Cover: Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific

Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific


Published May 24, 2021

by Jonah Blank


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Research Questions

  1. What factors might mitigate expectations about India's willingness to take sides in U.S.-China competition?
  2. How do India's formulators and implementers of security policy view India's potential relationship with a rising China?
  3. How does India view its relationships with other key nations in the Indo-Pacific arena, and how might such relationships serve to advance or set back U.S. strategic interests, including competition with China?
  4. What factors in India's political arena might have an impact on India's willingness to take a more robust stance against Chinese attempts to exert regional dominance?

In long-term strategic competition with China, how effectively the United States works with allies and partners will be critical to determining U.S. success. This report examines the potential benefits of, and potential impediments to, partnering more closely with India. India is already a peer or near-peer competitor of China across a range of military capabilities, and India's self-defined core national security interests are in relatively close harmony with those of the United States. However, U.S. planners must be keenly aware of the constraints on both India's willingness and capacity to forge a partnership based on strategic competition with China. These include persistent aversion to any partnership that might be characterized as "alignment," even after a major 2020 border clash with China; significant distrust of U.S. commitment and intentions; a highly risk-averse structure for the making and implementing of security policy, particularly vis-à-vis China; economic linkages with China; underfunding of basic military needs; and a lack of military capability and interoperability sufficient for frictionless interaction with U.S. forces. India will likely remain a key U.S. partner, but such challenges should moderate expectations about the pace for increased engagement.

Key Findings

Several key factors will temper the pace and extent of partnership between the United States and India

  • The concept of "non-alignment" did not die with the Cold War. It is more commonly described now in such terms as "strategic autonomy," but, even after a major 2020 border clash with China, India remains fiercely opposed to any partnership in which it would be seen as the junior partner.
  • India regards China as its most significant long-term competitor, and Indian leaders are particularly concerned about the strategic partnership of China with India's near-term rival Pakistan. But this does not mean that New Delhi has much appetite for confrontation with Beijing — particularly outside the Indian Ocean Region.
  • Relations between India and the United States have been consistently warming over the past two decades, but a deep pool of distrust remains. The United States will have to work patiently to overcome this distrust.
  • Many items in the U.S. playbook of security engagement will run into institutional barriers in India. These include low levels of military funding, a security policymaking bureaucracy that is not designed for speedy decisions, and a tendency to make security policy on an ad hoc rather than a doctrinal basis.


  • Increase emphasis on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions; this represents perhaps the lowest-cost/highest-yield avenue for engagement.
  • Enhance U.S.-India cooperation in the areas of cyber and electronic warfare; this represents a threat for which India — despite its somewhat deceptive reputation as an information technology powerhouse — is not well prepared.
  • Encourage India's growing cooperation and engagement with U.S. allies, such as Australia and Japan, and emerging partners, such as Indonesia and Singapore.
  • Increase military education programs.
  • Encourage India to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific region, including participation in multilateral air and maritime activities and conducting operations in the South China Sea — while being aware that such participation may be modest.
  • Share satellite and other information with India about China's problematic behavior in disputed Himalayan areas, such as the Galwan Valley and the Doklam Plateau, and elsewhere as needed.
  • Accept India's deep-seated desire for "strategic autonomy." Any efforts to make India move more quickly than it wishes will be likely to backfire.
  • Consult with India before making decisions affecting its interests.
  • Increase engagement on maritime domain awareness.
  • Seek opportunities to work with India to prevent Chinese political interference and influence operations, including in the cyber arena.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by Brig Gen Michael P. Winkler (PACAF/A5/8) and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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