The US, Australia and Japan would be the core of any alliance to defend Taiwan from an attack by China. But the Indo-Pacific is enormous, so the success of this coalition of the willing might hinge on what support it could scrounge up from an axis of the ambivalent — a group of strategically situated, and strategically hesitant, countries across the region.
Access to bases in the Philippines and perhaps South Korea could help Washington bring its airpower to bear. Use of logistical facilities in Singapore would make it easier to operate in the South China Sea. Overflight rights from Southeast Asian countries would allow the US to get long-range bombers stationed at Diego Garcia into the game. And simply to get to the fighting, one Australian official told me last week, Canberra would need Indonesia’s “grudging acquiescence” to transit through its archipelagic waters and airspace.
All of these countries fear an expansionist China. All are positioned well to help contain it. Yet all are deeply wary about getting in the middle of a brawl with Beijing. This applies in spades to another Indo-Pacific power I’ve been visiting: India, whose behavior in a Taiwan crisis remains a question mark at best.
India’s centrality to the US-China rivalry is clear. The country is a major regional power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, two regions where China aims to expand. India has experience with Beijing’s bullying along their contested border in the Himalayas. Since a military clash that killed at least 20 Indian troops in June 2020, officials and analysts in New Delhi told me, any remaining illusions about Chinese President Xi Jinping have fallen away.
As the world’s largest democracy, India is unavoidably — if not always enthusiastically — prominent in a US-China competition that President Joe Biden frames in ideological terms of free nations versus autocracies. As a leader of the developing world, which is again becoming a geopolitical battleground, India exercises great diplomatic influence as well.
The Biden administration is bullish on India, and with good reasons. New Delhi has aligned itself with a reborn Quad — alongside Australia, Japan and the US — and its vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Washington reportedly provided intelligence support to India during and after the 2020 Himalayan skirmish.
India is using naval exercises and arms sales to countries such as Indonesia to deepen its engagement in Southeast Asia in ways that complicate Beijing’s designs. The relationship with India is “the most important for the United States in the 21st century,” the Biden administration’s Asia policy czar, Kurt Campbell, has said.
But don’t get carried away, because India can be both a hardheaded and a halfhearted partner. There is no enthusiasm for anything like a formal alliance with Washington. As former foreign minister Vijay Gokhale said to me, “India is too big, has too much of a history and identity as a great civilization, to be attached to someone else.”
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose commitment to democratic norms at home is questionable, lacks any sentimental attachment to the liberal international order abroad. Much to the disappointment of US officials, India’s dependence on Russian guns and gas has produced an unabashedly equivocal stance on the war in Ukraine.
So how might India react if China attacked Taiwan? Although India can’t project much military power east of the Malacca Strait, it could still, in theory, do a lot. US officials quietly hope that India might grant access to its Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in the eastern Bay of Bengal, to facilitate a blockade of China’s oil supplies. The Indian Navy could help keep Chinese ships out of the Indian Ocean; perhaps the Indian Army could distract China by turning up the heat in the Himalayas.
Even short of military assistance, India could rally diplomatic condemnation of a Taiwan assault in the developing world. During the crisis that followed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, India publicly accused China of “militarization” of the strait.
New Delhi has a real stake in the survival of a free Taiwan. China has a punishing strategic geography, in that it faces security challenges on land and at sea. If taking Taiwan gave China preeminence in maritime Asia, though, Beijing could then pivot to settle affairs with India on land.
Expect a “turn toward the South” once China’s Taiwan problem is resolved, one Indian defense official told me. And in general, a world in which China is emboldened — and the US and its democratic allies are badly bloodied — by a Taiwan conflict would be very nasty for India.
But none of this ensures that India will cast its lot, militarily or diplomatically, with a pro-Taiwan coalition. Appeals to common democratic values or norms of nonaggression won’t persuade India to aid Taiwan any more than they have induced it to help Ukraine.
Armchair strategists might dream of opening a second front in the Himalayas, but India might be paralyzed by fear that openly aiding the US anywhere would simply give China a pretext to batter overmatched, unprepared Indian forces on their shared frontier.
The Modi government has been happy to have America’s help in dealing with India’s China problem but is far more reluctant to return the favor by courting trouble in the Western Pacific.
What India would do in a Taiwan conflict is really anyone’s guess. The most nuanced assessment I heard came from a longtime Indian diplomat. A decade ago, he said, India would definitely have sat on the sidelines. Today, support for Taiwan and the democratic coalition is conceivable, but not likely. After another five years of tension with China and cooperation with the Quad, though, who knows?
Optimists in Washington might take this assessment as evidence that India is moving in the right direction. Pessimists might point out that there is still a long way to go, and not much time to get there.