Though Indian strategic analysts increasingly accept the need to counterbalance China’s growing military power and assertiveness, there is little consensus on how this can be realistically achieved. India will not be a peer competitor to China for the foreseeable future, as its aggregate military power lags comparitively far behind. Although India’s defense relations with the United States hold much potential to expand its military power, these relations often lack a coherent strategic rationale.

Arzan Tarapore introduced the concept of “strategic leverage” in the Indian Ocean, which would allow India to consolidate its relative military power—and organize its defense relationship with the United States—in a way that would be both, a potent counterweight to China and achievable within India’s means. Rudra Chaudhuri then initiated a conversation with Tarapore to further examine these issues. Following this, the floor was opened up to a discussion with the audience on “Strategic Leverage in the Indian Ocean: An Organizing Principle for India–U.S. Defense Relations.”


  • India–China Security Competition: Participants observed that, in the past, the security competition between India and China primarily took place along their shared land border. They emphasized that, as China has now emerged as a maritime power, India is surrounded by a Chinese presence on both, land and sea. Participants noted that China’s interests, previously limited to the first and second island chains, are now expanding into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Participants pointed to the absence of any territorial disputes in this region, but added that the increasing Chinese presence is a cause for concern for India and other Indian Ocean nations. To meet this challenge, they proposed that India and other powers should reach an internal understanding of their regional priorities and red lines. Participants also recognized that China does have a legitimate role in the region and should not be excluded. Additionally they highlighted China’s strategy of cultivating friendly states in the region, among which, Pakistan serves as the lynchpin. 
  • U.S. Strategy Toward the India–China Relationship: Participants noted that the U.S. strategy toward the India–China relationship is based on three assumptions. First, as India grows and modernizes its military, it will naturally counterbalance China. Second, the India–U.S. relationship will continue to deepen as the United States offers high technology and strategic commitments to India. Participants added, however, that this has faced a few challenges, particularly due to the United States’ reservations about the India–Russia S-400 deal. Third, strategic competition with China requires imposing unbearable and unintentional costs, such as India distracting China from the maritime domain by further developing its capabilities along the land border. 
  • Strategic Leverage: Participants emphasized that strategic leverage is a subset of defense policy and should be pursued along with other policies, such as foreign assistance. The participants noted that India should develop strategic leverage in the IOR by using its existing advantages to create a favorable balance of power in the region. They highlighted that, in order to achieve this, an Indian forward presence would help establish tripwires in the region, which could complicate Chinese decision-making. Hence, they suggested that Indian officers should be integrated into the staff, the armed forces, and the governments of regional partners, along with pre-positioning logistics equipment. Participants also highlighted the importance of deepening institutional ties with smaller countries in the region so that these relations can weather potential storms. In particular, they proposed creating a deployable combined task force headquarters, which could be based in India and includes liaison officers from around the region. Participants underlined that India should expand its partnerships with like-minded and capable countries in the region, which could occur in a bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral, or larger format. Finally, they suggested using long-range mobile precision fires to bolster India’s military deterrence in the region. They highlighted that these do not require control over chokepoints in the IOR or fixed declarations of hostile intent, and could be launched from Indian territory. However, some participants highlighted the lack of a weapon system with a range capable of targeting maritime chokepoints from Indian territory. 
  • India–U.S. Defense Relations: Participants noted that, given the limited resources and political will on both sides, India and the United States should identify priority areas to advance their relationship strategically. They suggested that the United States should assist India—financially, materially, and diplomatically—in developing its strategic leverage. They added that, given India’s budgetary constraints, it would be wise to develop existing Indian capabilities and programs. 

This event summary was prepared by Sharanya Rajiv, a senior program coordinator and research assistant with Carnegie India, with inputs from Medha Prasanna, a research intern at Carnegie India.