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The China challenge: a strategic vision for US-India relations

By Dean Cheng and Lisa Curtis - posted Monday, 25 July 2011

India is keeping a wary eye on China's rapid global ascent. Unresolved border issues that resulted in the Sino–Indian War of 1962 have been heating up again in recent years. Indian policymakers are scrambling to develop effective policies to cope with a rising China by simultaneously pursuing both a robust diplomatic strategy aimed at encouraging peaceful resolution of border disputes and forging strong trade and economic ties and an ambitious military modernization campaign that will build Indian air, naval, and missile capabilities.

By bolstering its naval assets, India will solidify its position in the Indian Ocean and enhance its ability to project power into the Asia Pacific. New Delhi also will continue to boost its medium-range missile programs to deter Beijing and to strengthen its air capabilities to deal with potential flare-ups along their disputed borders.

Meanwhile, China has also been paying increasing attention to India. China's interests on its southern flank have led the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to strengthen its forces in the Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions bordering India.


The U.S. must keep a watchful eye on the trend lines in Sino–Indian relations and factor these into its overall strategies in the broader Asia region. A strong India able to hold its own against China is in America's interest.

China's increased assertiveness in the East and South China Seas over the past year has been accompanied by a hardening position on its border disputes with India. Last summer, India took the unprecedented step of suspending military ties with China in response to Beijing's refusal to grant a visa to an Indian Army general serving in Jammu and Kashmir. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to New Delhi last December helped tamp down the disagreement, and military contacts have since resumed. Still, the incident shows the fragility of the Sino–Indian rapprochement and the potential for deepening tensions over the unresolved border issues to escalate.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to India this week for Strategic Dialogue talks provides an opportunity to take India's pulse on China and to discuss new diplomatic and security initiatives that will contribute to maintaining a stable balance of power in Asia. The U.S. should demonstrate support for Indian military modernization and enhanced U.S.–Indian defense ties. Despite U.S. disappointment over India's decision to de-select two American companies from its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition, the U.S. is bound to conclude other major defense deals with India as it pursues an ambitious defense modernization campaign, which includes spending plans of around $35 billion over the next five years.

Indeed, this year, the two sides finalized a deal worth nearly $4 billion for the U.S. to provide India with enough C-17 aircraft to give India the second-largest C-17 fleet in the world. Enhancing Indo–U.S. cooperation in maritime security in the Indian Ocean region is also an area of mutual interest that is ripe for new initiatives.

India's rejection of the MMRCA has added a dose of realism to Indo–U.S. relations and reminded U.S. officials that the burgeoning partnership will not always reach the full expectations of either side. Still, the growing strategic challenge presented by a rising China will inevitably drive the U.S. and India to increase cooperation in defense and other key sectors, such as space, maritime security, and nuclear nonproliferation.

What Drives Sino–Indian Competition?


The drivers of the current Indian–Chinese rivalry are varied and complex. While China's economy is several times larger than India's and its conventional military capabilities today outstrip India's by almost any comparison, Beijing has begun to take notice of India's growing global political and economic clout, as well as the broad-based American support for expanding strategic ties with India.

For its part, India, long suspicious of China's close relations and military support for Pakistan, views an increased Chinese presence in northern Pakistan and expanded civil nuclear cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad as particularly worrisome. Indian military strategists believe they must plan for the possibility of a two-front war with Pakistan and China even as they actively seek dialogues with both to diminish the chances of such a dire scenario.

At the same time, Chinese assessments of Indian military planning suggest a view in Beijing that New Delhi sees China as a major threat. One Chinese assessment concludes that the Indian military sees Pakistan as the main operational opponent and China as a operational opponent. It also describes the Indians as seeing China and Pakistan as closely aligned in threatening India.

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About the Authors

Dean Cheng is Research Fellow in Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Dean Cheng
All articles by Lisa Curtis

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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