Irrespective of who wins the American presidential election next week, India’s strategic circumstance will not change. The huge — and still-growing —imbalance of power in favour of China, and its containment strategy against India, is a reality that will persist for the foreseeable future. This means that India’s primary objective of countering China on both these fronts will also persist. The US is essential to this task. Simply put, New Delhi will have to work to intensify US-India strategic cooperation with the next American president — whether it’s Donald Trump or Joe Biden who wins next Tuesday.
Equally, countering China will be an imperative for the US too. Irrespective of the election result, the condition that the US finds itself in will not change. This is one in which America’s relative power vis-à-vis China is declining. And it will decline much more precipitously if the US does not step up to counter China. Though there is an intense debate among American analysts, as well as within the Democratic Party, about America’s China options, Beijing’s behaviour is itself limiting these options.
In short, both India and the US have a strong interest in countering China. The question is only about the mechanics of an arrangement that will allow India and the US (and others) to do this together.
Surely, there are differences between how Trump and Biden will run American foreign policy. But there are only two issues regarding the US that India needs to be concerned about. The first is whether the US has the power to counter China; and the second is whether it has the willingness to do so.
India needs US help with LAC
There are two necessities for India to counter China’s power and both require American support. The first, and most important, is directly shielding India from China’s military, economic and diplomatic power. India has considerable military power and is much better prepared today than it was in 1962, and perhaps even a decade before that, especially in terms of border infrastructure. But the military balance is a moving target, and it is moving much faster and more adversely than anyone could have anticipated. While the Indian military may be able to give a good account of itself today along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), doing so will become more difficult with time. China spends nearly four times as much as India does on its military; in fact, China spends more than all the other major powers in Asia, combined.
This will eventually have an impact on the military balance at the border, as Chinese forces invest in higher technology in greater quantities. Even if India’s large military precludes any need for the US or anyone else to send military forces to bolster Indian defences, New Delhi will still need American assistance to ensure that a rapidly modernising People’s Liberation Army (PLA) does not gain advantage at the LAC. In addition, US intelligence assistance can bolster Indian efforts, and US diplomatic help will be necessary to hold China off in multilateral forums. This requires a long term partnership with the US, irrespective of who is in the White House.
Stop Chinese ‘hegemony’ in its tracks
The second Indian imperative is ensuring that China does not transform its regional power dominance into hegemony. Simply defined, Chinese hegemony is a condition in which Asian countries choose to submit to Chinese preferences because they have no other sensible choices. Even though India’s primary interest is national security rather than the shape of the international or regional order, these merge in the case of the Indo-Pacific because Chinese hegemony over Asia will be greatly harmful to Indian interests. China will attempt to seek hegemony in Asia for some time, and the only power that can prevent it is the US. Once again, it matters little who is in the White House.
China’s power dominance has become an even bigger problem because it continues to demonstrate, almost on a daily basis, that it intends to use its power with little regard to the interests or sentiments of others, both in its neighbourhood and even far from it. In one sense, this is fortunate because China’s crude exercise of power leaves little room for doubt about whether India can accommodate China. India has been reluctant to reach this conclusion but it is clear that China will continue to push India and everyone else towards this path. It would have been a lot more difficult if China had behaved with greater sensitivity and masked the danger that it poses.
US, the other big question
Despite the relative decline in American power, there is little doubt that the US is still the only nation capable of countering China’s military, economic and diplomatic power. And that’s why it would be difficult for India to counter China without the American support. The real question, however, is whether the US is willing. That is the reason for much of the debate in the US.
Although this is a question that Americans have to decide themselves, it is worth remembering that the domestic American questioning of its global commitment is at least partly the result of the perception that American allies are exploitative free-riders. This is not entirely true, of course, because the US garners great benefits from its leadership position that are not easily enumerable. Still, it does not help when American partners demonstrate reluctance to pay their share of the common defence or appear to undermine American interests. This is less an Indian problem, but its effect washes over New Delhi nevertheless.
Equally, it is vital for New Delhi to recognise that all partnerships are of limited scope. The primary reason for an alignment with the US is to counter China, even if it is not polite to say that out loud. India and the US can, and probably will, disagree on a number of other issues, including Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan and possibly Indian domestic affairs. But neither side should let these differences come in the way of their more critical cooperation on dealing with China. This is particularly so for India. The US has other allies it can depend upon, but India does not. In the worst case, the US can pull up the drawbridges and retreat. This will be costly to American power, but that will be nothing compared to the consequences for India and the Indo-Pacific.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.