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A Shared Destiny in the Asian Commons: Evaluating the India-U.S. Maritime Relationship


By Abhijit Singh

October 22, 2015


Earlier this week, amid much media attention, the Indian Navy and the U.S. Navy completed Exercise Malabar, an annual joint maritime interaction in the Bay of Bengal. As U.S. and Indian warships returned to harbor after carrying out complex naval drills at sea, the excitement in Indian strategic circles was palpable. This year's exercises were seen as an improvement from previous years'—in part due to the perceived emphasis on combat operations, but also because of the presence of the Japanese navy, which took part in an Indian Ocean iteration of Malabar for the first time in eight years. Washington's bid to raise the level of its participation by deploying an aircraft carrier and a nuclear attack submarine was matched by New Delhi, which fielded a Kilo-class submarine and long-range patrol aircraft, suggesting a possible focus on antisubmarine warfare during the exercises. The participants also conducted a series of benign exchanges—medical drills and casualty-rescue operations—to achieve greater integration on the lower end of the operational spectrum.

The raised profile of the exercises provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on the strategic fundamentals of the India-U.S. maritime partnership. The past few months have been a particularly rewarding time for bilateral naval relations. With the scope of Malabar 2015 being expanded to include high-end assets and exercises, the inking of an expansive ten-year defense framework, and a significant rise in nautical exchanges, India has strengthened its military maritime cooperation with the United States. In particular, Washington's proposal for joint development of India's next-generation aircraft carrier—especially the transfer of electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) technology—has affirmed the growing presence of strategic trust in the maritime relationship.

Developments in the geopolitical realm have been similarly encouraging. Following President Barack Obama's visit to New Delhi earlier this year and the announcement of the "Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region," India and the United States have coordinated their security approaches in the Asian commons. The appeal in the vision document to "all involved parties" in the South China Sea to avoid "use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through peaceful and legal means" illustrates a mutual willingness to publicly recognize coercive threats in the Western Pacific.

Securing the Asian Commons

Not surprisingly, the United States has displayed a greater keenness to involve India in its wider project of securing the Asian commons. A few weeks ago, in an event at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, Richard Verma, the U.S. ambassador to India, underlined the importance of "protecting shared spaces." Acknowledging India's admirable contribution to a rules-based international order, he stressed the need for New Delhi to play a stronger role in preserving assured access in the regional commons. Protecting shared spaces, he suggested, would require India to make the transition from a "balancing power" to a "leading power," for which New Delhi must start "looking outwards."

The U.S. ambassador may have put it tactfully, but there is no denying a sense of wariness among maritime observers over India's continuing ambivalence toward strategic security in the nautical commons. Some U.S. analysts believe that New Delhi's persistent indecisiveness about assisting the United States in preserving the power balance in Asia is a key contributor to the perceived stasis in the maritime relationship. This interpretation is instructive because it also highlights a critical issue in the India-U.S. maritime partnership: a divergence of opinion on the strategic objectives governing joint maritime operations has resulted in a dissimilar assessment of operational imperatives in the wider Asian commons and a perception that both sides remain reluctant collaborators in areas deemed politically contentious. As a corollary, skeptics say that despite a smooth working relationship at sea, the U.S. and Indian navies have failed to leverage their combined strengths in securing the Asian commons.

Key Divergences

To understand the principal sources of disagreement in the U.S.-India maritime relationship, one must appreciate the essential nature of their strategic interaction. In an August 2014 essay in the CSIS PacNet newsletter, Sourabh Gupta, a U.S.-based defense consultant and commentator, delivered a scathing critique of the U.S.-India strategic partnership, describing it as one of the most underperforming political arrangements in the world. Gupta criticized the lazy assumption that the passing of Cold War tensions and India's economic rise would pave the way toward a convergence of U.S. and Indian national interests, founded on common democratic values and the influence of the Indian expatriate community in the United States. Shared goals would include counterterrorism, democracy-building, counteracting Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific, and safeguarding the global commons. Sadly, Gupta pointed out that in none of these areas had any substantive progress been made.

Gupta reserved special criticism for the India-U.S. maritime relationship, which he suggested was the most overrated element of the bilateral relationship. Having delivered on the civil nuclear agreement, Washington expected India to make good on a number of fronts in the nautical domain. Key among these was the expectation that India would join the democracies of the Indo-Pacific in balancing Chinese power. U.S. policymakers believed New Delhi had tacitly agreed to keep alive the possibility of “interdicting Chinese sea-bound commerce in the narrow Andaman Sea during an East Asian contingency.” Washington was even hopeful that the Indian Navy would join U.S.-led taskforces in cooperative maritime missions—with or without a UN mandate—on both sides of the Indian Ocean. Most importantly, the United States expected India to provide strategic access to U.S. military forces across its territory to deter or manage contingencies in West and East Asia. Gupta claimed that many years down the line—and after much rhetoric about a dramatic convergence of values and interests—India had failed to live up to its potential as a useful strategic partner of the United States.

From an Indian perspective, the essay was revealing of U.S. misgivings about the bilateral relationship, which many U.S. analysts and policymakers clearly believe has not been truly consummated. “Far from growing into its designated role as America's deputy sheriff in the Indian Ocean region and a possible co-partner across the Indo-Pacific region,” Gupta observed, New Delhi has “double downed on its autonomist leanings”:

    [India has] resisted participating in major multi-service combined exercises and high-end operational missions, stayed away from stationing personnel at U.S. combatant command headquarters, turned down a series of foundational pacts that would have enhanced logistics and battle-group networking, opted for Russian rather than U.S. high-precision, military-grade navigation signals, opted to strip out tactical interoperability aids while purchasing U.S.-origin platforms (P8I and C-130J aircraft), and even allegedly passed up the opportunity to buy a to-be decommissioned super-carrier—the USS Kitty Hawk.

Whatever the merits of these arguments, they validated long-held suspicions in Indian strategic circles that the principal source of disagreement in the India-U.S. maritime relationship was India's failure to deliver on “theater access” and “military commerce”—areas that cut to the core of U.S. defense policy and statecraft. Plainly put, while India had not undermined the United States' larger cause, it had not advanced U.S. strategic and commercial interests in any significant way.

The skeptics of the India-U.S. defense relationship in New Delhi are convinced that Washington's security approach in the Indian Ocean remains an offshore balancing policy that requires India to partner with the United States in a loose alliance of democratic powers that is meant specifically to underwrite U.S. objectives in Asia. However, while the United States needs India to notionally balance China, Indian cynics claim, it would prefer New Delhi do so without resorting to hard-power measures. Such an approach has two implications: one, it results in an ipso facto suspension of India's strategic autonomy by encouraging security measures that support U.S. foreign policy objectives; and, two, it allows the United States to benefit from Indian security efforts without placing an obligation on Washington to substantively boost Indian combat capability.

The doubters in New Delhi show little empathy for the constraints U.S. policymakers face in planning maritime missions in the Indian Ocean. As an American security analyst put it, Indian observers rarely appreciate that U.S. force deployments in the region depend entirely on the “demand signal” generated by an evolving crisis. In the U.S. system, regional commanders must justify force requests by providing credible scenarios that generate a need for forces—for example, to deter use of force against Taiwan or to prevent the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. From a U.S. vantage point, the trigger for deploying additional naval forces in the eastern Indian Ocean is too weak to merit an urgent response. With Somali piracy in steady decline, the only area in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) that might require additional high-end U.S. naval forces is the Strait of Hormuz. However, senior U.S. commanders feel that is a task the U.S. military is capable of taking care of using existing resources in the IOR.

Oddly, the issue that most divides New Delhi and Washington is also a subject on which both sides seem to have a remarkable degree of consensus: Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. While Indian and American observers agree on the inevitability of China's rise in the Indian Ocean, they differ in their appreciation of the future trajectory of Chinese naval operations in India's maritime neighborhood. For Indian analysts and policymakers, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy's activities in the northwestern Indian Ocean raise the worrisome prospect of a strategic “takeover” of India's geopolitical space. The growing scope and intensity of PLA submarine operations in South Asian littorals, Indian observers point out, is a contingency that deserves focused political attention and a considered maritime response—including the possibility of greater Indian and U.S. naval presence in the IOR. More importantly, they expect more assistance from Washington in building up India's maritime combat strength, particularly undersea interdiction capability.

U.S. analysts, however, do not seem to share the dire assessments of their Indian counterparts. While American observers do not deny China's growing maritime clout in the IOR, they point to the lack of a formal logistics network as a limiting factor for the PLA Navy's Indian Ocean operations. With no Chinese supply bases in the region, they see Indian projections of Beijing's strategic domination of the Indian Ocean as being significantly overblown.

From a U.S. standpoint, the real threat to regional peace is China's maritime aggressiveness in the Pacific Ocean. American thinkers see the rebalance to Asia as a turn to the Pacific, where China must be dealt with through a strategy of sustained counterpressure. While the United States does not expect India to join its maritime coalition in the Western Pacific, it does need the Indian Navy to subtly balance growing Chinese influence in the IOR. Consequently, Washington's security posture in the Pacific seems more robust than its maritime policy in the Indian Ocean, where U.S. policymakers feel that the tyranny of distance effectively precludes the establishment of any permanent Chinese military presence—at least in the foreseeable future.

The more material disagreement between New Delhi and Washington on the maritime front is the latter's insistence on certain foundational agreements as a prerequisite for greater strategic exchanges, especially in the transfer of high-end defense technology. As earlier stated, Washington continues to harp on the centrality of three defense pacts to actualize the strategic partnership: the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Intelligence. The United States does not view these agreements as either infringing on India's sovereignty or providing U.S. military assets undue access to Indian maritime facilities. As in the past, many Indian analysts vehemently disagree. Not only do these pacts violate Indian autonomy and sovereign control over defense equipment, opponents claim, but they also limit Indian benefits to a small fraction of U.S. gains. In fact, skeptics portray any concessions that New Delhi might consider making as a betrayal of Indian interests.

From a U.S. perspective, India's suspicion of the foundational pacts is entirely misplaced. The real issue, American analysts point out , is that many of the United States' most capable military platforms contain subsystems of a classified nature, which cannot be transferred without a basic agreement outlining the terms and conditions of their usage. While it is true, these analysts maintain, that Washington is unwilling to jeopardize its comparative advantages in the defense industry—specifically in regard to cutting-edge technology—the United States remains serious about helping India with middle-spectrum critical expertise. However, with New Delhi still unwilling to sign the CISMOA—an agreement that applies expressly to the maritime domain—any possibility of an exchange of classified information and sensitive technologies between India and the United States is effectively forestalled. Similarly, India's steadfast belief that it is unlikely to ever directly avail of the LSA's benefits is self-defeating, as it restricts the Indian Navy's logistical options in the Indo-Pacific theater.

Advancing the Maritime Relationship

This then makes the maritime relationship even more complex. Because the United States can neither use Indian strategic bases nor facilitate the use of high-grade U.S. defense technology by India, it cannot logically rely on the latter for its security goals. Yet the United States does need the Indian Navy to assist in preserving strategic access in the wider-Asian littorals. In the aftermath of the global economic crisis, the United States is facing a crisis of resources and budgets and is seeking innovative solutions to long-standing security challenges at sea. Its emphasis on strengthening maritime partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region is aimed at a pooling of strengths and capabilities to more effectively police critical strategic spaces.

Beyond securing access in maritime Asia, however, the United States also needs New Delhi to strategically unify the southern Indian Ocean littorals through a program of robust maritime diplomatic engagement with smaller Indian Ocean states. If India can develop a strong set of nautical relationships with its neighbors it could then take the burden off the U.S. Navy in key areas of constabulary and benign security—tasks such as survey, salvage, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance, which the United States prefers to outsource to the Indian Ocean's indigenous powers.

Despite the existing wrinkles in strategic coordination, therefore, both India and the United States remain committed to the maritime relationship. A majority of Indian and U.S. policymakers today support a close working relationship at sea and greater harmonization of operational missions in the Indian Ocean. Not just at an intergovernmental level, but even among the thinking elite, there is better appreciation of each other's strategic motivations in maritime spaces and a growing willingness to accommodate individual security concerns. Encouraged by India's efforts to expand its situational awareness in the Indian Ocean, Washington has not pushed New Delhi to take greater security initiatives in the Western Pacific. For its part, the latter has heeded U.S. counsel of assuming a leadership role in the eastern Indian Ocean by upping its security involvement and investing heavily in an area-wide domain awareness plan in the subcontinental littorals.

India is also playing a greater role in integrating its maritime neighborhood. By offering assistance to smaller Indian Ocean island states in setting up coastal radar and automatic identification systems chains—aimed ultimately at establishing a regional maritime surveillance network—India is gradually assuming a key facilitating role in the Indian Ocean. Bolstering its maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and antisubmarine warfare capabilities in the South Asian littorals, the Indian Navy has been expanding its own air-surveillance effort, pushing for the delivery of four additional P-8I aircraft from the United States.

Meanwhile, there has been considerable forward movement on the issue of collaborative security operations in the Indian Ocean. With the initiation of a process to formalize Malabar into a trilateral exercise, India appears more willing than earlier to balance China's military rise in the IOR. More importantly, New Delhi is increasingly comfortable playing a part in formal collaboration networks, even though it is still reluctant to consider a revival of a maritime “quadrilateral.”

Not surprisingly, India's maritime exercises with the United States have seen low-end naval drills (e.g., search and rescue and constabulary duties) being replaced by higher-spectrum combat exercises (e.g., antisubmarine, anti-surface, and air defense). While differences still exist in a few critical areas, the bilateral maritime relationship seems to be approaching a critical mass of strategic interactions. It is no coincidence that since President Obama's January visit to New Delhi, maritime security has topped the agenda in every high-level summit involving the United States and India. In the first-ever India-Japan-U.S. trilateral ministerial meeting in New York last month, freedom of navigation, commercial access, and peaceful settlement of maritime disputes were again prime items of discussion.

The recent momentum in political relations has generated new optimism for the India-U.S. defense relationship. With the transformative Defense Technology and Trade Initiative in place, there is renewed hope that India might be willing to accept the United States' foundational pacts. The Pentagon has already submitted revised drafts of the CISMOA and the LSA for New Delhi's consideration. With U.S. defense secretary Ashton Carter personally invested in expanding bilateral military ties, many in India are hoping the new submissions will be more imaginative than earlier proposals.

Importantly, the United States is demonstrating patience and a strategic empathy that had eluded the bilateral relationship earlier. U.S. policymakers have been displaying greater sensitivity for India's strategic DNA, recognizing New Delhi's fiercely independent streak that forbids it from entering into a formal alliance. While continuing to seek a more comprehensive partnership with India, the United States is more conscious of the limits of strategic maritime cooperation. Indian analysts are also not shy of admitting Washington's important role in New Delhi's putative reorientation to adapt to the new realities of Asia. Unlike in the past, New Delhi is prepared to play a more active part in preserving the balance of maritime power in the Indo-Pacific littoral, which is why many in India openly acknowledge the growing strategic synergies between Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Act East policy and the U.S. rebalance to Asia.

Despite irritants, then, the India-U.S. maritime partnership remains on an upward trajectory. This has been a few years in the making, but the broad convergence of values and interests between India and the United States has coalesced into a strong consensus on strategic principles. Now more than ever, there is a sense of common purpose and shared destiny in the Asian commons. The leading maritime power in South Asia and the preeminent power in the Indian Ocean have moved to forge a maritime pact to protect themselves from the high winds gathering in the east.


The views expressed are those of the author.


Abhijit Singh is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi. His current research focuses on the Indo-Pacific region, wherein he has been exploring potential security frameworks. His articles and commentaries are regularly published by the World Politics Review, the Diplomat, and the Pacific Forum CSIS.


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