The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) signed into law by President Donald Trump on the last day of 2018 has brought front and centre the relevance of the Indo-Pacific region for the promotion and protection of US interest. It has by and large reaffirmed the priority accorded to this region in the US National Security Strategy (NSS) and the US National Defense Strategy (NDS). The Act in clear terms sets out its rationale “to develop a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled United States policy for the Indo-Pacific region, and for other purposes.”America’s military alliance network has been the lifeblood of US foreign policy and not much has changed in the central role that the US plays along with its allies in this region. What is new perhaps is the building of new partnerships sans an alliance, the most prominent of which is the India-US strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.
Although the foundation stone of India-US strategic partnership was laid alongside the negotiations for the India-US civil nuclear deal, the breadth and length of the partnership has come a long way to encompass a greater strategic unison to promote“peace and security” in the Indo-Pacific. India and the US share the concern of China’s aggressive military projections in the Western Pacific and increasing forays into the Indian Ocean region. While China’s behaviour in the Western Pacific is a direct affront to US notions of freedom of navigation and overflight, China’s approach to the Indian Ocean region is being seen as a way to challenge India’s primacy in its own strategic backyard. Whether it is China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies in the Western Pacific or the entry of Chinese conventional and nuclear submarines into the Indian Ocean, India and the US have reasons to worry about China’s activities in the region. A deeper introspection in the relationship is required, as to how India and the US can combine intent and capabilities to build a stable security architecture in the region.
The defence relationship between India and the US occupies paramount importance in the emerging scheme of things. The defence engagement is aimed at not only transfer of military equipment to beef up India’s capabilities, but also at co-production potential military hardware and increasing technology transfer from the US to India . The designation of India as a major defence partner of the United States reflects the increasing political support for an India-US partnership. Designating India as a major defence partner of the US“elevates defence trade and technology cooperation between the United States and India to a level commensurate with the closest allies and partners of the United States”; “facilitates technology sharing between the United States and India, including license-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies, after taking into account national security concerns” and “facilitates joint exercises, coordination on defence strategy and policy, military exchanges, and port calls in support of defence cooperation between the United States and India.”
It augments the initiatives taken under the India-US Defence Framework Agreement and the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). India and the United States has been particularly enhancing interoperability in the maritime domain.Much of the geopolitical flux that the region has been going through is attributed to the disruptive nature of China’s rise in the region with its increasing economic and military footprints. The management of China’s rise in the region, more particularly its aggressive posturing has been a priority area of convergence of views between India and the United States. Section 204 of ARIA “calls for the strengthening and broadening of diplomatic, economic, and security ties between the United States and India.”Section 207 of the same Act explicitly mentions the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between India, the United States, Japan and Australia as being “vital to address pressing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.”The Quad is being projected as an initiative to promote a “rules-based order” and “respect for international law” in the region. It aims to bring together four democracies in the region to foster “a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Meetings among the officials of the four countries have been cautious in terms of preventing the emergence of a perception that the Quad is intended to contain the rise of China. All the four countries have deeply intertwined economies with China, complicating the trajectory of any strategic alignment among the countries concerned with China’s intransigence in the region.
In many ways, the US Indo-Pacific strategy is a natural successor to Obama’s rebalancing strategy towards Asia-Pacific. India was called a linchpin in America’s rebalancing strategy. By dint of America’s focus on the Indo-Pacific, India perhaps finds a much more central role although arguments also persist that the US is yet to truly recognise India’s concerns and priorities in the larger Indian Ocean region stretching up to the Western Indian Ocean. Optically, it is clear that the US considers India as a stabilising force in the Indo-Pacific region. However, it remains to be seen how the US Indo-Pacific strategy in operational terms feature the Indian Ocean, and how it converges with India’s own conceptual and operational approach in its backyard. How India’s Act East Policy is in commensurate with its Indo-Pacific strategy, how India and the US fashion a coordinated strategy to deal with China’s increasing sphere of influence and the challenge to preserve the central role of the Association of Southeast Asians Nations (ASEAN) is yet to be seen. India and the United States need to engage in deeper bilateral consultations on their strategic outlooks towards the Indo-Pacific region, to chart out differences and ways to manage those, without affecting the strategic congruence.
*** The author is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) ***