Wednesday, 18 May, 2022
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American military support to India is not automatic in China-India war. Delhi must know it

Whatever the extent of the current US-India engagement, the American support will at most come in the form of continued and increased intelligence assistance.

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In the wake of the ongoing military stand-off between India and China there is considerable debate about the possibility of deeper engagement between New Delhi and Washington. While a deeper strategic relationship is highly probable as result of Chinese military conduct to unilaterally shift the Line Actual Control (LaC), it could fall well short of the Americans fighting alongside Indian forces in a Sino-Indian war. Therefore, whatever optimists about the US-India strategic partnership may conclude, the Modi-led government would be well advised to temper its expectations about an alliance and prepare itself for the worst.

There are fundamentally two problems associated with a US-India alliance. Here the author is defining a military alliance to cover US military fighting alongside Indian forces in the event of a Sino-Indian boundary war. Firstly, the United States’ domestic governing architecture restricts the extent to which it can militarily support New Delhi if there were escalation between China and India, notwithstanding the Trump administration’s offers of deeper defence cooperation and to mediate, which was politely declined by New Delhi and Beijing not just rejected, but even rebuked Washington’s offer. Irrespective of objective realities of American power, both in form of its economic strength and military force projection capabilities, Washington is likely to be fettered in its alignment with India. To be sure, the Modi government might not be wedded to the view that Washington will come to India’s aid militarily in the event of a wider Sino-Indian military conflagration.


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Nevertheless, New Delhi must be served a reminder that it should not proceed on the expectation and assumption that American military support is automatic in the event of a wider Sino-Indian war. There are some key reasons to remain cautious about the degree of American military aid for New Delhi, despite a difficult military challenge for India to restore the status quo ante in Ladakh. Indeed, India may be compelled to resort to force to secure the restoration of the status quo ante irrespective of American support. A weakened Republican President Trump, let alone the US Congress with the House of Representatives under the control of the Democrats in the middle of an election year, will be hard pressed to extend significant assistance in the event India pursues an escalatory response to Chinese territorial seizures in Ladakh.

Secondly, another the key factor that will constrain the US are its social conditions and institutional realities. Its social conditions relate to its ambivalence about the continued exercise of military power, which renders the public support system too weak for sustained and protracted military campaigns. Even if a prospective Sino-Indian military conflict is not prolonged, it could be costly and risky which Americans might be resistant to incurring. The empirical and historical record through the course of American history over that last seventy years does suggests a lack of sustained resolve and motivation. The US defeat at the hands of Vietnam is the most glaring example of American limitations in the exercise of military power. In case of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that involved the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the US’ subsequent eight-year occupation of that country, even if some analysts and experts might declare it a victory, it was a pyrrhic one.

A final factor is the United States inability to successfully deliver on its interests. As a former Indian envoy to the United States, albeit about a different triangular relationship involving India, US and Pakistan observed not very long ago, “The US has not been able to get Pakistan to deliver where its own interests are involved. The US has not been able to get Pakistan to deliver on the Taliban. The US has not been able to get Pakistan to deliver on the Haqqani network.” Hence the most glaring recent example of American limitations in prosecuting a military campaign successfully is its defeat at the hands of Afghan Taliban with the explicit backing of the Pakistani state. Indeed, the near unconditional withdrawal or rather capitulation of Washington as part of an agreement reached between the Trump Administration and the Taliban in February 2020 should clearly settle and dash any segment of India’s strategic establishment’ hopes that Washington can actually come to the aid of India militarily in the event of an outbreak of military hostilities or “hot war” between China and India.

Thus, whatever the extent of the current US-India engagement, will at most come in the form of continued and increased intelligence assistance, provision of military supplies including during active hostilities with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Here too there are no guarantees and preserving diversity of military supplies must remain a priority for the Government of India. Yet American support will fall short of actively participating in hostilities.


Also read: US lawmakers pass legislation urging China to peacefully de-escalate situation along LAC


Historically, post-independence India has never had ironclad guarantees of military support. Take for instance the case of the 1971 Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation concluded between the Soviet Union and India, which never per se provided mutual military guarantees in the event of an attack against one of the two parties by a third party requiring each side party to the Treaty to deploy military forces to fight alongside the other. The closest that the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty came regarding the extension of military assistance was enshrined in article 9 of the Treaty, which stated: “Each High Contracting Party undertakes to abstain from providing any assistance to any third party that engages in armed conflict with the other Party. In the event of either Party being subjected to and attach or a threat thereof, the High Contracting Parties shall immediately enter into mutual consultations in order to remove such threat and to take appropriate effective measures to ensure peace and the security of their countries.” The Soviets after all did not deploy their forces for joint action with Indian forces, when the latter invaded East Pakistan in 1971, and nor did New Delhi do the same when the Soviets eight years later invaded Afghanistan.

Thus, the Indo-Soviet friendship did not provide any watertight guarantees or automaticity in military assistance as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Article 5 does, under which an military attack against one member state is deemed an attack against all member states. Since India enjoys no automatic or unconditional military guarantees from the US or any other country and if there are individuals within the Modi-led dispensation or outside who subscribe to the view that Washington will jump to India’s assistance, must be instantly disabused of such a possibility for the aforementioned reasons. If anything, New Delhi’s approach in the present crisis with China specifically and against Pakistan and China together should be one that unflinchingly follows the age old dictum: “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst”. 

Kartik Bommakanti@KartikBommakan1 is Associate Fellow at ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. Views are personal.

The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. We are still a nation of cowards. Why?
    Simple: If Indian Govt truely cares for Indian citizens and have moral or self respect we should have openly declare a war on China. Why?
    Isn’t China Directly responsible for killing thousands or lakhs of Innocent Indian citizens?
    If yes, then where is the revenge here? If we have resource, allies, enough ammo and brave soldiers, then why does our Govt keep on playing politics? Aren’t they serious to fight China?
    This is like China makes mistake, slaps us, even removes our pants and makes us tell “sorry”.
    Is it because of our 70 years of corruption due to which we have become cowards, weak, not well prepared economically and militarily? Or simply we don’t have will to fight a war?
    Even today at LAC deploying soldiers for over a year now, why are we even waiting….. Modi lies on tv that they haven’t took our land, Rahul Gandhi and his mother are corrupt till death that recently the news surfaced on tv that they took money from Chinese Govt.
    In a country like India there is simply no value of human life.
    In short – My question to all politicians, doesn’t matter which party, caste, race,religion, state or party you belong to…… I would like to know from all of you together…. who is responsible for all covid deaths in India? If it’s China and you all consider yourself to be truely patriotic ….. Can we take revenge for it?
    Ordinary citizen – 30-40 crore taxpayers (funding)
    Netas – Power to coordinate the military
    Soldiers- Fight for all those who died due to covid virus released by China.
    My question – Being a neta if you can’t guarantee a citizen who votes for you for keeping him safe and a country for which you took oath to keep it safe, can’t manage it then why do you want to become a politician or a leader of this country?
    Govt who frequently can’t keep on its promise is not a good Govt with great governance.
    You all should resign….. all those people who entering politics are “fake” and “ are constantly following short of their responsibilities in the eyes of its citizens” – not at all acceptable!

  2. Indian army (Air,Army,Navy).are best in the world.world knows the action and capability of Indian armed forces,even Winsten Charcill former P M of UK acknowledged the spirit and strength action of Indian forces.we fought 1948,1949,1962,1965,1971,1999 Kargil.just 1962 it was betrayed of China and political failure other wise all other results are in front.In current situation whole world knows it is INDIA whocan stopChina is the reason they stand by us.we are proud of our forces and will .Our forces are our pride.
    Jai hind Jai hind Ki seena.

  3. The Americans dont give anything for free.Look at America in Afghanistan.The americans have taken away much of Mines and minerals from Afghanistan in return for support against taliban.It is USA policy they have to be accomadated in cash or kind or by way of bases.India must learn nothing is free in the world.

  4. I have stopped reading articles of Jihadi paid Print, Quint, Wire etc. but concentrate on the comments to get a gist of their anti India & Anti Hindu bull shit!!

  5. Exactly!! The Print, Quint, Wire etc. are the voices of anti India & Anti Hindu forces financed by the communists/Chinese, evangelists & Jihadis in India & abroad!! They peddle all kind of bull shit gobbled up by break India forces in India & abroad!!

  6. The US will continue its strong support – verbally!!

    The US is propping us up against China, because they are in a trade war against them. Tomorrow, if China offers the US a better deal, won’t our verbal supporters backtrack?! There’s also Modi’s American blunder, saying ‘Ab ki baar Trump sarkar’. If Biden wins, even the cheer-leading may end!!

  7. Disagree with this piece.
    1. US has fought Korean, Vietnam wars to support democracy. Defeat of world’s largest democracy will create a situation, where democracy, anywhere in world , will be unsustainable.
    2. Why we are having joint military drills, along, Northern borders. We have extensive, exercises, with US military in mountainous regions of India. Fall of India will have negatives, around world, Ex. Taiwan. Isolation of US is not an option.
    3. Indo-pacific, structure will be totally laid bare, if Indian part is removed.

    • Indians/Hindus are rather used to losing territory & civilization since 1300 years of Islamic/Christian invasions & soviet/communist subversion activities!!

      Communist China #CCP is a systemic threat to America/Europe, Japan, India.. and many others! A victory for the Chinese will result in havoc for Hindu-stan & all democracies in Asia & beyond!!

  8. Will covert military support ever be discussed in the media? Talk sense man. The fact is we have no idea what’s happening behind the scenes and it’s best that it stays that way.

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