Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, left, embraces US President Donald Trump during a joint statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington in June. Photo: Bloomberg
Sumit Ganguly
Sumit Ganguly

After all that embracing, has US left India out in the cold over standoff with China?

India’s ‘natural ally’ has maintained a baffling silence on the Doklam dispute

For nearly two months, troops from the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been deployed at close quarters on the Doklam plateau near the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. Amid much feverish commentary on the risks of a wider conflict, there has been a deafening silence on one critical issue – the role of the United States. Apart from one very anodyne – not to mention obvious – response from the US Department of State that India and China should seek ways to resolve the conflict peacefully, India’s supposed “natural ally” has said precious little.

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For well over a decade, both Indian and American commentators and analysts have argued about the growing strategic convergence between India and the US. Though neither side has explicitly stated as much, it is tacitly understood that they share a common set of concerns about the rapid rise of China in Asia and its possible adverse consequences for regional order. This was first reflected in the US decision to consummate the US-India nuclear agreement during the second George W. Bush administration. Once in place, it led to the lifting of a raft of sanctions that the US and its allies had imposed on India.

A Chinese soldier, left, and Indian soldier repair a barbed wire fence at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China in India's northeastern Sikkim state. Photo: AFP

Subsequently, after an initial fitful outreach towards India on the part of the Obama administration, the US came to see India as a critical player in the US pivot or rebalancing strategy towards Asia. Obama’s secretary of defence Leon Panetta, while on a visit to India in 2012, even referred to the country as the linchpin of the strategy. Not a single Cabinet member of the last Indian government, several of whom harboured misgivings about too close a relationship the US, publicly took issue with this characterisation.

India’s got itself into a fine mess in Doklam, it’s time to get out and let China and Bhutan work it out

From 2014 until the end of the Obama administration in 2016, Indo-US relations continued its upward trajectory. Indeed the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to have even fewer inhibitions about pursuing strategic partnership with the US. Among other matters, it signed a version of an important logistics agreement that had been in abeyance for several years. At a more symbolic level, Modi broke with tradition and invited President Barack Obama as the chief guest to the Republic Day parade in New Delhi in January 2016.
Leon Panetta, US defence secretary under the Obama administration, said India was a linchpin to the nation’s Asia policy in 2012. Photo: AP
Given the evident bonhomie as well as the strategic convergence between the two countries, the apparent abnegation of involvement in the current border impasse on the part of the Trump administration at this pivotal moment in Sino-Indian relations appears downright baffling, even more so given that the administration has not relented on other issues involving China’s role in Asia. It has not, for example, eased off on the maritime discord with China in the South China Sea. On the contrary, its posture appears to have a distinct similarity to that the Obama administration had adopted. It has, despite otherwise cordial discussions with Xi Jinping , also continued to lean on Beijing to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

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What then explains the seeming unwillingness of the administration to adopt a more clear-cut stance on an issue that seriously concerns the national security interests of a country with which it has had a growing strategic relationship? Given the paucity of public statements from the higher levels of the Trump administration, an answer needs to be constructed mostly on the basis of inference and attribution.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un supervises the nation’s second test an ICBM. EPA

At the outset, the administration has yet to formulate a policy that would serve as a successor to the rebalancing effort of the Obama administration. Consequently, its responses to key security developments in Asia have been ad hoc and mostly in the form of crisis management. More importantly from the standpoint of New Delhi, it simply has not fashioned any viable policy towards India and South Asia. One indicator is the stunning absence of the appointment of an ambassador to New Delhi six months into this administration. In such an absence of policy guidance from the highest quarters, the best that mid-level foreign policy bureaucrats can proffer are bland statements about the desirability of a peaceful solution to an ongoing border standoff.

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The American avoidance of a decisive stance on the issue has important implications for both Beijing and New Delhi. It may lead Beijing to believe that taking an unyielding stance on the dispute may not invite American disapproval. In turn, this could embolden it to stick to its guns. Ironically, feeling left out in the cold by the US, could, in turn, lead New Delhi to adopt an equally rigid stance. As one awaits further word about the meetings of Indian and Chinese interlocutors in Beijing, the prospects of resolving this crisis seem unclear.

Sumit Ganguly holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations at Indiana University, Bloomington, and is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia