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China’s Ongoing Debates about India and the United States

By Dr. Christopher K. Colley

An Indian army convoy of trucks moving along the Srinagar-Ladakh highway.
An Indian army convoy moved along the Srinagar-Ladakh highway at Gagangeer Area of Ganderbal Districton following deadly clashes along the disputed border with China. (18, June, 2020)

Since the beginning of this century, India’s ties with the United States have witnessed a consistent effort by leaders in both capitals to form closer and more meaningful bonds at the economic, political, and strategic levels. Evolving military-to-military ties between New Delhi and Washington form a core aspect of this relationship. A key driver of this process is the uncertainty surrounding China’s rise, and the rapid increase in China’s influence and presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and South Asia that has provided an opportunity for the United States and India to work together. While this subject increasingly garners attention from both policy analysts and scholars, who have provided some excellent analysis and commentary on the topic, much less attention has been paid to Chinese perceptions of the strengthening ties between India and the United States. This essay is divided into three sections and seeks to shed light on the issue by examining Chinese perspectives.

The first section provides a brief analysis of China’s rapidly expanding footprint in the IOR and why the region matters to Beijing. Second, a short assessment of the expanding ties between New Delhi and Washington aims to provide a proper background and context. Third, the main thrust of this essay focuses on Chinese perceptions of Indo-U.S. relations. While some of these sources are from Chinese nationals publishing in English and interviews with this author, the majority of articles are derived from Chinese language publications from both scholarly and media sources. Importantly, Chinese writings demonstrate a wide degree of variation on the topic that range from viewing the United States and India as attempting to “contain” China, to more nuanced views that take into account some of the underlying ideological and domestic political barriers in India to increasing ties with the United States. The essay concludes with a brief analysis.

China’s increasing footprint in the Indian Ocean Region   

According to data published by the American National Defense University, China did not have a single naval port call in the entire IOR in 1999. However, in 2010, the Chinese navy (PLAN) conducted 25 port calls in the region and, for most of the past decade, averaged close to 20 port calls per year. A key driver of this increased presence is the need to defend Chinese sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). By 2017, China imported 67 percent of its oil and this is expected to grow to 80 percent by 2035. Eighty percent of this oil transits the Indian Ocean. In addition, 95 percent of Chinese trade with Europe, Africa, and the Middle East transits the IOR. A key security concern for Beijing is the presence of the American military in the IOR and the possibility that, in the event of a confrontation with the United States, Washington could sever or severely disrupt China’s IOR SLOCs.

China’s decision to open a military base in Djibouti in 2017 and Beijing’s well-received and helpful anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden represent clear examples of the PLAN’s increasing ability to project power on the open ocean. According to the former Indian Naval Chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, at any given time there are between 6-8 PLAN warships in the northern Indian Ocean.

This increased Chinese presence is consistent with China’s evolving naval strategy of “frontier defense.” Chinese security scholar You Ji defines this concept as the capacity to protect China’s newly-set frontiers and economic-security interests. The PLAN’s ability to fight in the global commons constitutes a key pillar of this effort. China’s expanding ties with the IOR have led many Chinese to justify their increasing security presence in the region. Chinese scholars and policy analysts frequently point out that, as a sovereign state, China has the right to protect its overseas interests, just as other states, such as the United States, maintain a vast security apparatus encompassing much of the planet. A key challenge for Beijing is to persuade India that its increasing presence in the IOR and South Asia is not a threat to New Delhi.

The possibility of China establishing multiple military outposts or bases in the IOR is real. The current Chinese base at Djibouti could be joined by a future base at Gwadar in Pakistan. However, this would represent a significant point of escalation with India. Considering the current hostilities along the disputed China-India border, it would lead to a spike in Indian threat perceptions. In addition, a potential base in Gwadar, while symbolic, would be vulnerable to a blockade by the Indian navy. Furthermore, the overland route to Gwadar from western China along the Karakoram Highway is also extremely vulnerable to attack and it requires at least 15,000 Pakistani security forces to protect it from insurgents.

Evolving Indo-American Ties

Since the end of the Clinton administration,  New Delhi and Washington have been moving closer together. This is evidenced by the signing of the landmark nuclear deal in 2008, which ushered in civilian cooperation on nuclear energy and the continuously expanding military ties between the two that enjoy wide bi-partisan support in Washington. However, these events do not always have broad support in India, where leaders are more focused on critical domestic issues. A foundational step in strengthening defense ties was the 2002 General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The 2005 New Framework for Defense Cooperation, renewed in 2015, also reinforced security ties. Since then, New Delhi and Washington have signed several additional foundational agreements. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) was signed in 2016 and is essential for military-to-military ties. In 2018 the two countries signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which facilitates the sharing of intelligence and increases interoperability between the two militaries.

These important documents have played an essential role in facilitating mil-to-mil exercises between the two states. No country conducts more annual military exercises with India than the United States. In addition, the United States has supplied India with sophisticated weapons and monitoring equipment, many of which are designed to track submarines. This arms trade has increased from 200 million dollars in 2000 to well over three billion dollars in 2020. On the political side,  the annual meeting of the American Secretaries of State and Defense with their Indian counterparts since 2018 in the U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue provides a major diplomatic step designed to strengthen ties. Furthermore, there are frequent meetings between the American President and the Indian Prime Minister. Overall, the past two decades have seen a concerted effort by both India and the United States to not only strengthen ties but to establish a robust relationship that encompasses the diplomatic, economic, and security fields. While not the only driver of this process, the rise of China and the strategic uncertainty commensurate with it arguably remains the most important factor.

Chinese Perceptions of India’s Relationship with the United States

China and India fought a brief, but bloody border war in 1962 and continue to dispute the ownership of over 120,000 square kilometers of territory. However, for much of the past several decades Chinese strategic thought has been more occupied with East Asia and the western Pacific and how to defend against the American military in the region. Serious concern about India has only emerged in the past decade and has been amplified by the deepening of security ties between New Delhi and Washington. An examination of Chinese writings, as well as interviews with Chinese experts on security and South Asia, reveals two key Chinese perceptions of India’s strengthening ties with the United States. There are those who view these relations as a threat to China and as an attempt by the United States to contain China’s rise, and scholars and analysts who are less concerned and see some of the contradictions in the relationship as inhibiting long-term strategic cooperation between the two.

A New Front in “Containment?”

In the first category are Chinese analysts who view Washington’s outreach to India as evidence of the United States working with India to contain China’s rise. For example, several authors from the Chinese Naval Academy of Military Science argue that India and the United States use the language of the “China threat theory” as an excuse to balance against China. They write that China should do its best to maintain the “balance” of the China-India-U.S. triangle. One way to facilitate this is for China to concentrate on building a foundation in the region while waiting for opportunities to arise. By carrying out this “slow penetration,” China can preserve the strategic environment for its rise. This cognizance of how China’s increasing role in the IOR generates concern in New Delhi is important as it demonstrates a self-awareness within Chinese security circles that China’s activities in the IOR are not always perceived as “win-win” and can adversely influence Chinese interests in the region.  

In interviews with multiple Chinese security scholars, many expressed concern with the warming of ties between the United States and India. One specifically stated that the threat to China will increase if they move closer together. Interestingly, this scholar acknowledged that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a “Flagship” Belt and Road Initiative project, is helping to drive India closer to the United States. This individual argued that the Chinese leadership is aware of this challenge, but China lacks a consistent and coordinated foreign policy to help alleviate the situation. They also point out that the Wuhan meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi in 2018 was an attempt by China to move closer to India because of New Delhi’s closer ties with Washington.

The festering border dispute has been cited as a source of resentment that makes India an ideal partner for an American containment strategy towards China.

Writing in the Chinese publication South and Southeast Asian Studies in 2019, Pang Jingran and Cui Li, argued that the American Indo-Pacific strategy has a common target of China and that the United States and other countries are trying to draw India into their plans. They state that this will cause increasing challenges between India and China, thus making relations more uncertain. In order to counter the American strategy, the authors argue that China must prepare for both cooperation and division while also encouraging India’s diplomatic autonomy. Writing in South Asian Studies, Zeng Xinkai stated that since the end of the Cold War the use of the “India Card” to contain China has become the Asian strategy of successive American governments. The festering border dispute has been cited as a source of resentment that makes India an ideal partner for an American containment strategy towards China. Chinese experts cite American arms deals with India and the QUAD exercises (during which the United States, India, Australia, and Japan conduct joint military exercises) as challenges for China to confront. While others, including Xiao Jun of Guizhou Minzu University, argue that the common democratic values and national interests between India and the United States are drivers of the growing defense relationship.  

Chinese analystswho perceive Indo-American ties through the prism of security and containment of China constitute an important voice on the matter, however, many of them do not fully appreciate some of the challenges inherent to India’s domestic politics that pose significant obstacles to the deepening of ties with the United States.

Challenges to Indo-American Ties       

Some Chinese analysts, while aware of the potential security challenges to China of increased cooperation between the United States and India, view this bilateral relationship from a more nuanced perspective. Multiple Chinese language articles discuss the challenges that deeper engagement will produce. For example, India’s foreign policy highly values its strategic autonomy, and therefore the U.S.-India cooperative relationship will never be transformed into an alliance. Lou Chunhao, the Deputy Director of the South Asia Institute at the Chinese Academy of Modern International Relations, has argued that there are three “trilemmas” between Washington and New Delhi when it comes to strategic cooperation. First, he points out that it is difficult to agree on how to achieve strategic cooperation. For example, the United States wants to include India in its network, while New Delhi seeks to maintain stability with China and wants to avoid open conflicts with Beijing. Second, there are areas of significant trade disagreements between the United States and India that can constrain bilateral ties. Finally, external constraints such as India’s close ties with Russia and America’s relations with Pakistan hamper cooperation. In addition, President Trump’s “America First” approach to politics may prove to be a very difficult obstacle to overcome. Chinese researchers have also argued that the United States and India have different strategic ideas as well as perceptions of defense and security cooperation. Such differences can cause significant challenges in the future.

A similar argument is put forward by Wang Shida who states that close India-U.S. security cooperation has a “serious negative impact on India’s overall foreign strategy.” Wang believes that COMCASA will compromise India’s military communication network and force it to purchase American made arms in the future. Xiao Jun has even argued that the American Department of Defense views India through its military planning process, while the State Department sees relations in the wider context. In a separate article, Xiao points out that Washington and New Delhi do not have a true strategic alliance and that India’s adherence to strategic autonomy will prevent Indian leaders from fully cooperating with the Americans.   

President Trump’s February 2020 trip to India was viewed by Chinese analysts as a “political show” where each side stood on its own. Lin Minwang of Fudan University and one of China’s leading South Asia specialists argued that Trump achieved little during the trip, and it was more of a confirmation of the strategic consensus and cooperation intentions of the two states. Importantly, Lin writes that after initially being full of optimism with Trump’s coming to power, New Delhi remains disappointed three years later and has lowered its strategic expectations of Washington.  

The Recent Border Tensions

The confrontation between Chinese and Indian soldiers on the night of June 15 that led to the deaths of at least 20 Indian troops and an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers has been viewed by some Chinese analysts as a continuation of American attempts to contain China and use India to further their strategic aims in the IOR. Qian Feng, the Director of the Research Department of the National Strategy Research Institute of Tsinghua University, argued that the current unrest added a new reason for the United States to provoke hostility between India and China and to “win” India in the competition against China. He believes that the Americans are trying to use this situation to both “profit from it” and to “maintain their own hegemony.” Retired naval colonel Tian Shichen, the Vice President of Guoguan Think Tank, argued that the incident provides an opportunity for the United States to stoke alienation and win over India. However, he believes that India’s non-alignment policy will allow it to maintain a neutral position in order to achieve greater benefits. He further argues that India's judgment is based on its own interests and it is capable of making its own decisions.

The Chinese perspective on the role of Washington in the current dispute is consistent with perceptions of American containment. This should not be a surprise considering that Admiral Harry Harris, the former head of the American Pacific Command (now Indo-Pacific Command, in a nod to the importance to India in American grand strategy) confirmed that the American Navy assists the Indian navy with the tracking of Chinese submarines. What assistance, if any, the Americans are providing in the current border disputes has not been publicly disclosed. However, based on the current state of Sino-American relations, it is extremely likely that Beijing does not view Washington as a neutral actor. The Trump Administration’s offer to help mediate the current crisis was rejected by Beijing.

Conclusion

Overall, Chinese views on U.S.-India relations show significant variation. Perceptions range from more pessimistic interpretations where Washington is seen as using New Delhi to contain China, to much more nuanced assessments that examine some of the domestic political constraints in India to expanding ties. An important takeaway is that, while some Chinese scholars and analysts may not view India on its own as a challenge to Chinese interests, when coupled with the United States, especially in the security realm, they see India as a potential geostrategic concern. Yun Sun of the Stimson Center argues that despite China’s recent outreach towards India, it “remains profoundly suspicious of India’s strategic ambition and intentions.” In addition, many experts interviewed do not yet see India on its own as a true rival and believe that Chinese initiatives in the IOR, such as the BRI, have the potential to significantly assist India in its development goals. The crucial lack of trust in New Delhi, where the majority of India’s strategic thinkers see China’s perceived assertiveness as India’s most pressing external challenge, means that this mistrust will almost certainly continue for the indefinite future. The events of the past month along the disputed border will only exacerbate Indian concerns and will increase the risk of New Delhi becoming intertwined in the Sino-U.S. strategic rivalry.


Dr. Christopher K. Colley is a non-resident China Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C.

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

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