China and India agreed in mid-February to the synchronized disengagement of their forces along the vast Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating their two countries. This decision was made after nine rounds of bilateral negotiations, but India’s willingness to finally de-escalate matters was indirectly influenced by newly inaugurated the United States’ (U.S.) President Joe Biden. His administration’s recent announcement that it assembled a Pentagon task force to review every facet of the U.S. policy towards China, coupled with its repeated threat to sanction India for going through purchasing Russia’s S-400 air defense systems, influenced New Delhi to work with Beijing.
Indian decision makers are evidently concerned that the Biden Administration won’t continue the relevant policies pioneered by its predecessor. The former U.S. President Trump’s recently declassified 2017 “U.S. Strategic Framework For The Indo-Pacific” identified India as one of America’s leading partners for containing China, which explains that administration’s full support for New Delhi during the past four years. As the U.S.-Chinese relations deteriorated, the U.S.-Indian ones rapidly improved. There now seem to be worries in New Delhi that the improvement of the U.S.-Chinese relations under Biden might lead to a deterioration of US-Indian ones.
The Biden Administration might only make cosmetic changes to the U.S. strategy against China such as focusing more on democracy and human rights rhetoric to justify its moves instead of being as candid as former President Trump was about his country’s realpolitik interests in this respect. Even so, Indian decision makers don’t want to take any chances by waiting around to see what happens. The worst-case scenario for them is that the U.S.-Chinese relations improve without India also improving its own ties with China, in which case their country would be forced to react to events and thus be in a strategically disadvantageous position.
Any sanctions against the South Asian state would have immediate consequences for the US-backed Quad since India would be much less eager to cooperate with its leader after being sanctioned for its planned S-400 acquisition.
The U.S.’ recent reiteration of its willingness to sanction India under the 2017 “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA) spooked India enough that it realised that it must urgently patch up its problems with China in order to avoid its feared worst-case scenario. Any sanctions against the South Asian state would have immediate consequences for the US-backed Quad since India would be much less eager to cooperate with its leader after being sanctioned for its planned S-400 acquisition. The likelihood of this happening might have even gone a long way towards restoring trust between China and India lately.
After all, China must have been aware of the Indian government’s decision not to back down in the face of these sanction threats. That would have signaled to Beijing that New Delhi is risking a serious rift with Washington in order to maintain balanced relations with their mutual strategic partner in Moscow. The expected consequences for the Quad would in turn open up new opportunities for Chinese-Indian relations, which could have helped both sides look beyond short-term disagreements related to the LAC and towards the bigger picture instead. This includes reinvigorating BRICS and especially the Russia-India-China (RIC) format.
The U.S. also has yet to tangibly improve its relations with China and might very well not end up doing so to the extent that’s needed to return as close to the pre-trade war strategic status quo as is realistically possible. The Biden Administration might in the best-case scenario try to focus more on the political and economic containment of China instead of the military-driven one that former President Trump pioneered, but tensions would still remain even if India doesn’t play as prominent of a role in this strategy as before. It therefore makes sense from both the Chinese and Indian stances to undertake a synchronized disengagement from the LAC.
China had been wanting to resolve the issue as soon as possible from the very beginning, while India only just realized that there’s no better time for it to do so than now. It cannot as confidently rely on full U.S.’ support as before since the Biden Administration is presently reviewing its entire strategy towards China. There’s little doubt in Indian decision makers’ minds that the American policy towards India is changing and not in the direction that they wanted. This placed New Delhi in the position where it felt compelled to proactively advance its regional interests by finally cutting a deal with Beijing.
Having explained all of that, India has proven itself to be unpredictable in recent years, so there’s no guarantee that it’ll indefinitely respect its latest agreement with China. The U.S. could court India back to its side in what many have described as the New Cold War if it simply agrees not to sanction New Delhi for its planned S-400 air defense purchase. That could in theory freeze the progress that’s already been made along the LAC and give the U.S. the opportunity to continue dividing and ruling China and India. New Delhi would have preferred not to deal with Beijing but it felt it had no choice, so giving it one once again might change its policy.
As it stands, however, the U.S. doesn’t seem interested in backing down from its sanctions threats just like India isn’t interested in backing down from purchasing the S-400s. The resulting tension between the two against the backdrop of the US’ comprehensive review of its China strategy influenced India to take the initiative in de-escalating the situation along the LAC with China. Should their synchronized disengagement deal be successful and lead to an observable rapprochement between them, then the geostrategic calculus in this part of Asia might soon change, thus creating opportunities but also obstacles for other regional stakeholders.