When nuclear-armed neighbors start fighting, the whole world gets nervous. Security analysts’ biggest worry has long been the unstable rivalry between India and Pakistan, but the most dangerous powder keg in the world today may be the Line of Actual Control dividing India and China. For decades, a tacit no-shooting rule has maintained a precarious peace, even as dozens of troops have been killed in vicious hand-to-hand fighting using clubs and stones. Now, guns have finally been fired (if only in the air), and although India and China each blame the other for firing first, both sides are moving troops into the region, not out.
In the lopsided struggle in Ladakh in the western Himalayas, India must confront a nascent superpower while simultaneously keeping an eye on its traditional adversary, Pakistan. China spends more than three times as much as India on defense and has a massive technological advantage to boot. It also has relations with Pakistan that are as close as “lips and teeth,” as their leaders like to say. On the other side of the balance sheet, India has greater experience with high-altitude conflict, shorter supply lines, and increasingly friendly ties with three fellow democracies: the United States, Japan, and Australia.
The growing role of India in U.S. strategic thinking is reflected in the 2018 rebranding of the venerable U.S. Pacific Command into Indo-Pacific Command, which is increasingly focused on containing Beijing’s newfound expansionism in the era of Chinese President Xi Jinping. India is looking to the United States to play a key role in modernizing India’s armed forces, recently purchasing Apache and Seahawk helicopters for its Army and Navy, respectively. India has conducted joint exercises with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, and persistent rumors suggest that Australia may join India, the United States, and Japan in the annual naval exercises off India’s Malabar coast—if they aren’t canceled due to COVID-19.