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.
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.”
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.
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.