By Pieter-Jan Dockx*
A widely debated aspect of the Doklam standoff was the US’ apparent lack of support for India during the impasse. Considering the alleged strengthened ties between both countries and their 2015 Joint Strategic Vision for the region, analysts expected Washington to firmly back New Delhi. However, apart from a negligible remark calling for a peaceful resolution to the standoff, no statements in support of New Delhi were issued. Based on interview data, this article demonstrates that the various arguments that seek to explain this lack of support are inconclusive, and suffer from an implicit overestimation of the US-India strategic partnership. The standoff has shown that despite President Trump’s discourse of a strengthened strategic connection with India, the US administration still gives precedence to its interests with regard to China, and prioritises regional partners like Japan. India is much lower on the order of priorities than popularly understood.
The US’ failure to explicitly support India has been explained in a number of ways. One argument suggests that the lack of a statement can be explained through a combination of factors like the Trump administration’s preoccupation with domestic politics, and the absence of a US ambassador to India at the time. However, this seems rather unlikely given that the US is always quick to point out others’ misconduct, especially the Trump administration and the President’s Twitter diplomacy. It is hard to believe that the absence of an ambassador would stop the US president from taking a dig at China as he continuously did during the election campaign.
Another argument suggests that the US did not want to antagonise China because it needs the country to pressure North Korea to end its nuclear ambitions. However, this hypothesis also lacks cogency in some ways. The current North Korea episode started in January 2017, and in February, President Trump extended support to Japan’s claims over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, a move not received well in Beijing. Even in August during the Doklam standoff, the US administration stepped up its naval campaign in the South China Sea, again angering China. Thus, Washington’s Korea policy has not stopped them from provoking Beijing in the recent past.
Then there is also an explanation that suggests that India asked the US not to issue any statements, fearing that the country’s involvement would lead to an escalation of tension, which New Delhi wanted to avoid. The US’ point of view was that while Washington was eager to comment, India did not ask the US to issue a statement, and thus they refrained from doing so. While some experts agreed with this analysis, most expressed serious doubt about the justification. They stated that India should not have to ask the US to comment; the US was at liberty to support India, and they chose not to.
Further evidence seems to support this analysis. The Japanese Ambassador to India firmly backed New Delhi in the conflict. Considering Japan’s troublesome relationship with China, their expression of support could equally antagonise China and escalate the conflict. Going by the argument that India should have asked partners for support, the events still do not match up. Japan voiced support and the US did not – indicating then that India asked only Japan to offer its backing. This scenario seems highly unlikely. On the other hand is the argument that India asked the US not to comment. Again, this would lead to the assumption that India either forgot to inform Japan to also not comment, or Japan blatantly rejected said request. Given the strong ties between both countries, a Japanese rejection seems improbable.
As no existing argument offers a conclusive answer, a more plausible explanation of this lack of support is that despite President Trump’s emphasis on the importance of the US-India strategic relationship, the ties are not as robust as suggested. The relationship is not yet comparable to those with other partners like Japan, and US’ interest in China still trumps the New Delhi-Washington relationship. Hence, all the aforementioned arguments mistakenly tap into the US narrative of an enhanced strategic partnership between both countries. While sceptics of the US-India strategic partnership in India’s policy circles had been fading into the background, the Doklam crisis, reaffirmed by President Trump’s recent China visit, has brought these unconvinced voices back to the fore.
Finally, although it is impossible to accurately determine China’s motives behind the road construction, some analysts have suggested that China sought to test the allegedly improving US-India strategic relationship. If that was the case, Beijing achieved its objective and was able to sow doubt in Indian strategic circles. However, this goal could come at a high cost as China’s assertiveness may ironically have the unintended consequence of driving New Delhi closer to Washington.
* Pieter-Jan Dockx
Research Intern, IPCS