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For over a month, Indian and Chinese troops have been facing off on the Doklam Plateau, a disputed patch of land in the Himalayas near the junction of Bhutan, Tibet, and the Indian state of Sikkim. The impasse began with China’s decision to build a road on territory also claimed by Bhutan. The Chinese construction project, which was discovered in June, led to Bhutanese protests. These drew in India, which decided to increase the number of its troops in the area. New Delhi backs Bhutan’s claim and is called on to help address the country’s security concerns by the terms of a bilateral treaty renewed in 2007.
As Chinese and Indian soldiers have stared each other down, China’s state media has steadily threatened New Delhi with dire consequences unless it withdraws its troops from the area. Some Indian observers have also urged their country to take an aggressive stance against China.
The deeper reasons for China’s road building have often been lost in those exchanges. To be sure, some Indian analysts have noted that if China completes the road, it would be easier for Chinese forces to cut off the narrow strip of land that connects India’s heartland to its northeastern states in the event of a war. But there are strategic issues at stake beyond this tactical threat to India’s security.
From New Delhi’s perspective, China’s activities along the troubled border represent Beijing’s latest attempt to undermine India’s close ties with some of its neighbors. If China can intimidate India into abandoning one partner, it could set an important precedent, increasing the chances that other Asian nations will buckle before coming to the aid of neighbors facing Chinese pressure. At the same time, it could diminish India’s political influence over Bhutan, securing a commensurate growth in China’s influence there.
For the past few decades, Chinese officials have looked askance at India’s growing economic and military power. Although they are often dismissive of the prospects of India’s rise in Asia, China’s leadership recognizes that India is the only country on the continent with the material potential to stand up to Beijing’s quest for regional dominance. As India has sought to step out of the confines of its immediate neighborhood—by, for example, expanding its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, providing humanitarian assistance to afflicted states in the region, and carrying out counterpiracy operations around the Horn of Africa—China has worked to contain India within South Asia and to reduce its influence even there. The road-building project in Doklam is just the latest part of this plan.
China has sought to empower India’s enemies in the region, in particular by deepening its own relationship with Pakistan. In 2013, China defied global nonproliferation concerns by agreeing to build a nuclear reactor in Karachi, a conflict-ridden Pakistani port city. Since then, Beijing has committed more than $60 billion to Pakistan, mostly in the form of long-term loans for a network of roads, railways, and other infrastructure projects—some of which extend through disputed territories in Kashmir and have drawn formal protests from India. If completed, the roads planned as part of this China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as it is known, would give China access to a highway that would link Gwadar—a Chinese-built port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, which China has rights to operate until the 2050s—to the city of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Province. The strategic significance of a roadway connecting a port on the Arabian Sea to an important Chinese city has not been lost on Indian officials. The road would provide a vital link between two of India’s most important adversaries and could be used to provide military assistance to Pakistan in the event of a future Indian-Pakistani crisis.
New Delhi’s misgivings about China’s regional strategy have grown in light of Chinese forces’ renewed incursions into Ladakh, a northern part of the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir near the disputed, Chinese-administered territory of Aksai Chin. Over the last three years, People’s Liberation Army soldiers have repeatedly entered territory there that India considers its own. The PLA has even demolished some bunkers that India constructed near the disputed border. Through these actions, China has sought to test India’s resolve and the readiness of its defenses.
The dispute between China and India over Aksai Chin and its surroundings is not new. Nor is the deepening of ties between Pakistan and China. The relationship between those two countries has gradually improved since the early 1960s, a result of their common adversarial relationship with India. But what makes these long-standing points of friction more irritating is the gains that China has recently made in other South Asian states. Most notably, in July, a state-owned Chinese firm secured a 70 percent stake in the deep-water port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Colombo agreed to that deal over India’s objections because it needed to pay off debts it had incurred during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, which ended in 2015. India frets about China’s naval bridgehead in Sri Lanka for two compelling reasons. First, the port facility will help China extend its political influence in the country. Second, owing to the port’s strategic location, it could let China surveil Indian shipping and (more important) naval activities in the region.
China has also made inroads into Bangladesh and Nepal. In recent years, it has become the largest arms supplier to Bangladesh; last year, it sold two submarines to the country. As for Nepal, New Delhi’s ham-fisted attempt to back the modification of the country’s constitution in 2015 on behalf of a beleaguered ethnic minority, the Madhesis, gave China an opening: as India supported a tacit fuel blockade of Nepal, Beijing quickly came to its assistance, eroding India’s standing there.
There is little question that India’s maladroit diplomacy let Beijing upend New Delhi’s position in Nepal. But in the cases of Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, China has been able to make headway largely because it can draw on far greater economic resources than India can.
Those constraints are one reason why India should show resolve in the Doklam standoff and devise sharper strategies to deal with its smaller neighbors. Among other measures, it should speed up the deployment of a new mountain brigade trained for high-altitude warfare, expedite its road-building programs near its borders, and speedily deploy batteries of short-range missiles to India’s northern borders, especially in the states of Assam and Meghalaya and perhaps also to the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which India governs and China claims. Failing to take such steps would undermine India’s ability to fairly settle the border dispute and diminish its position in South Asia and beyond.
Focus on Beijing’s Behavior, Not Its Leadership