Sino-Indian border clashes are driving India and the United States closer together

The death toll from last year’s deadly clash between India and China on their shared border climbed by four after China confirmed the death of several People’s Liberation Army soldiers in February. The June 2020 fight at the Galwan Valley in the Ladakh region was the first deadly confrontation along the Sino-Indian border since 1975 and claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers. Tension on the border had been brewing since May of last year when Chinese and Indian troops first became engaged in a standoff.   

For four years, former U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “bromance” was the defining aspect of U.S.-Indian relations, but even with the new Biden administration in office this year and the absence of any kind of “bromance,” we can expect Washington and New Delhi to continue to strengthen diplomatic and military ties moving forward, in no small part due to the memory of these clashes a year ago. In fact, an increasingly assertive and aggressive China will only play into the United States’ hand with regard to India and drive the two largest democracies closer together. Here’s why:

India and China have both patrolled their side of the 2,200-mile-long border for decades now. Differing interpretations on where the border, the so-called “Line of Actual Control,” stands is still a topic of fierce debate. Ladakh is an especially contentious region, with China occupying and administering the Aksai Chin region that is claimed by India.

With two nuclear states on either side of the border, tension along the LAC has the potential to quickly escalate out of control, and both parties know it. Precisely because of this reality, both India and China have sought to strengthen their hand in the region, and for Modi, this has and will continue to mean closer ties with the United States.

After the election of Biden, a phone call between the two leaders ended with the two sides having “agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Undoubtedly, this mutual understanding comes from the perceived threat from Beijing and the need to counter the growing rise and influence of China. To this end, towards the end of 2020, the U.S. and India shared intelligence information and conducted coordinated military exercises.

In the last year, India strengthened its security relationship with the United States and other democracies as engagement with China stalled. The multilateral partnership between India, the United States, Japan and Australia known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad” for short, enjoyed increased Indian involvement. India’s renewed engagement with the Quad signals a stronger emphasis on Indo-Pacific cooperation from New Delhi.

India feels particularly vulnerable given the strong relationship China and Pakistan have cultivated. The Indian Chief of Army Staff laid out the threat posed by this partnership in no uncertain terms when he explained “There is no doubt that Pakistan, China threat exists not just in theory, but very much on the ground. Their collusive approach against India poses a challenge.” Feeling the heat on its northern and western border from an assertive Beijing and historical rival in Islamabad, India will continue to seek support from the Quad and the United States in particular.

India has also taken steps to limit Chinese influence domestically. Following the June clashes, India followed up with a series of bans on Chinese apps, including TikTok, the popular Chinese social media app WeChat, and AliExpress, an eCommerce app owned by the Alibaba Group. The Modi government claimed the apps were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.” These bans and the removal of Chinese telecom company Huawei from Indian networks are both in line with the Trump administration’s China policy, something Biden is not likely to deviate from much.

The Biden administration has taken issue with human rights abuses in India under Modi and will likely relax the U.S. stance toward Pakistan, but these issues shouldn’t be expected to derail deeper ties between the two countries. Even though the Biden-Harris campaign website specifically listed human rights abuses in Kashmir as points of concern, the strategic relationship between the United States and India is crucial to countering the greater threat posed by China, which has human rights abuses of its own in Xinjiang.

The clashes along the LAC are no doubt still fresh in the mind of the Modi government, and despite the establishment of a hotline between the Chinese and Indian foreign ministers to manage the border crisis, history tells us that flare-ups can occur at any moment. With the news of a troop pullout on both sides of the Pangong Tso lake area in Ladakh, all signs point to a less tense situation between the two powers for the time being.

To be clear, the Sino-Indian relationship is multifaceted, and the border scuffles are only a small piece of the wider relationship between the two powers. Even so, India and the United States both understand the threat posed by a rising China in the Indo-Pacific. As the Biden administration takes on the challenge of confronting Beijing internationally, India will be a valuable and increasingly willing partner to Washington. 

Moving forward, the clashes along the Sino-Indian border will serve as a constant reminder that conflict with China is a deadly possibility and that Indian interests are best represented in the United States.

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