India and China are currently engaged in a significant military standoff on a plateau along the China-Bhutan border. Calling it a standoff, however, somewhat clouds the real story: India sent its troops into foreign territory to stand up to China’s bullying of a much smaller neighbor, and to support peaceful negotiation of border disputes. This marks a significant milestone in India’s emergence as a regional power, and is a strong signal to Washington that India’s ascendance as a major power is underway.
U.S.-India defense ties, largely dormant from the 1960s until the early 2000s, have dramatically accelerated in the last three years. Our defense relationship has important new operational and philosophical underpinnings, articulated in key documents like the “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region,” signed in January 2015, and our renewed “Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship” signed in June 2015. The United States has become India’s largest defense partner, both in terms of exercises as well as equipment sales. And the U.S. Department of Defense has created India-focused offices and programs that do not exist for any other country, including the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) and the India Rapid Reaction Cell (IRRC).
Yet support in Washington for expending the time and energy necessary to deepen our defense ties is quite thin. The torch is upheld by a small group of visionaries who believe Asian security will soon rest, at least partially, on Delhi’s shoulders. Pessimists routinely note both nations’ historical aloofness, India’s close defense relations with Russia, or India’s continued dalliances with anti-West groups like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperative Organization. And most of all, they point to the fact that India has historically contributed very little, nor shown interest in contributing, on the security issues most vital to the United States. A vague promise that “a stronger India is good for global security” is not sufficient to win this debate, forestalling a wider level of American interest in our growing defense relationship.
There is a great deal of truth to this base criticism. India was silent on Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and Georgia; India has not joined the broad ‘Global Coalition against Daesh;’ and India has only recently been willing to publicly criticize China’s aggressive behaviors in the South China Sea. India’s military did play a key role in evacuating people from Yemen in April 2015, and providing critical assistance to Nepal that same month following a massive earthquake. India’s military has also embarked on successful counter-terror strikes in Myanmar (June 2015) and Pakistan (September 2016). And the Indian Navy has played a modest but helpful role in anti-piracy operations over the years. But none of these actions are viewed as particularly significant in Washington D.C.
In early June, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began extending a road into an area along the China-Bhutan border that both China and Bhutan claim. The countries had previously agreed to settle the dispute through negotiation, though numerous rounds of talks between China and Bhutan have been inconclusive. The new road project is a clear attempt to alter the status quo in China’s favor.
Around June 18, the Indian Army crossed over into this territory, creating a human chain, and effectively blocking further Chinese construction. This standoff continues, with approximately 350 Indian troops facing off against 300 Chinese troops.
In the months leading up to this standoff, India had become increasingly vocal about its concerns with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), privately equating infrastructure developments under BRI with China’s island-creating program in the South China Sea. India particularly objects to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which cuts through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India’s concerns about BRI were reflected in the Joint Statement issued following the late June summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump in Washington D.C.
Over the last twenty years, there have been key signaling moments in the U.S.-India relationship that helped initiate shifts in our strategic partnership. These include the 1998 nuclear tests; American support for India’s position during the 1999 Kargil conflict; India’s support for President George W. Bush’s plans to create a missile defense shield; and our joint announcement in 2005 that we would begin sharing civilian nuclear technology. The Indian government’s move to send troops to intervene in the China-Bhutan border dispute should rightly be viewed as a similarly significant event.
The world wants to see these two great powers de-escalate and save face. Despite the heated rhetoric, no shots have been fired, and senior officials of both nations have multiple upcoming opportunities to meet and attempt to find an equitable solution to the current impasse. Perhaps this will incentivize both China and Bhutan to approach future border dispute talks with fewer reservations. But Washington must recognize—we just received a loud, clear signal that India is ready to take important steps to contribute to the global order, and it should strengthen our resolve to further deepen our emerging security partnership.
Richard M Rossow is Senior Adviser & Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).