Leveraging Indian Power The Right Way

Image source.

Now that the affair in Doklam has come to a close, analysts of various stripes are trying to make sense of what happened and what lessons can be learned from the episode. One of the smartest of these write ups was written by Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore for War on the Rocks. They’ve titled their piece “Countering Chinese Coercion: The Case of Doklam,” and as their title suggests, Dr. Mastro and Mr. Tarapore believe the strategy employed by the Indians in Dolkam can be generalized and should be deployed to defend against Chinese coercion in other domains. They make this case well. I agree with their central arguments, and urge you to read the entire thing without regret.

However, there is one paragraph in their analysis that I take issue with. It is really quite peripheral to their main point, but as it is a concise statement of beliefs widely held, it is a good starting point for this discussion:

Over the longer term, India should be wary of learning the wrong lessons from the crisis. As one of us has recently written, India has long been preoccupied with the threat of Chinese (and Pakistani) aggression on their common land border. The Doklam standoff may be remembered as even more reason for India to pour more resources into defending its land borders, at the expense of building capabilities and influence in the wider Indian Ocean region. That would only play into China’s hands. Renewed Indian concerns about its land borders will only retard its emergence as an assertive and influential regional power. [1]

From the perspective of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and the other redoubts of freedom that string the edges of the Pacific rim, the rise of the Indian republic is a positive good. We should do all we can to aid this rise. Here both the demands of moral duty and the exacting claims of realpolitik align.

I’ve phrased these ideas with more strength and moral clarity than the dry and jargon laden language of professional policy normally allows, but the sentiment expressed hits close to how most D.C. politicos think about the matter. The rightness of a rising India is a bipartisan consensus. Far less thought is given to what shape that rise should take. This is not something we should be neutral on. The contours of India’s rise matter a lot—not only for them, but for us, and ultimately, for all who will inherit the world we will together build. It might seem a bit grandiose to claim that the future of Asian liberty depends on the procurement policies of India’s Ministry of Defence… but this is exactly what I am going to try and convince you of.   


 The Republic of India counts one billion, three hundred million, and two hundred thousands souls within it—a mere five hundred thousand short of those who live within China’s borders. The defense of these hundred millions rests on the shoulders of the Indian Armed Forces, organized as a navy, air force, army and various “paramilitary forces” that operate along the republic’s borders. To India’s north lies the Chinese colossus: wealthier, larger, more advanced, and more aggressive than their sub-continental neighbor. To the northwest of India lies the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a country whose national identity is in great part defined by its hatred of Indian prosperity. Both nations have at one time or another funded and equipped insurgents, terrorists, or separatists working inside India’s borders. They find an easy home there. As a civilization, India stretches backwards through the ages. As a nation, India is a painfully recent creation. Sixteen different Indian languages claim more than 10 million native speakers, and there are a hundred other languages spoken by smaller multitudes. The label  “Hindu” hides the wildly different beliefs of the billion people who accept it, but the country also boasts a Muslim minority 100 million strong, as well as Christians, Sikhs, and Jains in the millions. Against these centrifugal forces the Indian republic is locked in eternal battle, though only occasionally does this battle break out into the exchange of actual bombs and bullets. India is flanked on one side by the approach to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea; on the other is the path towards the straits of Sunda and Malacca. The naval power that controls these points holds the reins of global shipping in its hands. Around this sea lies a ring of countries that might look to India for leadership, if only the republic had the money and the will to provide it.

Competing demands are being made on India’s strategic and foreign policy. She has a choice to orient her grand strategic posture towards confrontation in the north, against Pakistani perfidy in the west, on the high seas of the Indian ocean, or towards the east, where competition between the great powers glows brightest. There are ferocious debates within India over which of these demands should take priority. Western analysts are no closer to a consensus on this question-—though over here, it is because few of us have been asked to give the matter much serious thought. We run on instinct, and the instincts of each analyst run along professional lines. (For navalists India is a great dagger projecting into the wild sea, a blade pointed straight at China’s oil guzzling supply lines; for diplomats India is a grand power punching below its weight, absent from the U.N. security council, barred from the nuclear suppliers group, and too insular to claim the mantle of moral leadership that marked India in the old Nehru days; and so forth). The one bias western analysts share is a tendency to see India’s focus on internal stability, territorial disputes, and muscular competition with Pakistani and Chinese rivals on their borders as somewhat narrow and limited. Being crowned a great power means wielding global influence. Bickering over borders in Himalayan wastes is too provincial for that.

 Mr. Tarapore, who has written several thoughtful, well-argued articles on the topic, is one of the few westerners who has taken these instincts and fleshed them out into well-formed ideas. But for most American Asia-hands these views are more felt than thought out. [2]  We yearn for an India who looks more like us—an India whose strategic focus is outward and eastward, not inward and upward. This fits our idea of what global power is all about. When will we learn that most of our allies were not made in the American pattern? Success in international politics is not about climbing a preordained cursus honorum of global prestige. It is created through carefully exploiting asymmetries of power on the international stage.

Were India a continent of endless gold and Asia a playground of her making, this would not matter. In an ideal world we would see India with a navy no Chinese admiral could challenge, a treasury no Chinese investor could match, an army no Chinese general could defeat, and a global influence no Chinese statesmen could meet. But this is not the world we live in. Indian gold is not endless. Her leaders labor under harsh demands of time, attention, and the ever present threat of disunion.  If Indian statesmen facing these realities discover that tightening purse strings do not allow India to meet all her aims, then some dreams must be postponed. Priorities must be set. These priorities should be inwards and upwards. It is to the border, the army, and the intelligence services political attention and funds must first go.

This argument is not original to me. Versions of it are bandied about in the Indian press all the time, of course, but the piece that convinced me of its truth was penned by Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment fellow Evan Montgomery back in 2013. You can find it the spring issue of that year’s Journal of Strategic Studies. Living behind a pay-wall in the depths of an obscure publication most folks have never heard of, its argument has been largely ignored in the broader policy space. This is unfortunate. Though his argument is unabashedly America-centric, and he frames India’s strategic choices in terms of how it may or may not benefit the interests of the United States, Indian readers will find it worth a read. One of Montgomery’s central points is that building a ‘containment’  style alliance to balance a rising China is too simple a solution:

Although debates over US policy toward China often weigh the relative merits of containment and engagement, an important alternative is the competitive strategies perspective. This approach aims to identify areas of relative advantage or disadvantage between opponents involved in a long-term, peacetime rivalry. By identifying these ‘asymmetries,’ a nation can adopt measures that build on its strengths, mitigate its vulnerabilities, and exploit an adversary’s weaknesses.… Adopting[this] approach, this article makes three related arguments. 

First, the competition between the United States and China is fundamentally a competition between a maritime power and a continental power. If the history of past maritime-continental rivalries is a useful guide, then the PRC could pose a growing challenge to American economic and security interests as it confronts fewer threats on land and can increasingly turn its attention to the sea, while the United States might eventually require continental allies to counterbalance China’s rise.

Second, the intensification of the Sino-Indian rivalry on land and the advent of a Sino-Indian rivalry in the maritime domain could have very different implications for the strategic competition between the United States and China. Specifically, increased tensions between Beijing and New Delhi over their disputed borders could compel the PRC to invest in capabilities useful for territorial defense, which pose relatively little danger to the United States. By contrast, a growing competition between Beijing and New Delhi at sea could lead China to prioritize capabilities useful for extra-regional power-projection, which would represent a far greater challenge to the United States, its allies, and its interests abroad.

Third, the preceding arguments have important policy implications.
Although many observers maintain that India is a potential maritime ally that can help the United States to defend the global commons and perhaps resist the extension of Chinese military power and influence beyond East Asia, a competitive strategies perspective suggests that the US should actually consider India as a potential continental ally.

Specifically, efforts by New Delhi to defend its northern borders more effectively could exploit Beijing’s traditional fears of internal unrest and land-based threats; divert its attention away from other contingencies, such as coercing Taiwan or countering US forces in the Western Pacific; impose costs on China by compelling it to spend additional resources on ground forces, paramilitary units, air defenses, and military or dual use infrastructure on its own territory; and channel its investments away from more worrisome aerospace and maritime capabilities or an overseas basing infrastructure. In short, although India might indeed emerge as a counterweight to China over time, Washington may need to reconsider what type of counterweight it would like to see New Delhi become, and restructure its security cooperation to help bolster India’s capabilities on land rather than at sea. (emphasis added). [3]

Through Pacific eyes, the evolution of the PLA’s force structure is unfortunate. Party documents make clear that the key to modernizing the PLA is restructuring it towards a fight by air and sea. [4] China’s assessment of its own threat profile can be quite easily seen in the geographic spread of its forces:

Image Source: Department of Defense, Military and Security 
Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 (Washington DC, 2017) p.30
Image Source: Department of Defense, Military and Security 
Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 (Washington DC, 2017) p.24

The gaze of the People’s Liberation Army reaches east. What would happen if instead it looked to its southwest? Montgomery describes changes this might require:

In response to India’s growing military presence along its disputed borders with China, PRC ground forces might need to be bolstered in frontier areas. This could, in turn, require an increase in overall troop numbers, a redistribution of existing forces (and a concomitant willingness to accept more risk elsewhere), and/or greater investments in mobility platforms and transportation infrastructure to support the rapid redeployment of forces based in other parts of China. Paramilitary units might need to be increased as well, particularly if a larger or more capable Indian military presence in the north heightened longstanding fears in Beijing of external support for domestic opposition groups

In addition, Chinese airbases might need to be hardened to deter or weather attacks, troop staging areas might need to be expanded to accommodate additional forces, and transportation infrastructure might need to be duplicated to create redundancies. An Indian military buildup could also lead Beijing to devote a greater share of resources to other capabilities that, from an American perspective, represent only a modest danger. In particular, although China currently has robust ground-based air defenses guarding multiple locations along its eastern coast, it might be induced to deploy a similar integrated air defense network – including fighter aircraft, mobile radars, surface-to air missiles, point defenses, and communications systems – along its borders with India. [5] 

Just as important as the physical response to growing Indian land power would be the bureaucratic retrenchment it might prompt:

By concentrating China’s attention on its own southern border, an Indian buildup could also slow or arrest a trend with significant and worrisome implications for the Sino-American competition, namely the PLAGF’s diminishing influence relative to other branches of the Chinese armed forces. Not surprisingly, institutional support for China’s growing emphasis on aerospace and maritime capabilities is hardly universal within the PLA. As the largest branch of China’s armed forces, the PLAGF is now confronting institutional challenges to its privileged status. Presuming that the PLAGF (along with other elements of China’s security complex that might be threatened by the current direction of military modernization) has a vested interest in preserving its autonomy, its influence, and its resources, it will need to marshal compelling arguments to avoid becoming the ‘bill payer’ for the modernization efforts of competing military organizations. Should India continue to bolster its presence near the border with China, the PLAGF and Chinese paramilitary organizations would have a stronger case to oppose significant reductions in their own funding, perhaps ensuring that some of those resources are not redirected toward the acquisition of military capabilities that would be far more threatening from the perspective of the United States. [6] 

Montgomery wrote this in 2013, before the latest round of PLA reforms, and before the bureaucratic turn away from the Army and towards the other three branches of the PLA was so clearly in motion. A news report from last year’s China Daily gives us a glimpse of how fast this is happening:

Compared with last year, 24 percent fewer students will be admitted to studies related to the army, including the infantry and artillery, while logistic and support departments will see their recruits fall by 45 percent, said a news release from the Central Military Commission’s Training Management Department.

In comparison, students studying in aviation, missile and maritime fields will increase by 14 percent. The number of recruits in sectors where there is an urgent need, such as space intelligence, radar and drones, will rise by 16 percent, the release said.

The changes were announced in line with ongoing military reforms and were made after rounds of negotiations with the army, navy, air force, rocket force, regional military commands and military academies, PLA Daily reported, citing an unidentified officer from the department’s Training Establishment Bureau” [7]

If it is possible to frustrate this reorganization from the outside, then the allied nations should do so. Successfully derailing the PLA’s modernization will have unexpected benefits. Analysts have noted that the current wave of reforms are not just about reorienting the PLA towards the air and sea, but also towards cleaning up command and control systems across the PLA, and imposing stronger Party control over the armed forces. [8] The Party realizes that streamlining the ground forces, whose logistics division has been mired in corruption, and whose officer corp is famously over-bloated, will go a long way towards creating a more capable, less corrupt, and more loyal military machine. Any credible military threat that might give army leaders an excuse to obstruct these reforms may make the PLA a less effective fighting force as a whole.

Nothing has stronger potential to do this than a resurgent Indian army on its southern borders.


The Communist Party of China helms a country whose power and wealth grows year by year. The Party is mortally hostile to the existing international system. It realizes that accepting the terms of this order mean, sooner or later, its own destruction. To preserve its tyranny the Party uses all legal, economic, military, and technological tools at its disposal in an incessant quest to sabotage, subvert, or commandeer the system that threatens it.  No democracy with substantial numbers of Chinese immigrants is free from attempts at control and subversion: the Chinese do not fear extending their domestic systems of surveillance, censorship, and coercion to the heart of foreign powers. No country in greater Asia will be secure from intimidation and assault: In the Party’s view, there are big countries that deserve respect and small ones that do not. As Chinese power grows more and more countries will move from the big country column into the small one.

The Party’s most reliable friend in its quest for regional domination has been the Pakistani Inter-services Intelligence and the Pakistan Armed Forces. The men of Rawalpindi are no friends of the existing order. They do not fear the bloodshed caused by its disruption. Indeed, these officers have more American blood on their hands than the leaders of any other foreign nation. In this the Americans and the Indians are not so different: India also has had death and destruction delivered to it straight from Rawalpindi. Unfortunately, America has been slow to realize the costs of appeasing the Pakistani military.  One hopes that this is changing. But Pakistani-caused carnage notwithstanding,  both India and the United States realize that the true long-term challenge to their interests, safety, and freedoms is not the Pakistanis, but the Chinese Communist Party. The two threats are not distinct: a strong, democratic, and secular Indian republic is an anathema to both Beijing and Rawalpindi. Geography and ideology drive these powers against the rising Indian republic and entwine them together. The more dangerous their threat becomes, the more useful coordination with the allied democracies of the Pacific rim becomes.
Evan Montgomery hopes that the force of these facts is all that will be needed to convince the Indians to play along with his prescriptions:

There are, of course, reasons to question whether India would be receptive to this orientation in its defense posture. In fact, it is doubtful that New Delhi would appreciate being considered a frontline state in a Sino-American competition. Yet geography, territorial disputes, and the imperative to balance against a rising power have already placed India in this position. The question, then, is whether it should emphasize balancing China on land or at sea. [9]

Montgomery simplifies somewhat here. In addition to competition by land and sea, there will be a contest of purse strings between the two powers, each trying to invest its way into the good graces of its neighbors. India has to choose carefully how to balance the needs of each race in which it runs. The great weakness of Montgomery’s piece is that he says nothing at all about how the Indians might be convinced to put their border defenses at the center of their defense posture.

The easiest answers involve action steps we can take to directly build Indian capabilities. For Americans this means that deepening army-to-army exchanges and exercises (the goal should be to build up the Yudh Abhyas exercises up to the size of Cobra Gold), targeted arms sales (the Indian army’s purchase of 120 American lightweight howitzers last year is the template to be followed), and intelligence sharing should be priorities for the Pentagon and the relevant congressional committees. The Japanese and other alliance members can and should take similar measures.

The next easiest thing we can do is empower those in India who are already on the right side of the debate. For example, I suspect most Americans strategy hands have never heard of a China-themed book that made waves in the Indian press this year, Dragon on Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power., or its authors, Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab (both editors at Force Magazine). In their book Sawhney and Wahab make a sustained, evidence-based case for a foreign policy that puts border management at the center of its strategic outlook. Books like this should be signal-boosted in the American press, its authors should be invited to events held by CSIS, Carnegie, etc., to sell their policies and network with Western strategists. We want these sort of people to be the most important defense intellectuals in India, and should do what we can to help make that possible.

We also should not forget that the Indians read our newspapers and magazines (even if we don’t have the foresight to read theirs). Again and again this message should be shared:

  • China has a head start in all domains, but the easiest place for India to catch up with China is on the borders.

  • If India focuses on the land game, while America and Japan focus on the competition at sea, China will be left in the difficult position of having to do both at once. This is the easiest way to create and sustain useful asymmetries of power.

  • Western support can make up for Indian vulnerabilities. India has more to gain from cooperation than from strategic autonomy.

Of these points, the last will be the hardest to sell. Which brings us to the last major action item: take steps to build Indian trust in our intentions. Strategic autonomy is an idea dear to the Indian mind. It was only a few years ago that the leading lights in India’s foreign policy intelligentsia labeled their vision for India’s future grand strategy “Non-Alignment 2.0.” Westerners who assume that China’s rise alone will be enough to drive India into our arms are fools. If India and the West are to cooperate, then we must sell the benefits of doing so. We must show the Indians that we are not opportunistic. True cooperation between our countries is not possible if we are bank-rolling liberalism’s foes in Rawalpindi. True cooperation between our countries is not possible if we are afraid to call the Chinese out on their border provocations. On the other hand, we should actively seek opportunities to strengthen India’s influence in every forum that we are party to.

One area that we must approach with particular care is cooperation between the U.S. Navy, the Japanese Self Defense Force, and the Indian Navy. The Indians will not be able to spend their treasure at the border if they cannot trust their ocean approaches. We do not have a formal self-defense treaty with the Indians, and likely will not for some time, so we must search for other ways to assure them that a focus on the land will not rob them of their seas. The Malabar exercises, in which all three navies participate, are an excellent vehicle for building this sort of trust. But in the end the only guarantee the Indian’s will trust are active demonstrations of resolve in the face of Chinese coercion. If we cannot stare down the bully in the territorial seas of official allies, what hope do we have of deterring them from aggression further abroad?

We live in an age where policy-makers (and opinion-makers, if they want to be listened to) must put “America first.” In the days to come, putting America first will often mean looking at an issue through Indian eyes.


[1] Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore, “Countering Chinese Coercion: The Case of Doklam,War on the Rocks (31 August, 2017).

[2] There is an interesting double standard here: you will notice no one criticizes the Chinese as insular or visionless when they put territorial wrangling at the forefront of their grand strategy.

[3] Evan Braden Montgomery, “Competitive Strategies against Continental Powers: The Geopolitics of Sino-Indian-American Relations,” Journal of Strategic Studies, vol 36, issue 1 (2013), 78-79

[4] For example, see David M. Finkelstein, “Initial Thoughts on the Reorganization and Reform of the PLA,”  CNA Occasional Paper (15 January, 2016), 4-7.

[5] Montgomery, 88-89.

[6] ibid, 90-91.

[7] “PLA Restructuring Changes Focus at Military Schools,” China Daily (28 April, 2016).

[8] For example, see David M. Finkelstein, “Initial Thoughts on the Reorganization and Reform of the PLA,”  CNA Occasional Paper (15 January, 2016), 4-7.

[9] Montgomery, 94-95

Leave a Reply to T. Greer Cancel reply


India is a key to dealing with China from an American perspective. I too wrote on this and consider Indian-American relations one of 4 key geopolitical imperatives of what I call the "Iron Quadrilateral." http://www.eurasiareview.com/13052016-the-iron-quadrilateral-a-new-american-foreign-policy-for-21st-century-analysis/

Imperative 1: Reverse Nixon to China

Imperative 2: Embrace Richelieu in the Middle East

Imperative 3: Strengthen Japan

Imperative 4: Embrace India

I can't think of a much bigger money sink than trying to station a bunch of troops near the Chinese – Indian border along with building the infrastructure to keep them there. And the infrastructure to support troops in a remote area can be used against you should the situation change for you (say a major war somewhere else) and the other side decides to advance against your interests. The Soviet's odd railroad gauge and lack of surface roads went a long way toward limiting the German in the 1940s.

If there are two countries that could be immensely helped by a toning down of the hostility its these two. The Naxalites are somewhat in the area of one of the confrontation zones, and I'm assuming that the Chinese are still a little nervous about Tibet.

From my point of view an alliance with India is only short term. When India becomes too strong they will also be viewed as rivals of the USA. At least if this is still the overall strategy.


"…In a broad new policy statement that is in its final drafting stage, the Defense Department asserts that America's political and military mission in the post-cold-war era will be to insure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western Europe, Asia or the territory of the former Soviet Union. "

I'm disappointed Mr Greer, you were a good analyst of China but now it seems you are going full blown Gordon Chang and David Shambaugh.

In what way did India won in this dispute? India sees China building road on its own land, India invades China on 2 excuses which are both ridiculous on its own merit.

1. Helping Bhutan (Base on which international law, does 1 country have the right to invade another county on behaves of a 3rd nation???)

2. Stop the road building. (Base on which international law, does it allow 1 nation to invade the 2nd nation, just because the 1st nation don't like what the 2nd nation is doing in its own home??)

And both excuses brought them exactly 0 support from every single nation on earth, not USA/Japan/Vietnam who are openly wants to contain China, even Bhutan whom India claims was helping and acting on behaves of them (I suggest you further research the relationship dynamic between Bhutan and India and see how India is holding Bhutan hostage), so after roughly 3 month of stand off, India left with 0 promise from China that China won't start to rebuild the road.

And then what? India claim victory that they stopped building the road??? Only an India would believe this, the basic concept of Not building right now == Won't build in the future is not hard to understand… and what happened to India's primary excuse of helping Bhutan??? It seems after Indian troop left, Bhutan's interest was never mentioned again.

So again? Who won and who lost is very clear for everyone to see with an unbiased eyes.

What is happening is that India just helped China opened up a whole new strategic option to mess with India, because according to India, if I don't like what you are doing in your own home, I can come in to stop you. Also according to India I can be friend with any nation on earth, and invade another nation on behave of my friend. India did all of this and receive no criticism from any USA(World leader, holder of the international order), just as US invaded Iraq base on a lie and receive 0 punishments.

You guys keep talking about China not respecting international order, but it seems to me the biggest harm done to the existing international order is actually the West and West's friends.

Oh and lastly its very cute that you think India can tie down China's military force by this incidence… What's pretty funny Mr Greer, you fail military 101.. that whoever holds the high ground holds the overwhelming advantage, and all over the Sino India border China is sitting way above any India positions.

You also fail to mention that China now produces 95% of all of its OWN military hardware which are now world class, while almost every India military hardware are acquired through cold hard cash… cash that is much needed to feed its poor and stabilized its society.

You also fail to mention that US spends about 4% of its GDP on military and China spends less than 2%… so no, i"m sorry to disappoint your wet dream that China will implodes base on the USSR model.

Oh and lastly… LOL on your claim that democracy will destroy China.

"Oh and lastly… LOL on your claim that democracy will destroy China"

I never did say that last one. Only that China must be seen as threat that it is to democracy writ large. Japan, US, and Vietnam are not in the China containment game yet. But they should be.


" I'm assuming that the Chinese are still a little nervous about Tibet."

Yep. Which is exactly why this works.

P.S. Naxalites are strongest in Chhattisgarh. Much further away from the action than the Tibetans.

"From my point of view an alliance with India is only short term. When India becomes too strong they will also be viewed as rivals of the USA. At least if this is still the overall strategy…"

Maybe. Who can predict the future? But Americans sure do like their democracies. I suspect that American tolerance for a super-power democracy, esp. a land focused one, will be much higher than their tolerance for an authoritarian super power.

"You also fail to mention that US spends about 4% of its GDP on military and China spends less than 2%… so no, i"m sorry to disappoint your wet dream that China will implodes base on the USSR model."

China will not implode on the USSR model. Which is exactly why China is a much scarier threat. China will not be spent into destitution.

The forces of liberty and right will have to be more creative in their response to China. Cold War 2.0 must be snazzier than the last version.