure to grant India a waiver for its purchase would be a blow to bilateral relations which have markedly improved in recent years. India has historically feared that the U.S. is an unreliable partner, attaches too many strings to deals, and takes advantage of interdependence. Imposing any form of CAATSA sanctions, no matter how small the monetary price, would hurt the bilateral relationship. Furthermore, these sanctions would probably fail to halt Delhi’s purchase of the S-400, a system that would also be useful to countering Beijing. Given India’s historic defense relationship with Russia, the U.S. must accept and not punish India’s close defense relationship with Moscow that will undoubtably continue.
Lastly, the U.S. should exercise patience and lower expectations for India’s recent involvement in the Quad, an informal strategic forum composed of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. India has tried to bolster efforts with the Quad, including most recently participating in naval exercises, but it remains the slowest moving member among the four countries. This slow embrace of the Quad is unlikely to accelerate anytime soon. India is still wary of fully embracing the U.S. due to historic concerns regarding constraints to its strategic autonomy and fears of American abandonment. The U.S. needs to understand the legitimacy of India’s concerns and work with India at its own pace to overcome Delhi’s trepidations. The continued and accelerated American sale of P-8I and armed drones would help in this regard. It would signal to Delhi that the U.S. respects Indian strategic autonomy and seeks to bolster its ability to resist Chinese aggression. Likewise, giving India a CAATSA waiver for the S-400 purchase would further reinforce in Delhi that the U.S. does not wish to constrain Indian freedom of movement. It would also show that Washington is willing to live with Delhi’s long-term relationship with Moscow while simultaneously strengthening India’s involvement in the Quad.
A Start but no Panacea
These three proposals are no panacea to India’s border dispute with China. India had few good cards in its hand in June 2020. It will likely never be able to compete directly one-on-one against China, however U.S. support has and should continue to strengthen India’s hand. The American sale of ISR platforms, acquiescence to the purchase of Russian military equipment, and patience with India at the Quad will be critical to increasing India’s confidence and ability to resist Chinese aggression. A stronger India is a net positive for the nations of the Indo-Pacific and American interests in the region.
 Abhijan Rej, “China Confirms Deaths in Galwan Clash with India,” The Diplomat, 2/20/21, https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/china-confirms-deaths-in-galwan-clash-with-india/#:~:text=The%20People’s%20Liberation%20Army%20(PLA,Valley%20clash%20with%20Indian%20soldiers.
 Sanjeev Miglani and Devjyot Ghoshal, “India’s Modi says there was no border intrusion in deadly clash with China,” Reuters, 6/19/20, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-china/indias-modi-says-there-was-no-border-intrusion-in-deadly-clash-with-china-idUSKBN23Q0NS.
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 LT GEN HS Panag (ret), “Modi govt and military leaders have soldiers’ blood on hands. PM’s dilemma now same as Nehru,” The Print, 6/18/20, https://theprint.in/opinion/modi-govt-and-military-leaders-have-soldiers-blood-on-hands-pms-dilemma-now-same-as-nehru/443792/.
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 Gabriel B. Collins and William S. Murray, “No Oil for the Lamps of China” Naval War College Review Vol. 61 No. 2, 2008, p. 14, https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1913&context=nwc-review.
 Arzan Tarapore, “India should prioritize a denial strategy in the Indian Ocean,” The Interpreter, 2/6/21, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/india-should-prioritise-denial-strategy-indian-ocean.
 Krishn Kaushik, “P8I spy planes deployed during Ladakh standoff…,” The Indian Express, 9/4/20, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/p8i-spy-planes-deployed-during-ladakh-standoff-third-aircraft-carrier-absolutely-necessary-navy-chief-7089826/.
 Shishir Gupta, “India eyes acquisition of Predator-B drones from US,” Hindustan Times, 7/06/20, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-eyes-acquisition-of-predator-drones-from-us/story-nVOOMnUWNh7KokbqE9uVYM.html.
 Sanjeev Miglani, “India’s friction with U.S. rises over planned purchase of Russian S-400 defense systems,” Reuters, 1/15/21, https://www.reuters.com/article/india-usa-missiles/exclusive-indias-friction-with-us-rises-over-planned-purchase-of-russian-s-400-defence-systems-idUSL4N2JP2EV.