Sino-Indian Border Clashes: Implications for U.S.-India Ties

On the night of June 15, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a violent clash in the Galwan River valley, leading to the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese casualties. The clash came as Indian and Chinese troops faced off at various points along the disputed and un-demarcated border since May 5. As a result of the violent clashes, as well as the ongoing standoffs, bilateral relations between the two countries are at their lowest point since they reestablished relations in 1979 after fighting a war in 1962. However, beyond the impact on India and China, the border clashes have implications for the U.S.-India relationship as well, offering both opportunities and pitfalls over the medium term.

What Does the Clash Mean for U.S.-India Ties?

The June 15 clashes marked the first time since 1975 that either India or China has seen fatalities along the border. India has blamed the clash directly on a Chinese desire to “unilaterally change the status quo” on the ground. Chinese claims that it “always owns sovereignty over the Galwan Valley area”—which India has described as “exaggerated and untenable”—has served to reinforce India’s suspicions of China, with Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar saying the developments in the region will have a “serious impact on the bilateral relationship.” Even still, the two sides continue to face off at various points along the border.

The violent clashes, therefore, are increasingly likely to become a turning point in how India sees China. To be sure, India has never seen China as an ally, and the relationship has been described as one with “elements of both cooperation as well as competition.” However, after the clash, a number of former diplomats and policymakers have called for a reassessment of India’s relationship with China. India’s former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao has said, “This is a turning point—a very serious junction in the relationship” and that the relationship cannot go back to “business as usual.”

When discussing such a reassessment of India’s ties with China, an oft-repeated refrain has been for India to deepen its engagement with the United States. Increasing alignment between the United States and India predates the most recent standoff with China, with bilateral cooperation, particularly on defense and security, growing steadily over the last two decades. However, India, recognizing the need to shore up relations with key powers after the Galwan Valley clash, may accelerate its cooperation with the United States. However, as they do so, the two countries will need to grapple with significant differences that remain hurdles to deeper cooperation, ranging from Delhi’s concerns over U.S. reliability to Washington’s concerns over India’s unfair trade practices and reliance on Russia.

The Path Forward

The key to driving U.S.-India relations forward in the aftermath of the Galwan Valley clashes, therefore, is crafting an agenda that will capitalize on their convergences and bridge the divergences. Building on convergences will require both countries to do two things: optimize existing elements and open new areas of cooperation.  For instance, defense ties have been the “the key driver of the bilateral relationship,” and both countries have made tremendous progress in signing several foundational, or enabling agreements, which have fostered greater interoperability between their respective armed forces. Concluding negotiations on the final pending agreement—the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement to allow for intelligence sharing of geospatial data—can strengthen bilateral ties. Maritime cooperation has become a focal point of the relationship, but opportunities remain to deepen ties further. For example, India, which already has observer status in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, can push for similar observer status for the United States in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium.

The two countries should also look to open new areas of cooperation. One idea, raised in advance of President Trump’s visit to India in February, is for both countries to jointly launch an Indian Ocean Cooperation and Training exercise, similar to the South East Asia Cooperation and Training exercise, aimed at training and building the capacity of Indian Ocean states to combat regional issues such as counter-narcotics, counter-piracy, and counterterrorism. Doing so can further signal U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and its vision to see the region from “California to Kilimanjaro.” India should also look to conduct coordinated patrols (CORPAT) with the United States in the Indian Ocean using its P-8I platform. While India has previously turned down U.S. requests for such patrols, India’s recent CORPAT with France in March 2020 has paved the way for further cooperation and burden sharing on the maritime domain awareness with the United States and other like-minded partners.

However, both countries will also need to grapple with irritants in their relationship, which could arrest any potential momentum to deepen bilateral cooperation. The ongoing trade dispute between the two countries has seen new fronts open up in recent months, such as the U.S. Trade Representative’s decision to launch an investigation into digital services taxes adopted by India and other countries under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act. President Trump’s actions on immigration, such as his executive order halting entry of H1-B visa holders to the United States, affect significant numbers of Indians and will further irk India.

The threat of sanctions against India’s decision to purchase the S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile system under the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) also continues to loom large. Indeed, India’s reliance on Russia for military hardware was evidenced by Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh’s recent visit to Moscow, while the standoff with China was still ongoing, to seek earlier delivery of the S-400 systems, as well as the recent purchase of 21 MiG-29 aircraft. While overcoming these irritants will be tough, early resolution on trade and CAATSA sanctions can ensure they don’t inhibit the growth of the U.S.-India strategic relationship.

The violent clashes between India and China will likely be a turning point for relations between the two countries, reinforcing India’s desire to deepen ties with key partners to balance against China. In this context, while India may take an even more assertive stance against China, it may look to engage more with the United States. However, attempts to deepen such engagement between Delhi and Washington will face challenges, as long-standing concerns from both sides remain unaddressed. The path forward, therefore, will require both sides to optimize existing elements and open new areas of cooperation, while overcoming those irritants.

Aman Thakker is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Aman Thakker
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies