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Deepening Indo-U.S. Strategic Maritime Convergence: Opportunities and Challenges

Mr Rushali Saha, Research Associate, CAPS
12 May 2021

On March 31, the Indian Navy completed a twoday passage ‘PASSEX’ exercise with the United States Navy in the eastern Indian Ocean.1 Unlike previous PASSEX exercises, this time Indian Air Force fighters were also included to practice “air interception and air defence with the U.S. Navy.”2 In July 2020, India conducted this exercise with the U.S. carrier strike group led by USS Nimitz— one of the largest warships in the world—passing through the Indian Ocean Region.3 According to officials, the latest PASSEX exercises were aimed at “consolidating the synergy and interoperability” achieved during the Malabar exercises held in November 2020.

India now conducts more military exercises— including a tri-service exercise since 2019— with the United States. This is emblematic of the deepening defence collaboration between the two countries. Naval relations have been a prominent aspect of the U.S.-India defense relations with observers suggesting that the U.S.- India navy-to-navy relationship is “already the best performing area of the bilateral partnership.” 5 Indian navy’s participation in Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC)—the world’s largest naval exercise hosted by the United States—as a participant in 2014 and 2018, after being an observer in 2006, 2010, 20126 is a welcome development in bilateral maritime relations. The burgeoning maritime ties between Washington and New Delhi come at a crucial geopolitical moment as the free and open rules-based Indo-Pacific order is under threat because of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive actions motivated by its expansionist territorial and maritime ambitions.

Evolution of U.S-India Naval-Military Relations

In the maritime sector, the US and India began cooperation by forming the Indo-US naval steering committee in 1991. One of the earliest steps in initiating bilateral defence contacts was through the Malabar exercise series, beginning in 1992. Since 2002, the exercises have continued annually and have increased in scope and complexity with the inclusion of anti-submarine warfare tactics, VBSS (visit, board search, and seizure operations), sea control missions, etc. In 2007, there were two Malabar exercises—one in the Bay of Bengal and the other in the Western Pacific—which for the first time was expanded to include Japan, Australia, and Singapore.7 Since 2009, the maritime exercise has been conducted alternatively in Indian and Pacific Oceans, with Japan taking part whenever it was conducted near its borders, until its formal inclusion in 2015.8 In 2020, India invited Australia to take part in the exercise, after having previously rejected Canberra’s request to join in 2017 on grounds that more naval engagement at the bilateral level was necessary before entering multilateral engagements.

Bilateral cooperation has expanded beyond military exercises and today both navies conduct “naval staff talks, port visits, distinguished visitor visits and a wide array of personnel as well as subject matter exchanges through multilateral naval and security conferences.” 10 In this mutually beneficial partnership, India’s seasoned forces, who are especially adept in handling terror induced situations, offer a lot in training U.S. forces for anti-piracy operations— while the U.S. Navy’s possession of high-quality military technology is an advantage for defence technical cooperation as the Indian navy currently lags in the development of indigenous manufacturing technology.

Indo-U.S. Maritime Cooperation in Indo-Pacific

In 2011, former U.S. Prime minister Barack Obama announced a “pivot” to Asia Pacific, which entailed a renewed strong military commitment to the region.11 In little less than a year, the U.S. Department of Defence declared that 60 percent of its naval assets would be stationed under the U.S. Pacific Command.12 Under the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo Pacific strategy, India has been accorded a key position as revealed in the declassified US Strategic Framework for the IndoPacific

U.S. interest to preserve its predominant position in the Indian Ocean is in sync with India’s efforts to bolster its regional influence beyond its immediate neighborhood, into the Indo-Pacific. Both sides understand that alone, the vast expanse of the ocean makes it impossible for any one country to cover the region in its entirety. This was reflected in the U.S-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region announced in 2015.14 India embraced its maritime identity and began to look at the Indian Ocean as a strategic region in the 1990s within the ambit of the Look East policy. However, Look East was primarily an economically focused strategy that aimed at building trade and commercial ties with the East Asia tigers. Although commercial drivers remain important, military and security concerns as drivers of India’s engagement with the region are gaining prominence because of China’s increasing military capabilities and ambitions. India’s Security and Growth for All (SAGAR) vision, emphasizes the need to protect the free, open, inclusive regional order from security threats. The signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) have particular significance for maritime relations, as most of the cooperative activities falling within their ambit will take place in the Indian Ocean.15 The revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—comprising the United States of America, Australia, Japan, and India—in 2017 is another attempt by the four major democracies in the region to address threats to the rules-based order. New Delhi and Washington have ratcheted their antisubmarine warfare cooperation through military exercises and information sharing on the movement of Chinese submarines and ships in the Indian Ocean

Challenges?
Contours of Indo-Pacific

While the expanding geographical focus of bilateral naval relationships has offered ample opportunities, it also comes with a handful of challenges. It remains unclear whether the United States and India agree over the geographical expanse of the Indo-Pacific. Washington officially defined the Indo-Pacific region in its 2017 National Security Strategy as stretching from “the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States”17— excluding the east coast of Africa, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal— whereas the Indian vision incorporates the entire Indian Ocean and Africa.18 A stable and secure environment in the Indian Ocean is crucial for India, given its geographical proximity. By continuing to view the entire region only through the Pacific lens, Washington risks ignoring the unique features of the Indian Ocean which it can use to its advantage. The explicit mention of “deepening of the US-India Major Defence Partnership and advancing cooperation between our countries for a free prosperous and open Indo-Pacific and Western Indian Ocean Region” (emphasis added) as the talking points of U.S. Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent visit19 has however raised hopes that both countries will move steadily to achieve greater congruence in their regional vision

Operationalizing Coordination in Western Indian Ocean

The artificial division of the Indian Ocean by the U.S. military, into eastern and western sections with the former under U.S. IndoPacific Command and the latter under U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Central Command respectively poses challenges for bilateral cooperation.20 Indian navy currently has close relations with only the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, creating operational and logistical problems in coordinating activities in the region. The U.S. National Defence Authorization Act for the year 2020 incorporates amendments to improve military coordination in the Western Indian Ocean Region (IOR) However; such a massive geostrategic revision is likely to take time and serious financial resources to materialize.

U.S. Bases on Diego Garcia

The question of U.S. presence in the Diego Garcia islands is another important factor in US-India relations. India has long opposed U.S. bases on Diego Garcia, with former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi describing it as an attempt to militarize the Indian Ocean.21 India was among the 116 nations which voted in favor of a UNGA resolution demanding the UK to withdraw its “colonial administration” from the Chagos archipelago—where the U.S. has a major base— unconditionally within six months.22 However, the non-binding nature of the resolution has prolonged the status quo and still keeps space open for a negotiated settlement.

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