More than any other time in its history, the India-US relationship seems poised for a chapter hitherto unseen. More than ever before, the relevance of India’s age-old non-alignment stance is being questioned. Many voices in the Indian strategic community and among the policymaking elites seem to be calling for a more unabashed elevation of the India-US military partnership to counter the formidable China challenge. Therefore, it is clear that the third India-US ‘2+2’ Dialogue involving the Foreign and Defence Ministries of the two countries came at a juncture when a significant churning is underway regarding how India as well the United States will deal with their respective and rather combined China challenge.
For the better part of the year 2020, the entire world has been reeling under a pandemic that started in China, to begin with. Not to mention the controversies relating to the way in which China handled the outbreak of the pandemic, it’s aggressive approach vis-à-vis a number of countries have called into question any pretence of China’s responsible behaviour. The perception regarding China in India’s public opinion and policy discourse has hit the nadir in recent times, because of China’s utter disregard of any understanding to maintain peace and tranquillity at Line of Actual Control (LAC). In a stark reference to the ongoing India-China tensions, and making known who stood where, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented, “The United States will stand with the people of India as they face threats to their sovereignty and their liberty.”
In the US, which is on the verge of either re-electing its incumbent President or electing a new President, how to deal with the China threat clearly remains the most prominent foreign policy conundrum, and it is becoming apparent that the US-China relationship is taking a more confrontational turn no matter who wins the election. The new low in their relations with an increasingly intransigent China has evidently pushed policymakers in both New Delhi and Washington to chart new dimensions of their partnership. The India-US bilateral understanding is in concert with other like-minded countries like Japan and Australia, which are members of the Quadrilateral Security Initiative, also called the Quad.
The Quad ministerial meeting was held recently in Tokyo; close on the heels of a change of guard in Japan, and a newfound intention on Canberra’s part to join forces with other like-minded countries in a more categorical fashion to engineer a free and open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific. Such an intent and pursuit, more than any other thing, means managing the geopolitical ramifications of the rise of not a peaceful, but an aggressive China. More significantly, much speculations and assumptions have been put to rest, with the recent announcement that Australia will be joining India, the US and Japan in the flagship Malabar Exercises this year to be conducted in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, lending new meanings to the future trajectory of the Quad initiative.
It has been 15 years since India and the US entered into a Defence Framework Agreement, the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) has yielded tangible results and now India has been designated a major defence partner of the US. Much exchange has transpired in terms of military-to-military exercises, including the milestone Tri-service Tiger Triumph exercises, and the United States has emerged as one of the primary defence suppliers to India. Negotiating the foundational agreements to increase military-to-military interoperability between the two countries has been a prominent preoccupation of the two countries.
The signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) during the third ‘2+2’ dialogue, has put in place a robust system of communication and information sharing between the two militaries, along with the implementation process of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). Given China’s naval power projection and trajectory in the Western Pacific, and strategic inroads into the Indian Ocean region, enhanced maritime domain awareness (MDA) becomes imperative for the Indian Navy, and many developments reflect an unmistakable rise in maritime information sharing between the Indian and the US Navy. For instance, a Liaison Officer from the U.S. Navy is posted at the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) and an Indian Liaison Officer is posted at the United States Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), Bahrain, with talks for more liaison officers in the offing.
Much has transpired in the trajectory of the India-US relationship in the last two decades and despite the seesaw of geopolitics, a greater mutual political understanding of strategic convergence in Asia-Pacific and now the Indo-Pacific has been pervasive. However, until recently, India was found to be more reticent in its strategic embrace of the US and seemed more interested in hedging its bets more evenly between the US and China. Given the current state of India-China tensions and the new confrontational streak in US-China great power struggle, is the India-US relationship on the path of uncharted territories? Will India drop all diplomatic nuances vis-à-vis China, and be more willing to pay the operational cost of a much closer military partnership with the United States? Such questions remain pertinent, as India’s own great aspirations will be scripted in the midst of China’s aggressive ambitions for regional and global pre-eminence, and America’s intention to counteract China in concert with India and other like-minded countries.
** The author is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.**