After a tumultuous year that featured the deadliest China-India border clashes in over four decades, the two sides agreed in early 2021 to a simultaneous military disengagement from one part of their contested border in the region of Ladakh. That accord reduced the immediate risk of an armed confrontation, but tensions remain high and warning indicators for conflict continue to blink red. As Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted, 2020 left the China-India relationship “profoundly disturbed.”
A 2015 Contingency Planning Memorandum (CPM) highlighted the risk of armed confrontation between China and India to U.S. security interests. That risk remains and needs to be addressed. The Joe Biden administration should use the breathing room offered by recent de-escalatory initiatives in South Asia to calibrate its growing strategic partnership with India in ways that lessen the risk of renewed border tensions and potential conflict with China.
The 2015 CPM assessed that China-India relations were sufficiently stable that no single issue or crisis was likely to provoke a violent clash between them. Both sides appreciated the need to insulate their growing ties of trade and investment from other disputes and proved themselves deft managers of routine border dustups. Yet the CPM also found that multiple, overlapping disputes would pose a special challenge for peaceful crisis management by Beijing and New Delhi: a wider context of serious bilateral tensions would raise the political and strategic stakes associated with backing down or appearing weak in any single dispute, and overlapping crises would complicate the mechanics of timely intelligence gathering, decision-making, and signaling required to avoid violence.
In 2020, the stage was set for deadly conflict by over a half-dozen years of increasingly tense China-India border standoffs that featured aggressive patrolling tactics and provocative military construction projects along and near their contested territories. Starting in early 2019, these circumstances were aggravated by a sharp deterioration in India’s relations with Pakistan, a hostile neighbor and one of China’s closest partners. In August 2019, India’s surprise revision of the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, including territories contested by China and Pakistan, exacerbated regional tensions and placed new demands on Indian security forces. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that spread from China in 2020 hit India’s economy especially hard, leading to mutual recriminations and raising questions about the future of China-India commercial and diplomatic relations.
Looking ahead, the likelihood of persistent China-India tensions and simultaneous disputes remains high. Along their land border, the jockeying for tactical advantage will continue even assuming they abide by the painfully negotiated terms of their recent disengagement deal. Both sides remain fully committed to military strategies and tactics that will bring heavily armed forces into closer and deadlier contact. At the height of tensions in 2020, tens of thousands of troops massed on either side of India’s northern border. As one indication of how India assesses the future threat posed by China, its army announced plans in early 2021 to reorient a Pakistan-facing strike corps toward the China front.
India will also remain wary about China-Pakistan strategic collusion despite an early 2021 India-Pakistan cease-fire declaration that suspended artillery exchanges along their disputed border in Kashmir. Prior to the truce, shelling had escalated to peaks not witnessed since 2002. A string of conciliatory statements by top leaders on both sides has followed the cease-fire, but the potential for an India-Pakistan conflict that implicates China directly or indirectly will remain high for the foreseeable future.
Current conditions in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Pakistan make it impossible to rule out another inciting terrorist attack against India by groups with ties to Pakistan, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed. The last major terrorist incident in 2019 led to a tit-for-tat series of air strikes that broke with past practice when Indian jets bombed a target inside Pakistan for the first time since 1971. Amid Pakistan’s retaliatory air strikes and the downing and capture of an Indian pilot, senior Indian officials reportedly threatened the use of nuclear-capable missiles. Although two sides found a mutually face-saving way out of that crisis, the experience appears to have left each believing it could successfully escalate threats and use force to achieve its aims in the next dispute.
Any future India-Pakistan conflict is more likely to implicate China because Beijing’s strategic embrace of Islamabad has tightened in recent years. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is delivering tens of billions of dollars in Chinese infrastructure investments to Pakistan, including in territories claimed by India. Rather than urging restraint from both India and Pakistan in their 2019 crisis, Beijing accepted Islamabad’s position that it needed to escalate the conflict to deter future Indian aggression. Also, like Pakistan, China contests Indian control over parts of Kashmir and has criticized India’s August 2019 revocation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status. If ongoing India-Pakistan peace overtures falter, as they have so many times in the past, an overlapping crisis that pits both China and Pakistan against India simultaneously poses a realistic threat.
Adding to the complexity of crisis management, in 2020 both China and India extended their land border confrontation into other areas of their bilateral relationship. The moves were intended to signal resolve and communicate the costs of escalation. Indian signaling included its June 2020 deployment of a warship to the South China Sea, which immediately drew Chinese objections; a ban on fifty-nine Chinese web apps, including WeChat and TikTok, from Indian markets; and new barriers to participation by Chinese companies in a variety of Indian infrastructure projects, such as highway construction. Chinese signaling included engineering a brief but debilitating October 2020 electrical blackout in Mumbai through a cyberattack by Chinese hackers.
Although both sides intended these nonmilitary signals to discourage military escalation along the China-India border, those signals indicate how future crises could spill over into other areas and exacerbate rather than calm a crisis. For example, a future Chinese escalation of cyberattacks on India’s critical infrastructure would place intense public pressure on India’s leaders, but it is difficult to foresee whether they would feel the need to escalate or deescalate. Similarly, if India threatened new barriers to Chinese commerce or investment, China could respond with coercive moves of its own, such as curtailing the supply of critical raw materials to India’s pharmaceutical industry. The 2015 CPM identified other points of friction between China and India that could flare simultaneously with a future land border dispute, including possible naval standoffs or dramatic new developments in Tibet related to the Dalai Lama’s succession.
In the heat of a complex set of interconnected China-India crises, the two sides will find it increasingly difficult to calibrate and control their responses in ways that satisfy their political and strategic aims. Moreover, their failure to manage the 2020 border dispute peacefully shatters a useful precedent; neither side can be confident about which redlines the other will observe. China-India relations have entered a new, more precarious, and unpredictable era.
Successive U.S. administrations have sought to nurture a more robust U.S.-India strategic partnership to counter an increasingly powerful and assertive China. Now that the U.S.-China relationship has entered a phase President Biden has described as one of “extreme competition,” the importance of closer U.S.-India ties has only risen. But so too have the risks, particularly those associated with the possibility of an armed confrontation between China and India. Aside from potentially drawing the United States into such a confrontation, conflict between China and India would threaten to disrupt the global economy, undermine regional development, and have considerable humanitarian consequences depending on its eventual scale. If India is weakened militarily and economically in the process, its value as a counterweight to China and the broader U.S. goal of countering China’s regional influence would also be undermined.
For these reasons, Washington’s eagerness to cultivate deeper strategic ties with New Delhi needs to be tempered by an appreciation of the risks and how its own actions have the potential to affect Indian and Chinese behavior for better or worse. U.S. strategic commitments and support to India should be carefully calibrated in a way that satisfies two imperatives:
- On the one hand, Washington’s assurances and material assistance to New Delhi should aim to reduce India’s vulnerability to Chinese coercion and aggression, thereby lessening the likelihood that the United States would be placed in the uncomfortable position of either living up to its commitments and being drawn into a direct confrontation with China or backing off those commitments and dealing a blow to U.S.-India relations.
- On the other hand, however, U.S. support should avoid emboldening India to extend its strategic aims and act during any future crisis in ways that threaten U.S. interests. This concern is not hypothetical; under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, Indian policies in Kashmir and military escalations with China and Pakistan have already demonstrated an atypical streak of nationalistic ambition and risk-acceptance. Feeding aggressive Indian tendencies would also increase the likelihood that China would respond by accelerating its deployment of new or redirected forces along the land border. Together, those behaviors would raise the risks and stakes of China-India land border conflict. It would also suck New Delhi into a costly trap of focusing ever greater attention and resources on land border defenses rather than on its navy, even though India’s geography offers it unique strategic advantages in the Indian Ocean.
The United States should thus aim to enhance India’s independent capacity to defend against Chinese aggression, taking care to prioritize assistance that helps India deter future Chinese aggression mainly by denying Beijing easy or low-cost opportunities to extend military control over territories along their contested land border and by improving India’s resilience against Chinese cyberattacks and economic coercion. Simultaneously, U.S. diplomats should reinforce regional restraint, including by India itself, and encourage and facilitate nonviolent management of disputes by all sides. Finally, the United States should build its own capacity for timely and effective policy responses to the complex, overlapping crises that are again likely to arise between China and India to better prevent or mitigate dangerous escalation.
A U.S. strategy aimed at achieving the right combination of U.S. priorities—not only improving the U.S.-India partnership but also preventing or mitigating the escalation of crises between China and India—should have five components.
First, the United States should prioritize assistance that improves India’s ability to anticipate and parry Chinese military moves, without encouraging major new Indian investments in offensive capabilities. Above all, India would benefit from a greater capacity to gather and assess intelligence on Chinese forces along an extremely long and often treacherous border. The United States has already taken steps in this direction, for instance by providing India with two MQ-9B drones in the winter of 2020. More should be done, however, starting with the sale of an additional thirty drones that is reportedly in the works but is not yet finalized. Other new or modified U.S. unmanned surveillance and sensor technologies should also be considered as cost-effective means to provide Indian forces early warning of Chinese territorial encroachments. For instance, U.S. and Indian army engineers should consult on the potential for codeveloping new ground sensors designed specifically for use in the difficult terrain along the China-India border. In addition, although the United States and India have already negotiated foundational agreements required to improve intelligence sharing, an expanded Indian deployment of U.S.-compatible, secure communications terminals could improve the timely provision of classified and sensitive information collected from U.S. platforms. Washington should fast-track and facilitate that expansion.
Second, in meetings of the U.S.-India Cyber Dialogue or a new working-level mechanism, the United States should identify opportunities to help India improve its resilience to Chinese cyberattacks. China’s October 2020 attack on Mumbai’s electrical grid was a warning shot, suggesting that Chinese hackers have already compromised the networks of critical Indian infrastructure and indicating the likely difficulties, if not impossibility, of hardening India against such threats. But improving India’s resilience to inevitable disruptions is possible, and the United States should share its own technical expertise, especially from within the Department of Homeland Security, with counterparts in India such as the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre.
Third, to enhance India’s ability to deter and withstand possible Chinese economic coercion, the United States should work with India and other like-minded states, especially Quad partners Australia and Japan, to identify and develop a coordinated multiparty response strategy. Both Tokyo and Canberra have suffered from Chinese policies that targeted specific industries, such as the restriction of Japan’s access to rare earth supplies and wine tariffs on Australian exports, so they are familiar and sensitive to the risks New Delhi faces with Beijing. Together, they should identify specific Chinese vulnerabilities to restrictions on technologies, trade, access to markets, and sanctions. They should plan to act in concert in ways that would reinforce the costs to China of its own economic coercion against any single state, but their actions should be time-delayed, giving Beijing warning in order to avoid unintentionally escalating a dispute through tit-for-tat coercion. Where possible, the Quad countries should develop additional plans to improve India’s resilience in the face of Chinese economic coercion, for instance by identifying short-term arrangements for alternative sourcing of critical industrial inputs.
Fourth, the United States should seek diplomatic opportunities to promote restraint and remove obstacles to the peaceful resolution of disputes between China, India, and Pakistan. Frosty U.S.-China relations mean that once-plausible diplomatic initiatives such as a U.S.-China-India trilateral dialogue are out of the question for the foreseeable future. Still, Washington should forthrightly express to Beijing its concerns about the dangers associated with China-India crisis escalation and explain that its support to New Delhi will be defensive in nature. Through official diplomacy and track two conversations between Chinese and U.S. experts on South Asia, the United States should also seek a better understanding of specific Chinese aims and insecurities in South Asia as a means to better anticipate likely Chinese responses to Indian policies and developments in India-Pakistan relations.
Regarding Islamabad, a half-decade of diminished U.S. presence in—and support to—Pakistan has reduced U.S. influence. Even so, Pakistan’s persistent economic vulnerabilities and desire to maintain ties with the West offer some indirect U.S. leverage and incentives for Pakistan to stick with and build on its recent cease-fire with India by keeping a tight leash on Pakistan-based terrorist groups. The Biden administration should continue to use that indirect leverage, such as the threat of blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (a multilateral watchdog of illicit financing), which would expose Pakistan to punishing financial sanctions. At the same time, Washington should take up Islamabad’s offer to discuss new initiatives for enhanced bilateral trade and investment as a means to demonstrate the benefits of partnership.
In bilateral exchanges with India, U.S. diplomats should begin by stressing their desire for closer strategic partnership but also clarify the ways in which China-India armed confrontation would jeopardize Washington’s goals for its relations with New Delhi. Public statements reiterating the United States’ desire to assist India in independently defending itself against Chinese threats should be complemented by discreet, closed-door discussions in which U.S. officials express their concerns about how India’s policies—especially its surprising and controversial August 2019 decision to revoke Kashmir’s special constitutional status—likely contributed to regional tensions. In addition, the Biden administration should highlight its interest in avoiding other surprises from New Delhi that could spark trouble with Beijing or Islamabad.
Finally, the United States should prepare its own policymakers for the possibility of a new China-India crisis as early as this spring or summer. The Biden administration should acclimate senior officials to the new normal in China-India tensions through intelligence briefings and, ideally, a simulation exercise to stress the web of potential escalation paths that link China-India border conflict to India-Pakistan tensions, maritime disputes, economic and diplomatic reprisals, and even cyberwar.
In addition to their outreach to Indian counterparts, Biden administration officials should consult closely with Donald Trump–era officials to learn from their experience during the 2020 China-India and 2019 India-Pakistan crises. Those consultations and exercises should help inform a playbook for future China-India crises that would include military and intelligence moves as well as U.S. options for coordinating diplomatic messaging with India in ways that bolster its ability to withstand Chinese pressure, encourage restraint, and open the door to a face-saving de-escalation.