As India’s border confrontation with China deepens into a crisis, New Delhi appears to be using a combination of military power and diplomacy. According to reports in the Indian media, India has already begun moving troops from other sectors, including those facing Pakistan along the Line of Control (LOC), toward the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates India and China in Ladakh. At the same time, in a move that could be seen as a signal to China, India has stepped up its diplomatic efforts. In the last week, India has reached out to the United States, signaled a warning on Taiwan, and is set to strengthen security ties with Australia.
The United States remains the most critical of India’s partners. On May 29, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh spoke on the phone, taking stock of their defense cooperation, and vowed to continue their efforts “for a strong and enduring U.S.-India defense partnership.” Even though the China matter was not specifically mentioned, both official statements, one released by the U.S. Department of Defense and other by the Indian Ministry of Defense, mentioned Esper and Singh discussing regional security issues. It would be highly unlikely that they discussed “regional security issues” without touching on the current Sino-Indian border confrontation.
In addition, on June 2, there was a telephone conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump. Unusually, the readout of their conversation specifically stated that they discussed the Sino-Indian border standoff and the need to reform the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO has been much criticized for being too cozy with China. Trump also wants to expand the G-7 grouping (which China is not a part of) to include Australia, India, South Korea, and possibly Russia, thus making it a G-10 or G-11, which Modi also supported.
The messaging was not lost on Beijing: Promptly after the call between the two leaders, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that there was “no need for any third party to intervene.” He added that “at present, the overall situation in the China-India border areas is stable and controllable.”
At the same time, India made another unusual diplomatic play, this time with regard to Taiwan. In an extraordinary move, two Members of Parliament (MPs) — Meenakshi Lekhi and Rahul Kaswan — from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) virtually attended President Tsai Ing-wen’s swearing-in ceremony online. The two MPs also sent congratulatory messages to Tsai on the start of her second term, highlighting how India and Taiwan are bound by their shared belief in democratic values. Reportedly, in addition to the two MPs, Sohang Sen, the acting director general of India-Taipei Association, joined the ceremony, representing India in Taipei. In a separate video message, which was played at the ceremony, Lekhi emphasized the “continued strengthening of the comprehensive relations between India and Taiwan.”
This was a departure from India’s traditional stand on the Taiwan issue and the contrast to India’s decision in 2016 is striking. After naming two parliamentarians to attend Tsai’s first swearing-in ceremony in 2016, the government backtracked at the last moment, leading to much disappointment in Taipei. Many suspected that it was worry about China’s reaction that led to the last minute cancellation then, with one official saying that India possibly “bound itself up tightly in its own policies.” It was even more puzzling for many Taiwanese as to why India accepted the invitation in the first place and then cancelled, which made the disappointment bigger.
The third recent move worth taking into account regards Australia. Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison just concluded their first virtual India-Australia summit meeting. Though the summit had originally been scheduled for February, but postponed because of the Australian bushfires and then the pandemic, China continues to very much be on the minds of both leaders. Australia is feeling China’s wrath for pushing for an investigation into the origins of the pandemic, while Indian troops are confronting Chinese forces directly at the border. Not surprisingly, the meeting appears to have been a successful one, with several agreements and MOUs on strategic issues concluded between the two countries. Given the progress made in bilateral relations over the last few years, the two leaders decided to elevate their Strategic Partnership status reached in 2009 to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP).
The Joint Statement issued at the end of the meeting is carefully worded, with several important messages. It noted that “the CSP is based on mutual understanding, trust, common interests and the shared values of democracy and rule of law.” Further, it said that both India and Australia “share the vision of an open, free, rules-based Indo-Pacific region supported by inclusive global and regional institutions that promote prosperous, stable and sovereign states on the basis of shared interests.” The emphasis on maritime security and defense cooperation is significant. On regional and multilateral cooperation, the statement said that the two countries “share a vision of a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region to support the freedom of navigation, over-flight and peaceful and cooperative use of the seas by adherence of all nations to international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and peaceful resolution of disputes rather than through unilateral or coercive actions.” There were press reports in India that New Delhi was finally going to invite Australia to the Malabar naval exercise, though that has not been confirmed.
Among the nine agreements signed or announced, some were particularly significant: the Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo- Pacific; Arrangement concerning Mutual Logistics Support (MLSA); an MOU on cooperation in the field of mining and processing of “critical and strategic” minerals; and the Implementing Arrangement concerning cooperation in Defense Science and Technology to the MOU on Defense Cooperation. These have the potential to deepen India and Australia’s bilateral defense and strategic cooperation for navigating the turbulent Indo-Pacific. While China has not been named specifically, many of the agreements as well as the joint statement appear clearly driven by the shared concern about China.
It is unclear how India’s diplomatic moves will be interpreted in Beijing, but it is clear that in New Delhi the pressure from an unrelenting China is pushing India farther away and leading it to deepen its security partnerships.