For decades and across administrations, the United States dropped the ball on Asia-Pacific diplomacy. President Barack Obama reflected this fact when he sought to recalibrate with a “Pivot to Asia,” an initiative that implied previous neglect. That President Joe Biden has reinitiated the pivot reflects Obama’s lack of success. What has repeatedly saved the United States in the face of strategic neglect in Asia and the Pacific has been China’s overbearing behavior in the region, be it Beijing’s encroachment across the Indian, Bhutanese, and Nepalese borders, the seizure of reefs and atolls belonging to the Philippines and other littoral states in the South China Sea, or its bullying of Sri Lanka in Southeast Asia.
Today, President Xi Jinping’s aggressiveness has not only largely ended the debate in Washington about whether China can be a partner, but it has also helped to reinforce existing partnerships and cement new ones. This was certainly the case with the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) military alliance and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly known as “the Quad,” a consultation partnership with the United States, India, Japan, and Australia.
The Downs and Ups of U.S.-India Ties
Within the United States, there is broad enthusiasm for the Quad dialogue. While Australia and Japan have been strong U.S. allies since the Cold War, the United States and India have had a more troubled relationship. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, spurred President Harry S. Truman’s request for an alliance, preferring instead to keep India non-aligned.
In 1950, Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) invaded Tibet. Whereas Chinese authorities, be they Republican or Communist, had not previously claimed Indian territory, Mao’s government reversed course. Using a tactic that would become commonplace decades later, the Chinese built a road across land not explicitly theirs in order to both use the road as part of their claim and speed troop movements. In 1962, the PRC invaded India to seize Aksai Chin, politically part of Indian Kashmir for a century. Mao had timed China’s attack exquisitely: the United States and the Soviet Union were in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so India could not leverage its traditionally warm ties with the Soviet Union. China also overwhelmed India logistically, attacking along two fronts more than 600 miles apart. When the fighting ended, China occupied a 15,000-square-mile area larger than Maryland.
The Kennedy administration recognized China as the aggressor and said as much, though rhetoric did not translate into action. Bilateral U.S.-India ties took a downturn following President Richard Nixon’s outreach to China. During National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s secret trip and then a follow-up visit in October 1971, he and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai bonded over a mutual dislike of Indira Gandhi, prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. It was poor form and gratuitous and, not surprisingly, soon leaked. Kissinger also remained silent that same year as Pakistan engaged in genocide against Bengali separatists against the backdrop of the Indo-Pakistan War in what today is Bangladesh. Any number of other incidents further strained ties: India viewed U.S. efforts to strengthen ties with Pakistan as an affront against it. Then, the 1984 Bhopal disaster pushed Americans and Indians into a protracted legal battle. Washington and New Delhi also sparred over nuclear issues.
After the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, the George W. Bush administration made a concerted effort to repair and advance bilateral ties. Unlike other initiatives, a desire to advance relations had broad bipartisan support and transcended Bush’s two terms. Obama worked to cultivate relations, an effort that persisted despite concerns in Congress, the State Department, and the Indian-American community regarding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s populism and religious intolerance among some factions of his party. President Donald Trump, himself a populist, embraced and genuinely liked Modi. Biden continues to advance relations, even as his efforts to appease Pakistan raise eyebrows.
India’s Sensitivities Matter
In recent weeks, I had the opportunity to speak to senior Indian defense officials and tour areas near the India-China “line of actual control” in Ladakh. While the international community focuses on potential Chinese aggression across the Taiwan Strait, China’s moves on India could be just as serious. Beijing contests Indian sovereignty in Arunachal Pradesh, and it continues to “salami slice” in the high valleys of Ladakh and the environs of Pangong Lake. While Chinese road-building and recent skirmishes made international headlines, China’s pushing of nomads across the line of actual control and its subsequent claims that their grazing reflects the fact that such valleys are actually Chinese flies under the radar. So too does China’s building of permanent structures to entice Indian nomads across the border so that it can argue that the international community should recognize their traditional residence in India as part of China.
Demography matters. As my colleague Nicholas Eberstadt points out, the People’s Liberation Army is an army of only sons. The Indian Army, in contrast, recruits from families that might have three or four sons. With China already past its peak population, time is on India’s side. Beijing realizes this and is prone to act before its quantitative advantages erode.
Certainly, such calculations play into New Delhi’s collective thinking about its diplomatic posture and the future of the Quad. While Americans and perhaps other members may see the dialogue as laying the groundwork for military cooperation down the road, Indian strategists are less sure. Part of this may be the legacy of Cold War distrust, but some reticence may be the disrespect some in New Delhi perceive from Quad members Australia and Japan.
Consider the maps of India that each Quad country utilizes. U.S. maps, such as this from the CIA, highlight India’s claim over Aksai Chin; they do not imply Chinese sovereignty even as they show the border and the line of actual control separately. Maps published by the Australian government, however, signal that Aksai Chin is actually part of China. The same holds true with both Japan’s foreign ministry and Japan’s premier NGO, which is funded by its Foreign Ministry. Few diplomats in Washington, Canberra, or Tokyo may think about such maps. In the State Department, resident cartographers might fall on the ladder of prestige slightly below the deputy assistant coffee-getter. Smug dismissiveness of Indian concerns, however, will not advance the Quad but will instead enforce the perception that the United States, Australia, and Japan do not fully appreciate India’s security concerns or its previous victimization by China (and its vassals).
Simply put, if the Quad is going to move forward, both as a strategic dialogue and perhaps more, it is time that not only the United States but also Australia and Japan side unequivocally with India. This means, in practice, jointly recognizing that Aksai Chin is occupied Indian territory, as much a part of Ladakh as Kargil and Leh. Not only should the maps of all Quad members reflect this, but also their policies. The days in which a man like Kissinger can treat the world’s largest democracy as a junior partner should be over.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.