Searching for a High Note in the U.S.-India Maritime Partnership
When Admiral Sunil Lanba, the chief of the Indian Navy, visited the United States in March, he created a buzz in New Delhi about the prospects for U.S.-India alignment in the maritime domain. In his meeting with senior administration officials — including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of the U.S. Navy Richard V. Spencer — Lanba reportedly apprised his interlocutors of New Delhi’s willingness for closer operational interaction with the U.S. Navy. Lanba, who has in the past raised concerns over the Chinese navy’s undersea deployments in the Indian Ocean, is a proponent of deeper naval ties with the United States. Under his leadership, the Indian Navy has sought from its American counterpart greater air surveillance capability to track and counter Chinese deployments in India’s near-seas.
A few weeks after Lanba’s visit, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, President Donald Trump’s pick to take over U.S. Pacific Command had his confirmation hearing. Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he believed America’s prospects for improved military ties with India were a historic opportunity to replace Russia as New Delhi’s premier security partner. The new PACOM chief is expected to focus on countering China’s undersea forces in the Indo-Pacific region, which could well translate into anti-submarine cooperation with India.
For many observers, the U.S.-India navy-to-navy relationship is already the best performing area of the bilateral partnership. Nautical ties have been riding a crest since the signing of the Joint Strategic Vision in January 2015 and a renewed 10-year defense framework agreement later that year. In May 2016, the countries held their first maritime security dialogue. Soon after, the two countries signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding, a crucial agreement that allows the two navies to access each other’s logistics facilities on a reciprocal basis. Washington’s proposal for joint development of India’s next-generation aircraft carrier — in particular, the transfer of electromagnetic aircraft launch system technology — has deepened strategic trust, generating further momentum in maritime ties. Supporters of the U.S.-India military partnership see a greater willingness to identify areas of convergence, resolve differences, and chart a sharper course ahead. While there is more work to be done to resolve areas of friction between the two countries, the current trend is clearly towards more naval synchronization. This in turn points to India’s increasing interest in operational coordination with partner navies and multilateral cooperation in Asia’s maritime commons.
An Optimistic Outlook
For proponents of the U.S.-India relationship, recent developments have been a cause for cheer. In late 2016, America elevated its ties with India by recognizing it as a “major defense partner,” generating confidence in the relationship. A bilateral “white shipping” data-sharing arrangement promises to enhance situational awareness in the Indian Ocean, even as cooperation on aircraft carrier development is animating the navy-to-navy relationship. The Indo-U.S. Joint Working Group has already met four times in the past two years, and the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative is beginning to yield results, even if belatedly so. The Trump administration’s decision to allow the sale of Sea Guardian unmanned aerial systems to India is widely seen as a potentially game-changing move — even if it falls short of New Delhi’s expectation of armed drones from Washington.
The U.S. Navy’s presence in the South Asian seas has also been gradually increasing. Since 2015, when a U.S. littoral combat ship visited Chittagong for the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercises, there has been an uptick in U.S. naval activity in the Bay of Bengal. Last year a U.S. Marine expeditionary unit was in Colombo to enhance engagement with Sri Lankan marines and carry out endurance and capacity building drills. Six months later, the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group became the first such group to visit Sri Lanka.
Most encouragingly for bilateral maritime ties, there has been an expansion of the U.S.-India Malabar naval exercises. Since Japan’s inclusion as a permanent member in 2015, Malabar has grown in both scope and complexity. Last year’s exercise included the participation of two aircraft carriers, guided missile cruise ships, destroyers, submarines, Poseidon P-8A/P-8i aircraft, as well as Japan’s new helicopter carrier JS Izumo. Increasingly, Malabar has focused on the higher end of the naval operational spectrum, emphasizing anti-submarine warfare, carrier strike group operations, and reconnaissance operations. This shift points to a greater collective readiness to counter China’s assertive naval deployments. Not coincidentally, the latest round of the U.S.-India maritime dialogue in Goa seemed to focus chiefly on naval operational integration in the Indo-Pacific region.
Alas, the signs of increased cooperation still fail to convince skeptics who believe the maritime relationship has been vastly overrated. The doubters argue that India’s priorities remain overly focused on the South Asian seas and indifferent to America’s strategic imperatives in East Asia. For instance, India has remained unwilling to endorse joint naval patrols in East Asia’s sensitive littorals. More importantly, India and the United States continue to differ on their interpretations of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. New Delhi has been distinctly uncomfortable with the U.S. Navy’s unannounced forays through its exclusive economic zones. While Indian policymakers appreciate the need for U.S. naval ships to underscore the principle of “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, they cannot support a maneuver whose logic could be used by China to justify greater naval activism near the Andaman Islands.
Some Indian observers hold Washington equally responsible for what they perceive as a stasis in nautical ties. As China has surged ahead as an economic, military and technological giant, skeptics allege that the United States has done little to boost India’s deterrence capability in maritime South Asia.
Indian analysts also complain that the Indian Navy’s cooperation with the United States is confined to the eastern half of the Indo-Pacific region. In the western Indian Ocean where India’s real economic interests lie, maritime cooperation with the United States remains deficient. Indian maritime planners say the U.S. military’s artificial division of the Indian Ocean down the middle is problematic. The eastern theater (including India and its near-seas) is under the jurisdiction of U.S. Pacific Command, while the western Indian Ocean is shared between U.S Africa Command and U.S. Central Command, known to have a close relationship with Pakistan. In the absence of clarity about which entity is charged with formulating responses to contingencies in the Indian Ocean, it is hard for the Indian Navy to seek help from its American counterparts to impose checks on China’s activities in the regional littorals.
American observers, meanwhile, point to India’s unwillingness to sign foundational pacts — the long-pending bilateral Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement. Not only has this limited bilateral naval cooperation, it has also led the United States to strip away tactical interoperability aids in platforms it has supplied to India, such as in the P-8I and C-130J aircraft, instead replacing them with lower grade commercially available equipment.
Beyond U.S.-India Cooperation
And yet, optimism about the relationship abounds. To a degree, the impetus for a deeper maritime relationship with the United States is a result of India’s changed approach to military cooperation in general. Unable to deter China’s strategic ingress into the Indian Ocean, India’s defense establishment wants functional partnerships with friendly maritime powers in littoral Asia. In a significant decision last month, New Delhi signaled its readiness to position a military attaché in the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain — a move many Indians view as part of a strategy to expand maritime domain awareness in the western Indian Ocean, allowing India to keep a closer eye on Chinese naval activities in the regional littorals.
More importantly, New Delhi has given the nod to tri-service amphibious exercises with the U.S. Navy off the Indian coast (including in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean). As India moves towards joint theater commands, the Andaman and Nicobar Command is likely to become a hub of Indian naval power projection. By including U.S. military assets in its blueprint for its future regional presence, the Indian Navy has signaled an aspiration for greater operational integration.
Meanwhile, Washington continues to support India’s security initiatives in the Indian Ocean littorals. It has been nudging along a proposal for delivery of four additional submarine killers (P-8I aircraft) to the Indian Navy by 2020, which will help India in its efforts to expand naval air surveillance. More generally, Trump administration officials’ repeated references to India’s crucial role in securing the western flank of the Indo-Pacific indicates an eagerness for a closer nautical partnership.
None of this is to suggest that Indian and American interests in the maritime domain are totally aligned. Indeed, multiple points of friction continue to plague the relationship, particularly on the Law of the Sea issue and New Delhi’s continuing refusal to allow Australia to join the Malabar exercise.
Even so, there is growing empathy in New Delhi for U.S. strategic objectives in the Asian littorals. As U.S. naval forces in the western Pacific face pressure from increasing Chinese activity, the Indian Navy has stepped forward to take greater responsibility for constabulary and benign security tasks in the Indian Ocean. India has been getting ready to perform the role of a net security provider in these littorals. Having signed agreements with Oman, France, and Seychelles for the use of maritime facilities, India is emphasizing its strategic stakes in the region. The Indian Navy knows it must play a supporting role in the integrated Indo-Pacific region in return for U.S. assistance in defending India’s security sphere.
Not surprisingly, the Indian establishment is looking at ways to resolve the impasse over the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement. India has finally recognized the need for an agreement that allows the integration of U.S. systems and sensors in a way that enables real systems interoperability.
Indian policymakers today appear more willing than before to accept Washington’s assertion that the foundational pacts do not infringe on India’s sovereign rights over high-tech defense equipment purchased from the United States. Perhaps this has to do with the recent enhancement of trust between New Delhi and Washington, and a real convergence of strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific region. Indeed, it seems likely that India may accept the terms of the agreements, albeit with suitable modifications and language that addresses specific Indian concerns over protocols governing equipment usage.
The shift in New Delhi’s stance may well be the result of the Indian foreign policy establishment seeking greater security insurance from Indo-Pacific partners against Chinese hegemony in maritime South Asia. Indian policymakers realize that the navy needs partner states to provide critical surveillance and reconnaissance assistance to accompany increased maritime muscle. But American analysts, too, seem more aware of their country’s dependence on India to secure the eastern Indian Ocean. U.S. security watchers note a transformation in the way the Indian Navy talks about the maritime domain — from “using the waters” to “securing the seas.” As a consequence, many in Washington regard a maritime partnership with New Delhi as a strategic imperative.
Now, more than ever, the United States and India acknowledge the need for a shared vision of a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Even as they look for effective ways to further coordinate their naval activity, both partners recognize the need to sustain the progress that has already been achieved. New Delhi and Washington know that their shared commitment to democratic values and principles, including peaceful resolution of disputes and freedom of navigation and over-flight, amounts to little if their navies cannot collectively ensure the necessary conditions for regional states to make their own choices, free from coercion and intimidation.
Like lead musicians in a symphony, India and the United States find themselves searching for the perfect high note. Both sides seem to realize they must persevere against odds, doing everything they can to sustain the pitch and tempo of their cooperation in the “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi where he heads the Maritime Policy Initiative. A former Indian naval officer, he has written extensively on security and governance issues in the Indian Ocean and Pacific littorals. Editor of two books, Indian Ocean Challenges: A Quest for Cooperative Solutions (2013) and Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific (2014), he has also published papers on India’s growing maritime reach, security of sea-lines of communication in the Indo-Pacific region, Indian Ocean governance issues, and maritime infrastructure in the Asian littorals.
Image: U.S. Navy/Stephen W. Rowe