Should American sanctions bust apart India’s military development alliance with Russia, their essential hypersonic weapons program could be slowed down at a critical moment that China’s threat is on the rise.
There is a race for dominance in Asia today that may well determine the fate of the rest of the world. China, the world’s second-largest economy and rising military and technological juggernaut seeks to control the entirety of the Indo-Pacific—and Beijing is very close to accomplishing this task. But Asia is a dynamic economic zone. Nations such as India, Japan, and Australia all call the Indo-Pacific “home.” These countries have no desire to become Chinese vassal states. And since the United States is also a Pacific power, countries like Japan and India have a natural ally against China’s unwanted new imperialism.
At its core, though, the race to deter China from fulfilling its neo-imperialist agenda for the region is an arms race. China’s ambitions are stymied by the presence of US military forces in the region—and the growing relationships between the US military and local Asian powers. America’s military dominance, however, depends on its technological supremacy.
The United States has been the undisputed master of technological innovation for decades. Sadly, in the 21st century, America’s competitive advantages have eroded in the high-tech arena. A great stagnation has occurred in America’s technology sector at precisely the moment that other countries, notably China, are arising to compete with the Americans for dominance. Today, China is at least on par with the Americans technologically. The more that China innovates and the less that the United States does, the more this will negatively impact America’s military position in the Indo-Pacific.
Throughout the 1990s and beyond, China’s government commanded its youth to study science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) so that, one day, China would be the fountain of new technological innovation rather than the West. The West, meanwhile, took its position as the dominant technological power for granted. Thirty years later, the results show that China has caught up and is starting to move ahead at a crucial time.
Last summer, China stunned the West when it successfully tested a sophisticated hypersonic glide vehicle. Hypersonic weapons can render most modern air defenses obsolete. Few countries have hypersonic capabilities of their own, which means deterrence won’t work anytime soon. What’s more, China’s hypersonic capabilities are greater than those of the US. Thus, a grave imbalance of forces exists between China and America which could fundamentally threaten the American-led order in the Indo-Pacific.
The globalization that American leaders championed following the Cold War has clearly done little to directly benefit the United States. Yet, it has enhanced many other nations (notably China). While America globalized its tech and knowledge sectors, other rising countries, such as China, India, and Japan benefited. There has been an attempt by some American leaders to undo the impacts of globalization. Although, a total reset from globalization seems to be nothing more than the fantasy of rabid ideologues. And since it was not only an American rival, such as China, that has grown in power and strength from globalization but also allies, like Japan and India, Washington should embrace this new reality and use it to America’s advantage.
After all, China is not the only nation in the Indo-Pacific working to develop game-changing hypersonic weapons. Both Japan and India are as well. So, too, is Australia. Here are three of the four members of the new Quadrilateral (Quad) Alliance—whose mission is to prevent China from dominating the Indo-Pacific—working on the same advanced technology that China clearly believes will be critical for them to achieve dominance over the Indo-Pacific.
The Americans, for their part, have spent years and billions of dollars researching hypersonic weapons. Yet, for all that time and money spent, America has little to show for it. This American failure is a reminder of how badly US leaders erred in shipping America’s industrial base overseas. Luckily, though, America has many friends who are more than willing to partner with Uncle Sam to build next-generation weapons that will keep autocratic rivals, like China, deterred.
According to a recent Atlantic Council assessment on hypersonic weapons capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, Japan will have its own hypersonic weapons as early as 2025. India is right behind Japan. It strains credulity that Washington has not created a joint development program between the Quad states to build advanced hypersonic weapons together, as an alliance.
There is one added complication, though. India has partnered with another American rival, Russia, to develop their potent BrahMos II hypersonic cruise missile (as well as many other essential components of their military). Relying on advanced components from a Russian defense firm, India managed to cut down the R&D time to develop this advanced weapons system. Yet, because of the current tension between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine, the threat of American sanctions hangs over the critical BrahMos II project which could kill the program. Russia’s recent illegal (and ill-advised) invasion of Ukraine has put India and other powers in a precarious spot. What were once, frankly, ridiculous threats of American sanctions that threatened to undermine the fighting prowess of India in their ongoing competition with China, are now very much on the table. These sanctions on Russia and any nation or company that does business with Russia could impinge upon India’s ability to rapidly develop hypersonic weapons. Hamstringing India’s ability to reliably and effectively produce their own hypersonic weapons because New Delhi has partnered with Moscow, which is now at loggerheads with Washington over a European matter, is foolish. As Elbridge Colby has articulated in his recent book, the United States must be laser-focused on countering China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific now before Beijing is simply too strong to be deterred. India is a key ally in this struggle. But, should American sanctions bust apart India’s military development alliance with Russia, their essential hypersonic weapons program could be slowed down at a critical moment that China’s threat is on the rise. This could also hamper the ability of other potential partners in the Indo-Pacific, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, from better defending themselves against China. These other countries want to purchase the Indian-built systems to stand against China’s rise. And BrahMos II could be decisive in preventing any future Chinese attacks against targets in the Indo-Pacific. A fight between the United States and Russia in Europe cannot be allowed to halt the vital development of India’s hypersonic weapons—which could prove decisive in deterring any future conflict that Beijing may seek to initiate in the Indo-Pacific.
Rather than punishing an important ally like India for working with Russia, Washington should take the great gift that has fallen in their lap and promote India’s ingenuity. This weapon is vital for the defense of the American-led order in the Indo-Pacific. It will help other countries stand up to an increasingly belligerent China, too. Together, India and America should build more complex hypersonic weapons that can directly threaten China as well. While it would be great to see these weapons pioneered exclusively in the United States, sadly, this is no longer possible.
Should China dominate new weapons technologies, such as hypersonic missiles, then American security guarantees will be worthless. The region will be lost to China. America’s allies are today more capable than ever before. It is time for the United States to fully embrace these allies and recognize that there are some things that the United States cannot do alone anymore—even if it means allowing for those partners to do business with other rivals, like Russia.
Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers). He is a geopolitical analyst who runs The Weichert Report: World News Done Right and can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.