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A New Deal with New Delhi

A capable but conscientious partnership between Washington and New Delhi is necessary for a responsible strategy to confront China.

To responsibly confront Chinese ambitions, the United States must incentivize regional partners to view China as a larger threat than America to their interests. As realists and restrainers have argued for years, the most obvious candidate for this project is Russia—but Russia is far from the only prospect. Like Russia, India shares a border with China, and a capable but conscientious strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi will be a necessary part of any efforts to check a rising China.

India and China have a history—a very recent history, even—of confronting one another militarily, primarily over where the border between the two nations, which spans nearly 3,500 kilometers, lies. Tightening the partnership between India and the U.S., therefore, is not without risk. America should avoid the kind of mistakes it has made elsewhere, and not provide India with blank checks or excessive caches of offensive weapons. The United States should make certain that it does not enable a situation where the cyclical heating up and cooling down of Chinese-Indian relations boils over into open armed conflict. To bring India into the fold of nations that can help the U.S. confront China, America should assist India in building its capacity to gather intelligence on Chinese military activities, resist Chinese cyber attacks, and stave off Chinese attempts at economic coercion.

Since 2001, when the U.S. lifted sanctions on India it had imposed in response to India’s procurement and testing of nuclear weapons, the United States has pursued an increase in arms and military-equipment purchase agreements with the country. For its part, India has been somewhat pleased to oblige. The nation has been one of the largest importers of foreign armaments over the last half decade, but it primarily imports its military arms from Russia. While the U.S. share of Indian military imports dropped from 2016-2020 compared to 2011-2015, the strategic-defense relationship between the U.S. and India has not been badly strained.

While some U.S. diplomats and politicians have expressed concerns about India’s alleged human-rights abuses in Kashmir and the nation’s procurement of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, India maintains the “Major Defense Partner” status granted to it (and it alone) in 2016. Further, the Biden administration does not seem keen to sanction India for purchasing Russian S-400s under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act)—political inaction that appears to have bipartisan support in Congress.

During the last year of the Trump administration, U.S. weapons sales to India surged from $6.2 million to $3.4 billion. The U.S. also leased two MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones to India in 2020, made possible by the Trump administration’s reported amending of rules that restricted the sales of such drones to foreign nations like India. Now, India is seeking the purchase of 30 more MQ-9 Reaper drones worth $3 billion in a deal with the U.S.-based company General Atomics that has apparently stalled. While the drones do have offensive capabilities, they are primarily used for surveillance activities, which will likely help India deter China from further incursions into disputed territory in Ladakh. 

However, rather than providing a relatively large number of MQ-9 drones, the United States can work with India to develop more advanced ground sensors to detect Chinese movements along the rugged terrain of the contested border and elsewhere. In the past, the U.S. has offered such devices to help India monitor terrorist activities along its border with Pakistan, which has been relatively effective for most of the past two decades.

The United States can help India respond to the security challenges China presents along the Indian border by helping to maximize the effectiveness of India’s already-existing military capacities, which allows the U.S. to avoid appearing to contribute to further offensive buildup. Further, the U.S. can increase its intelligence-sharing capabilities with India, a proper framework for which already exists.

India has also been a victim of Chinese cyberattacks. In October 2020, an alleged Chinese cyberattack on an electricity-load-management center was responsible for a power outage in Mumbai. China has also reportedly been caught hacking into other Indian institutions, such as the police department of Madhya Pradesh state, Bennett Coleman (an Indian media conglomerate whose products include the Times of India), and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which is responsible for the national identification database.

While there is room for improvement, the U.S. has become much more accustomed to dealing with this kind of digital warfare in the past few years. India, like its technology sector, is still developing and lags far behind the United States. For nearly a decade, India and the United States have engaged in annual cyber dialogues that focus on creating resilient cybersecurity and digital systems to deter and defend against criminal cyber activity and cyber warfare. Increasing India’s cyber-defense capacities through coordination is essential to avoiding another Mumbai moment.

One of the potential fallouts of undeterred Chinese cyber warfare against India, or an unprepared India writ large, is an increase in Chinese attempts to economically coerce India into its apparatus, much as China has been done with Pakistan. The U.S. should work with its preexisting regional allies, like Australia and Japan, to familiarize India with China’s unfair trade practices that place those industries reliant on Chinese raw or intermediate materials at risk. The U.S. should also seek to remain India’s largest total trading partner while reducing India’s trade deficit with China. This can be done by incentivizing India to consider alternative supply chains to supplant Chinese imports via other countries, or by ramping up domestic production of products they currently import from China, like plastics

Because the foreign policy establishment foolishly insists on exacerbating tensions with Russia and China simultaneously, short-term prospects for incentivizing Russia to meaningfully break from China are bleak. While realists and restrainers should continue to wake the blob from its Cold War malaise with regards to Russia, we should also look to India as another potential counterbalance with China.



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