Few diplomatic overtures have generated loftier expectations in recent years than Washington’s rapprochement with New Delhi. Frequently at loggerheads during the Cold War, then kept apart by the U.S. commitment to counter-proliferation and India’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent, the two sides have never had a warm relationship. That began to change during the George W. Bush administration, a transformation that was symbolized by a controversial agreement allowing the United States to sell civilian nuclear technology to India, despite its status as a nuclear-armed nation that is not recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Obama administration has since picked up where its predecessor left off. The president, for example, has called India a “natural ally” of the United States, while his former secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, declared that India was “a linchpin” of America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific.
While there were many reasons for the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy to mend fences, perhaps the most important reason was the one that few officials could point to in public: the rise of China. In modern times, tensions between New Delhi and Beijing date back to their border war in 1962. In fact, the contested boundaries between these two powers are some of the only land border disputes that China has yet to resolve. To keep up with Beijing’s growing military power, India needs to modernize its armed forces, which means moving away from its reliance on Russian hardware and looking toward Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, Washington is searching for ways to preserve its position in the Asia-Pacific as China’s strength continues to increase. Having the region’s other rising power on its side is a good place to start.
If a partnership between the United States and India makes sense on paper, so far improved relations between the two nations have hardly been game changing. There are a host of explanations why the fruits of strategic collaboration have been relatively modest, from bureaucracies on both sides that have impeded potential arms sales, to broader considerations such as the fear of antagonizing China. One important factor, though, is the mismatch between what the United States wants India to do and what New Delhi is best suited to do.
Proponents of closer ties between Washington and New Delhi often view India as a budding maritime power. As then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared in 2010, “India can be a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.” For example, with a bigger and better navy, India could help patrol vital sea-lanes, deter or counter smuggling operations, combat piracy, provide humanitarian assistance far from home, and respond quickly when natural disasters strike. All of this could help relieve some of the burdens shouldered by the U.S. Navy, which is juggling its day-to-day role as a global security provider and first responder with the longer-term challenge of a shifting military balance in the Western Pacific. Not surprisingly, areas like counter-piracy and humanitarian assistance are at the center of U.S.-India security cooperation today.
The only problem is that India isn’t a maritime power: it’s a land power. To be sure, New Delhi is building and buying new ships and submarines, and seems determined to bolster its naval capabilities, which is hardly surprising given its location astride some of the world’s most important sea-lanes. But the major military challenges it faces come from on shore, and the Indian Army continues to be the nation’s dominant military service in terms of size, influence, and budget share.
Assuming that the underlying goal of closer U.S.-India ties is to help maintain a stable balance of power across Asia, a larger Indian navy is likely to have a marginal long-term impact. Actually, it could even be counterproductive. The rivalry between China and India may have begun on land, but it is starting to move into the maritime domain, particularly as Beijing makes inroads with island and littoral nations in the Indian Ocean while New Delhi continues to bolster its maritime capabilities. Building a robust, blue water fleet that would enable India to project maritime power throughout its region and beyond could give China an added incentive to double-down on naval modernization, conduct more deployments outside of East Asia, and perhaps develop a permanent overseas military presence to secure its sea lines of communication against the latent threat of Indian interdiction. Given the cost and difficulties of fielding a large, modern, and effective naval force, as well as the pull of more pressing security challenges on land, there is no guarantee that India will succeed.
If the current focus of U.S.-India security cooperation seems misplaced, how should it be adapted, particularly if the United States is likely to be engaged in a long-term, peacetime competition with China for regional influence and positional advantage? The answer requires bringing geopolitics back into the picture. While India has traditionally been a continental power focused on threats along its land borders, the same is true of China. For example, it is surrounded by fourteen different countries, including major powers and nuclear-armed nations. It previously fought a series of border wars and conflicts, not only with India but also against the Soviet Union and Vietnam. Its outlying territories are populated by minority groups that pose a continuous threat of internal unrest. And its access to the sea is limited by island barriers and maritime chokepoints. In fact, the main reason that China has been able to scale back the size of its ground forces and invest in naval and aerospace capabilities over the past two decades is that it hasn’t been distracted by serious land-based threats for the first time in a long time. Nevertheless, China remains extremely sensitive about the security of its borders.
Washington has a strong incentive to slow this trend if possible. As Beijing’s need to spend money on ground units and internal security forces declines, and as the bureaucratic clout of these organizations diminishes, then China’s naval, air, and missile forces are likely to get a growing slice of the resource pie. Yet these are precisely the forces that pose the biggest danger to the United States, its allies, and its interests abroad. Unfortunately, there is little that the U.S. can do, at least by itself. This is where India enters the equation. History tells us that in competitions between “whales” (maritime great powers like the United States) and “elephants” (rising continental powers like China), the former often need continental allies to counterbalance the latter. Today, India is the only plausible candidate that might be able to distract China from its growing focus on naval and aerospace modernization and reinforce Beijing’s traditional focus on territorial defense.
Interestingly, India is already moving in this direction. In response to Beijing’s development of military and dual-use infrastructure, which could enable it to deploy its forces to its frontiers more rapidly, New Delhi has started to bolster its military presence near disputed borders: refurbishing air fields, deploying its most advanced combat aircraft and land-attack cruise missiles to the region, and establishing a new mountain strike corps. Additional efforts along these lines could drive Beijing to undertake a number of potentially expensive but relatively unthreatening measures, such as increasing the size of its ground and internal security forces, hardening local bases and transportation infrastructure, and putting a more robust air defense network in place to the southwest.
If New Delhi does continue its military buildup along its northern borders, it should concentrate its efforts on deploying air and missile forces, for several reasons. First, in comparison to deploying additional infantry or light armor units, air and missile forces would help offset its geographic disadvantage, namely China’s command of the Himalayan plateau. Second, forward deployed air and missile forces would reduce the need for investments in the costly but vulnerable ground transportation infrastructure necessary to deploy units from interior garrisons to northern bases. Lastly, air and missile forces are particularly useful for denying an enemy’s advance by holding at risk staging areas and supply lines. Therefore they would still contribute to deterrence and cost-imposition, but would be much less escalatory than forces that could be used to seize and hold territory, like India’s new mountain strike corps.
For its part, the United States could support India in a variety of ways, from sharing intelligence about Chinese troop deployments near border areas to selling India capabilities such as aerial surveillance systems, intra-theater lift capabilities, and perhaps eventually stealthy combat aircraft that would pose additional burdens on China to establish control of the skies and defend its airspace.
In the end, India is unlikely to appreciate the idea of being a frontline state in a broader Sino-American competition. Yet geography, territorial disputes, the imperative to balance against a rising power on its doorstep, and broader changes in the global balance of power are putting it in that position. The real question, then, is whether it should emphasize balancing China on land or at sea.
Evan Braden Montgomery is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, DC. This piece is based on an article that appears in the most recent issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies.