Internal Balancing Will Determine India’s Relationships with the US and China, Argues APARC’s Newest Research Scholar

Indo-Pacific security expert Arzan Tarapore, whose appointment as a research scholar at APARC begins on September 1, discusses India’s military strategy, its balancing act between China and the United States, and his vision for revitalizing the Center’s research effort on South Asia.
Portrait of Arzan Tarapore and text: "Q&A with Arzan Tarapore"

Amid the intensifying security rivalry between the United States and China and the rapidly changing power balances in the Indo-Pacific, India has emerged as an increasingly important partner for U.S. interests in the region. What factors will shape India’s relationships with the world’s two largest superpowers? How should Washington interpret New Delhi’s evolving understanding of strategic autonomy? And is Indian defense policy equipped to meet today’s security threats?  

These are some of the questions that occupy Arzan Tarapore, our new research scholar on South Asia effective September 1. At APARC, Tarapore will continue his research on Indo-Pacific security and military effectiveness. He will also be at the forefront of advancing the Center’s South Asia research and engagement effort – a role to which he brings his experience that combines academic scholarship with over a decade of government service. Before his appointment at Stanford, Tarapore was an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University. He continues to serve as a nonresident fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research and an adjunct researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Here, Tarapore explains how “internal balancing” may shape India’s relationships with China and the United States, considers what’s at stake for India’s military strategy, and shares some of his plans for APARC’s South Asia initiative.

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How is India’s own tense relationship with China, which burst into view in the recent border clash in the Himalayas, poised to affect its ties with the United States and its approach to strategic partnerships with other countries, such as Japan and Australia?

Tarapore: In the last two decades, Washington has latched on to India as a strategic partner in large part because it recognizes that India is a natural competitor to China. This is rooted in structural reasons – because of India and China’s geography, history, and strategic interests. So India has pursued its own brand of strategic competition with China for over half a century – it’s just that its tactics may sometimes appear desultory to some American (and Indian!) observers. Those tactics, which in the recent past have included back-slapping summitry and avoidance of provocations, are largely rooted, at bottom, in India’s relatively modest power.

Rather than focusing just on India’s alignments – what scholars call 'external balancing' – we should watch closely for changes in India’s defense policy and military modernization – or 'internal balancing.'
Arzan Tarapore

Now, some observers have asserted (or hoped) that the current border crisis in Ladakh may shake New Delhi out of this posture and catalyze a closer relationship – even an alliance – with the United States. As I’ve argued elsewhere, an alliance with the U.S. is neither plausible nor necessary. India has forged a much closer defense relationship with the United States and other like-minded regional states like Japan and Australia. The current crisis may accelerate some of that alignment a little, but this trend was already well underway. To be sure, the crisis – and especially the Indian fatalities – has hardened popular opinion against China. But Indian officialdom did not need to be convinced of the China threat, or the merits of cooperation with the United States. Their inhibitions to an alliance – just like their threat perceptions of China – are structural and not likely to be dispelled anytime soon.

Rather than focusing just on India’s alignments – what scholars call “external balancing” – we should watch closely for changes in India’s defense policy and military modernization – or “internal balancing.” There is a chance this crisis will prompt India to correct some of the long-standing distortions in defense policy. If it does, those changes – rather than any outward displays of alignment – will have a far greater impact on India’s competition with China, and on its partnership with the United States.

One of your research areas is focused on strategic effectiveness, particularly Indian military strategy-making. In your recent Carnegie India paper, The Army in Indian Military Strategy, you argue that the Indian army must rethink its use of force to meet today’s new challenges. What is the problem with its prevailing doctrine and what are your specific recommendations for it and Indian defense policy?   

Tarapore: I’ve argued that Indian military strategy over at least the past half-century has been dominated by an army doctrine that is designed to fight large conventional wars. This doctrine drives the Indian military’s force structure and its ideas about how to use force. The problem is, the doctrine is unsuited to the more-common security challenges that India currently faces – challenges exemplified perfectly by China’s borderland grab in Ladakh this past summer.

If it does not rethink its doctrine, the Indian Army risks becoming less and less relevant as a tool of statecraft.
Arzan Tarapore

The Indian Army should certainly still prepare for major wars, but I argue in this paper that it also needs to develop new concepts for dealing with threats below the threshold of war. If it does not rethink its doctrine, it risks becoming less and less relevant as a tool of statecraft. Specifically, I argue that the Indian Army should consider new “theories of victory” that focus on denying the enemy’s goals rather than threatening to punish it; consider how to better support the air force and navy; and consider emphasizing certain niche capabilities of modern warfighting.

What are some of the projects and activities you plan to focus on at APARC, both in your research and as part of the effort to revitalize the Center’s research and education initiative on South Asia?

Tarapore: As mentioned at the outset, Washington sees India as a central partner in the Indo-Pacific. I want to position APARC and Stanford to effectively support that policy. My research, at least for now, focuses on Indian defense issues. For example, I have a book project that looks at how India has historically approached the use of force – our policymakers need to understand India’s particular constraints and patterns. Second, I will continue to engage in a stream of research on how the United States, India, and their like-minded partners can manage security risks in the Indian Ocean region.

Beyond my own research, I want to take advantage of Stanford’s community of scholars, and build on my network in the region, to work on issues that are often overlooked by Washington-based policy tribes. For example, I am keen to explore the effects of climate change across South Asia – the challenges it poses to security and governance, and how it may force regional states to respond. These issues are critically important but often overshadowed by more urgent crises.

Your career combines both academic scholarship and government experience. Tell us more about your government service, what drew you to it, and how you became interested in Indo-Pacific security issues.

Tarapore: My government work completely shaped my scholarship. I served for 13 years in the Australian Defence Department, as an analyst, leader, and liaison officer. My time there was dominated by the post-9/11 wars and security crises – so even as a civilian, I deployed on operations and worked closely with the military. This has left me with an abiding dedication to being task-oriented – ensuring that my scholarship has direct utility for decision makers – and an abiding preference for working among teams of people smarter than I am. With my professional background in Australia, my academic interest in India, and my new home in the United States, I’m entirely comfortable with the concept and the region of the “Indo-Pacific.” This is why Stanford and APARC, with policy focus and community of scholars working on Asia, are so exciting.

What is it like to begin a new academic post remotely in a COVID-19 world? How has the pandemic affected your work?

Tarapore: I’ve often thought about how fortunate I am to work in a field where I can keep working, with some adjustments, even amid a global pandemic. If we’re honest, I suspect some people even thrive on the enforced solitude. For me, it’s a nuisance and it requires adjustments – none more so than rethinking childcare arrangements. From a professional perspective, one of the biggest obstacles it creates is the inability to travel to India for fieldwork, or around the region to build our professional networks. The other, more quotidian difficulty is the obstacle to in-person teamwork. Obviously, something is lost when we have to stare at each other through screens, so I can’t wait to walk the halls of Encina Hall.

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