Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan with Chinese President Xi Jinping | File photo: @ForeignOfficePk | Twitter
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan with Chinese President Xi Jinping | File photo: @ForeignOfficePk | Twitter
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India and China may have managed their recent clash through diplomacy, but the stalemate along the 3,488 km long Himalayan ‘border’ is, at best, an uneasy one. China has demonstrated its willingness to use force to change the status quo on the Line of Actual Control and that must remain a source of concern for everyone around the world.

For Delhi, however, the nightmare scenario is not simply a border conflict with China, but the spectre of a two-front war with China and its all-weather friend, Pakistan. While New Delhi has always been wary of the China-Pakistan relationship, the deepening military dimension has led Indian defence strategists to think of newer ways to combat such an occurrence.

A key factor in New Delhi’s calculation has always been how the United States would react to any conflict in the subcontinent, whether between India and Pakistan or between India and China. During the Cold War, Delhi sought to gauge the reactions of both Moscow and Washington. Today, however, the American reaction is critical.


Also read: Galwan lesson for Indian soldiers: Don’t wait for orders, just assume them


Why US is critical to India

At a time when Russia and China are closer together than they were in earlier decades, and the China-Pakistan relationship is getting stronger, it is natural that New Delhi wonders about the depth of its partnership with Washington. For all of the Trump administration’s eager support to India, this is a time when America is more or less retracting from its previous role as the global policeman.

 The policy community has closely followed the latest India-China border standoff, with numerous events and opinion pieces. The Pakistan factor, however, has not played out as strongly as Delhi would have liked. Most in the city have viewed the crisis from the lens of China’s aggression against democracies, something that Assistant Secretary of State, David Stilwell, said at a recent event. A strong India-US relationship notwithstanding, American interest in South Asia has historically been framed around its global concerns, Soviet Union during Cold War, terrorism immediately after, and now China.

There are some, however, making the argument that India could avoid this two-front war by restarting talks with Pakistan, something Delhi would not agree to. The notion that Pakistan works independent of China and that it can be convinced through the right incentive to change its strategic calculus about India or return to the American fold is a fallacy. Ignoring the prospect of Pakistan working in collusion with China by many in Washington DC, and other global capitals, might be a mistake.

During the 1962 India-China war, Washington supported New Delhi, while Moscow was on Beijing’s side. Despite the China-Soviet split of 1956, that occurred due to ideological differences, Moscow chose to side with Beijing, not Delhi. American President John F Kennedy, had long admired India and had argued, “We want India to win that race with Red China.”


Also read: National security won’t wait for economic development — Modi should learn from Nehru’s mistakes


US’ Pakistan prism

Washington did provide New Delhi with military aid during the war with China but also ensured that the equipment supplied was for mountain warfare and not for use in the plains against Pakistan. To assuage India’s concerns, Washington did apply pressure on Pakistan to avoid creating any problem on the India-Pakistan border.

While disappointed with American assistance to a non-ally (India) at the cost of an ally (Pakistan), Pakistan’s then military dictator General Ayub Khan was assuaged to some extent when both London and Washington pushed for an India-Pakistan dialogue— the famous Swaran Singh-Zulfikar Ali Bhutto talks of 1962.

During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration attempted even handedness, by stopping supplies of military equipment and economic aid to both countries and leaving the mediation role to the Soviet Union. American frustration over “trying to sort out things between India and Pakistan” was reflected in a personal message sent by Johnson’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk to the Ambassadors in Islamabad and New Delhi. Rusk remarked, “we are being asked to come in on the crash landing where we had no chance to be in on the take-off.”

Coming just three years after the India-China conflict, China’s response comprised  allegations that Indian troops had stolen sheep and yaks from Tibetan herdsmen. China’s foreign ministry also issued periodic statements saying India must return these animals to avoid a repeat of 1962.

In 1971, US President Richard Nixon supported West Pakistan during the civil war that had engulfed East Pakistan, and led to the India-Pakistan war, ultimately resulting in the creation of Bangladesh. The Nixon tilt towards Pakistan was aimed at, supporting an American ally at a time when the US President was wooing China as well. According to his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, Washington had to support Islamabad because “If the US stands by and sees an ally dismembered what will the Chinese think about our reliability?”

Both, then military dictator General Yahya Khan and the Nixon-Kissinger duo expected that China would help Pakistan in the war against India. Unlike 1965, however, China’s actions were minimal with limited military activity along the LAC, no open rhetoric and no uptick in public military aid to Pakistan. India also benefitted from the changed global dynamics; Moscow openly supported Delhi, unlike in 1962.


Also read: Chinese threat is unlikely to go away. India needs big plans for LAC to save its land


And its tilt towards India

India’s last major border conflict was with Pakistan in 1999. The Kargil conflict was unique in that both the US and China supported India, not Pakistan. Not only did President Bill Clinton come out openly in support of India and the ‘sanctity of the Line of Control’ but Washington applied pressure on Pakistan to withdraw its troops. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a quick trip to Beijing, hoping for support from China, he was asked to withdraw troops and resume talks with India.

In the last two decades, while there have been skirmishes between India and China along the LAC, there has not been any major conflict. There have, however, been crises on the India-Pakistan front: Parliament attack (2001), 26/11 (2008), Pathankot and Uri attacks (2016), and Pulwama-Balakot (2019). In each of these instances the US has supported India, applied pressure on Pakistan, sought to lower the tensions and prevented war.

China’s reactions, however, have been nuanced. While Beijing has gently nudged Islamabad to take action against some jihadi entities, China has also supported Pakistan on all international fora, and used its veto in the United Nations Security Council to stop listing certain Pakistan-based jihadi groups or individuals.

India has viewed favorably the recent statements of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referring to China’s actions against India as “incredibly aggressive” and that Washington will stand by its allies in the South China Sea against “China’s maritime empire.” The Trump administration has also repeatedly stated that while it is withdrawing troops from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Europe, it will be bolstering its presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, New Delhi would not be wrong in wondering the extent of support it can expect from a semi-isolationist America that is withdrawing from various parts of the world and demanding erstwhile allies take care of their own problems.

The author is Research Fellow and Director, India Initiative at the Washington-DC based Hudson Institute. Her books include ‘Escaping India: Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy’ (Routledge, 2011), ‘From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy’ (Harper Collins, 2017) and ‘Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power’ (Harper Collins, 2020). Views are personal.

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43 Comments Share Your Views

43 COMMENTS

  1. Mr RKA
    I feel very much enlightened while I read comments on the print articles
    These pakis don’t need to be searched
    They themselves say that where are you searching us
    We are here with extraordinary quality of comments
    These people are distinct as they show their intellectual levels through their comments

  2. This is an excellent article summing up all the events which are largely in public domain since 1962. The content does not match the headlines, however. What will be the strategic alignment if China and Pakistan make a joint attempt at India? If Nepal adds its nuisance value during the joint attack, what will happen. If Bangladesh allows its port in the time of crisis, what will happen? What will be the stand that US will take? What will be the stand Russia will adopt? How EU will look at it? These are the issues on which some insights are needed. These are not provided in the write up. This is the biggest disappointment. Anybody, with some flair in writing and with some skill in data mining can write this type of article. Sekhar’s Choice should have been better – it should be based on the analysis of trends and portends – and not a string or concatenation of past events. a k pattabiraman, Chennai

    • It’s funny how Indians lap up articles written by foreigners, Jihadis or Indian origin Americans!! Despite some logical points, Aparna Pande, the author is a research Fellow in Hudson Institute, a leftist, pro Jihadi think tank in Washington!!

      Who can believe that she will have a neutral or pro India narrative especially if America’s or Hudson’s own narrative & interests are involved??!!

  3. Some Hindus claim under Modi, India has come on the stage as a world power. Then why do we seek US protection ? True powers like US, Russia, China do not seek anyone’s protection.

  4. Pande’s capsule of U.S.-India crisis interaction is solidly factual. It would have been fairer if the picture of India’s provocative roles in some of those conflicts had not been glossed over.
    In 1962, JFK was willing to go all out in India’s support, and in India’s defence, PM Nehru did not even hesitate to ask JFK to drop nuclear bombs on China. At the same time, India has, by its own logic, always been careful in making risky commitments with allies abroad. New Delhi would never deign to commit blunders (such as Pakistan’s during the Cold War, the 1979-88 Afghan War and the 2001 GWOT) because it dearly valued its independent foreign policy and neutralist morality amid the ugly global power plays. However, like many authors, including U.S. Ambassador Dennis Kux in his “Estranged Democracies” point out, there has always been a lack of unquestioned India-U.S. commitment (that Washington usually demands) that has traditionally tended to make India a hesitant partner. On its part, the U.S. has matched that reserve, as evidenced by the recent Trump-Pompeo postures. The underlying India-U.S. prickliness has thus tended to undermine the trust levels. On many occasions, a developing warmth has been abruptly cooled by a minor incident, owing to India’s tendency to be ‘nettlesome’ (an American adjective proudly confirmed by the late Secretary Dixit during a TV show) and its diplomatic insistence on the virtues of its own regional conduct (utterly free of expansionism against any of its neighbours) while contrasting it starkly with that of its hostile neighbours (expansionist in its vilest forms) that is wholly worthy of unrestrained U.S. punishment.

  5. Why should the US wake up to India’s nightmare of a two front war ? This is India’s problem, it is India’a making, a fruit of too much Hindu nationalism.

    • Lol!! Here comes a Paki with half baked stories!! Will you let us know the Hindu genocide operated by the Islamic death cult in Indian Kashmir, Pakistan & Bangladesh too??!!

  6. All sides are only serving their own interests.
    Acting as human beings is totally forgotten.
    Only Ideology & Belligerence result in a war to take over a part of another country.
    China and Pakistan are both driven by their ideologies while India pursues
    its own age old dharma. Nothing is reconcilable unless China understands
    and accepts its foundations in history such as Buddhism and Taoism.
    Pakistani stand is based on complete ignorance and foolishness.
    Ji is a mad man. Khan is full of hatred and sick with radicalism.
    You can tell looking at their faces.

      • It was a lady from the Brahmin stock – Mrs Indira Gandhi – who dismembered Pakistan, created Bangladesh, redrew the map of this subcontinent , put Nepal in its place, integrated Sikkim and showed china its place. Why do you drag the caste in a write up like this. Is it because of your poverty of ideas? a k pattabiraman, Chennai

  7. yes the two front war is a distinct possibility
    yes the differential with china is currently present
    but we are headed in the right direction
    and most importantly the right always always wins in the end – germany and japan in world wars and vietnam war being the greatest example – its the men not might which matters finally-not the weapons u have .

  8. Are they really serious when successive Indian army chiefs say they are preparing for a two-front war? Or is a two-front war merely a bogey to attract sympathy from the right quarters? The more important question is: does India really consider China an enemy and does it really have the stomach or the desire to fight China? Indian has no match with China and its military. The Chinese are constantly reminding India about the power differential — military, economic and infrastructural — between them.

    • Muslim countries had many fold military strength against Israel but what happened to them in 1967. China is responsible for increasing militarisation of India. Every autocratic fascist ruler assumes that no country has power to stop him. Now the communist fascist rule is going towards his end.

      • We have a Hindu fascist ruling in India, and all we got was Indians fighting each other, a beating from China and a loss of land. It looks like Hindus will have India dismembered.

  9. India’s two-front war mantra is just a bogey to attract sympathy from the United States and European powers. The two-front strategy aimed at gaining the financial, diplomatic and military assistance that is allowed by American cynicism. China should be prepared for further escalating tension, and China does not fear such an outcome.

  10. Pakistan was a close ally of the USA and a member of CENTO and also a partner in the war against Soviets in Afghanistan. Pakistan has got billions of dollars of economic and military aid from the USA and also from China. The main concern for India is a triangle of friendship making by Pakistan with both USA and China. Pakistan is pressuring both China and the USA on Kashmir issue but only China is supporting Pakistan with full force and present border clash of India and China is only a demonstration of larger future conflict. The USA is supporting India against China and it is due to his broader plan against China in the Indo-Pacific region. What will happen when both China and Pakistan attack India? There may be three outcomes of this conflict, first, India neutralizes both sides attacks, second, India occupies some territory and third, India losses some territory. The third is the most dangerous and India will loss his regional and international status and also the USA’s position in the Indo-pacific region will be weakened. First and second outcomes will strengthened not only India but also the USA and India will be a trusted ally of western powers in this region. I think pentagon will be serious about the outcome of this possible war.

  11. India has learnt no lessons from US treatment of Pakistan even after they helped the US win in Afghanistan- twice. Present Indian government has made a strategic blunder by risking poor relations with old ally Russia, neighbour and big trade partner China as well as neighbouring Pakistan- while pursuing a mirage of a US support that didn’t come even when most needed, when China was occupying Indian territory, or even afterwards.

  12. 1. How come 1971 war was between India and Pakistan?

    2. Why do Indian officials lie every single time which creates a lot confusion ? Hh

    In 1971, the war was between East Pakistan and west Pakistan. Not India Pakistan that gave birth to Bangladesh.

    I’m 79 yrs old and I was stationed in Burma during the 1971 War. I can assure you that the war was between East and west while India’s military had no rules against Pakistan. Which is why the war lasted for more than 8months and then India decided to get into Bangladesh around 5-6 December 1971 and Pakistanis had to surrender in Dacca because of the Bengali Guerrillas. Few Million Bengali died in that war and India was there to help Bengali making sure that Pakistan leaves as it promised. Stop creating fake history India

    • You forget that India had one major incentive for intervening in East Pakistan. It had received and accommodated 9 million refugees, the highest ever number in the 20th century. They could not have been returned to their land, unless Pakistan was kicked out of East Pakistan. You westerners are myopic. You cannot understand the problems of populous Asia.

    • Funny you were stationed in Burma in 1971 and yet you have no clue.East Pakistan declared independence in March and Pakistan started suppressing civil war brutally with the help of Islam terrorists and Military and almost it was successful which lead to huge refugee influx straining border states in India.Pakistan carried out air strikes on defense installations in North/Eastern part of India on Dec 3rd 1971(Operation Chengiz Khan) and India opened war fronts on both sides of Pakistan(Officially both sides never declared war ).Pakistan air strikes forced India’s hand that hastened Bangladesh independence.

    • Ha!! Ha!! Good Joke!! Pakistanis even left their Umma brothers with India despite all of them helped them create Pakistan!! India had 90k + Pakistani Jihadis as prisoners of war!! Pakistan formed on Islam is supporting China rape Islam & kill Ughur Muslims!!

      Clinton pressured Pakistan to withdraw from Kargil and you withdrew?? Where is the force of Islam & Allah?? Are your ideological foundations so weak or are you basically cowards and inhuman animals killing not just Hindus but also Muslims in Pakistan??!!

  13. I winder if the US is sleeping or just closing its eyes!!!!
    Even when the edifice of NATO is seemingly crumbling… It is frivolous to expect US to take sides here and now on a hypothesis.
    A dramatic entry in a cris in situation may pay better dividends for the US!!!!!

    Just saying.

  14. Unless india becomes a economic power this china threat will not vanish
    And America wont take india seriously
    The image of poor benighted hindu is still alive in the west

  15. Aparna must be a very young journalist paid by Congress to spread panic.India has plenty of young men and women that can handle any eventualities.Did you not hear about American fleet that sailed thru man made islands to deter China?

  16. India should help itself rather than depend on US.. An Indian defense analyst Ajay Shukla points out ( ..14 Corps can seldom count on reinforcements because Northern Command’s reserve formations are too often already committed in CI(Counter Insurgency) operations.” Police and defense sources repeatedly assert that there are just about 100 militants in Jammu and Kashmir. That just 100 militants are able to disrupt the operations of an entire Corps should be an eye opener and bring out to those at the helm of affairs as to how important it is to have peace with your own people. Having the trust and support of your own people is much more vital than having the trust and support of USA.

    • Very good observation. They want trust and support of Americans while undermining trust and support between Indians.

    • Europe & India is struggling with Islam & Mosques while Muslims flee Islamic nations for Christian & Hindu lands!! Shame on you!!

  17. WHy use the word nightmare. It was Gen Bipin Rawat who said we are prepared fully for a two front war.
    Has he changed his mind by any chance ?

  18. Well written article. In a few Cut the Clutters and National interest episodes, the otherwise well informed Shekhar Gupta ji also suggests making peace with Pak. Somehow the commentariat seems to think that Pak and its army are working independently of China. There is no scope for betterment of relations between Pak and India until they dismantle their terrorist networks. And i dont think this stance is likely to chance anytime soon irrespective of whoever is in power. We are as things stand today cursed with two hostile neighbors who are working closely. We just have to accept it and make necessary policy changes.

    • I agree, bjp may have political dividend (as SG said on CTC) to an extend in enmity with Pakistan, but I don’t think that’s the only thing stopping this govt from making peace with Pakistan

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