The U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean: India’s ‘Goldilocks’ Dilemma

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India’s strategic community was in a frenzy last month after USS John Paul Jones carried out a freedom of navigation exercise near India’s Lakshadweep Islands. Indian observers were mystified by the timing of maneuver, coming as it did at a moment when U.S.-Indian relations are on a high. The disquiet in New Delhi was compounded by a U.S. 7th Fleet press release that said the operation was carried out in India’s exclusive economic zone “without requesting India’s prior consent” to assert “navigational rights and freedoms”—language that many Indian observers saw as needlessly provocative.

Analysts in India should not have been surprised. Following the Biden administration’s announcement of ambitious plans to counter China, the United States has moved to boost its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region. In recent weeks, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have bolstered their deployments, jointly conducting expeditionary strike force operations in the South China Sea. While much of America’s focus is on tackling China’s grey zone challenge in the East Asian littorals, the Indian Ocean, too, is receiving more attention than ever. There is a growing sense in Washington that the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy has neglected the Indian Ocean region, where China has made steady inroads. With the maturation of the Quad, a loose security partnership of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan, many U.S. analysts believe the time is right for the U.S. Navy to stage a return to the Indian Ocean region.



Washington’s moves, however, are a tad too much for India’s comfort. Despite strong ties with the United States and a shared understanding of China’s aggressive rise in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi remains wary of a large U.S. footprint in littoral South Asia. While the Indian navy has sought closer engagement with the U.S. Navy, particularly in the aftermath of the India-China border clash in June last year, Indian observers believe that prevailing circumstances in the eastern Indian Ocean do not merit increased pressure by the U.S. Navy. As this essay explains, despite warming bilateral ties, New Delhi and Washington have somewhat incompatible expectations in the Indian Ocean, where the U.S. Navy has been increasingly active, obtruding — wittingly or unwittingly — on what many in India see as India’s sphere of natural influence. The general view among Indian commentators is that the best course for the United States and India is a middle path, whereby the U.S. Navy could aid the Indian navy materially and technologically in ways that might create greater stability and peace in the Indian Ocean.

U.S.-Indian Maritime Partnership

In recent years, as China has continued its rise as an economic, political, and military power, India and the United States have sought a deeper strategic relationship. Since the signing of the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision Statement for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in 2015, the emphasis has been on the development of closer maritime ties, with concerted efforts by both sides to expand engagement and interoperability with exercises such as Malabar, which now involves the participation of Quad countries of India, America, and Japan (all permanent members) and Australia. With India’s greater arms procurements from the United States and the inking of the foundational agreements, Indian readiness for integrated operations in the littorals has also grown. New Delhi has welcomed Washington’s strategic outreach to wider South Asia, displaying greater willingness for cooperative endeavors in the Indian Ocean region. An accent on multilateral maritime drills, such as the recent Quad-plus-France exercise in the eastern Indian Ocean, has served to signal to Beijing that like-minded democracies are prepared to stand up for free trade and a rules-based order.

Yet voices in India’s strategic community urge caution. After the signing of a defense pact between the United States and the Maldives in September 2020, some Indian analysts counsel the need for New Delhi to hedge against the possibility of an “over-crowding of the neighborhood strategic space in the Indian Ocean.” While they welcome an American forward presence in the Indian Ocean region as a vital hedge against China, some Indian observers believe that an excessive U.S. military presence in the eastern Indian Ocean region could needlessly provoke China, with adverse implications for New Delhi.

The trepidation in New Delhi isn’t driven merely by the prospect of greater Chinese aggression in the neighborhood. Indian observers remain concerned that a U.S. strategic presence in South Asia might result in the shrinking of Indian influence in the neighborhood. While Indian unease is often latent and rarely ever overtly expressed, signs of dissatisfaction occasionally bubble up. There is particular worry among Indian analysts that by encouraging the United States to assume a dominant role in South Asia, India might be on a path to relinquish its security commitments in the neighborhood.

Even so, voicing apprehension over U.S. naval activity in India’s neighborhood can often be tricky. With many in New Delhi having placed their implicit trust in the strategic partnership with America, there is a sense that differences ought to be delicately stated and in ways that do not implicate the broader relationship. For instance, when asked to comment on the American decision to stand up a new numbered naval fleet for the Indian Ocean last year, Adm. Arun Prakash, a former chief of the naval staff, balanced approval with caution to observe that much as it was a positive development, a U.S. naval fleet based in South Asia or Singapore would be “too close for New Delhi’s comfort” as it would overlap with the Indian navy’s area of responsibility in the eastern Indian Ocean. Prakash suggested that instead, the U.S. Navy consider setting up a fleet facility in the Philippines.

Disagreements Over Freedom of Navigation

Yet, on occasion, the gaps between Indian and U.S. positions become plainly evident—such as after the recent freedom of navigation operation near Lakshadweep. For the United States, freedom of navigation operations are a way of showing that the maritime claims of certain states are inconsistent with international law. India’s requirement of prior consent for the passage of foreign warships through Indian exclusive economic zones, U.S. officials believe, is a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which requires that all states act with “due regard” for the rights of the coastal state but makes no explicit mention of military activity.

India, however, sees things differently. From an Indian vantage point, the convention cannot be interpreted to permit military activities in other nations’ exclusive economic zones. When it ratified the convention in 1995, New Delhi clarified its position in a declaration stating that in its understanding, the convention does not “authorize other states to carry out in the EEZ [exclusive economic zone] and on the continental shelf military exercises or maneuvers, in particular those including the use of weapons or explosions, without the consent of the coastal state.” This position is consistent with India’s domestic laws, the Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and Other Maritime Zones Act of 1976 , and remains unchanged.

For India, a U.S. naval presence in the eastern Indian Ocean has implications that go beyond the interpretation of U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. As this analyst noted in a recent paper, U.S. freedom of navigation operations normalize military activism (including Chinese operations) near Indian islands that remain vulnerable to incursions by foreign warships in the surrounding seas. The U.S. emphasis on navigational freedoms in the exclusive economic zones encourages warships of other regional navies to violate Indian authority and jurisdiction in the waters off island territories. Since Washington is yet to ratify the U.N. convention, Indian officials aren’t eager to accept U.S. lecturing on the subject of navigational freedoms.

New Delhi’s Dilemma

When it comes to a U.S. naval presence in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi, it seems, faces a predicament. India’s security managers deem a U.S. military presence in the Indian Ocean a necessity, but only up to a point. For all its utility in deterring China, a U.S. naval presence in South Asia, many suspect, could erode India’s status as a “net security provider” and a “preferred security partner” in the Indian Ocean. An extended U.S. military presence in South Asia could even exacerbate power rivalries in the Indian Ocean, damaging India’s prospects in the neighborhood. Like Goldilocks, New Delhi seeks just the right balance of U.S. military presence in the Indian Ocean littorals: not too hard, not too soft, but just right.

What, then, is a way forward? India’s naval planners would ideally like the U.S. Navy to help build military capacity in the region, enhance information and intelligence exchanges, create better domain awareness, and provide humanitarian assistance wherever needed. In return, India would be happy to facilitate an American military presence in the region, provided the U.S. Navy acted mainly in concert with its partner.

This is not to say that Indian experts and commentators are averse to the U.S. military playing more than a stabilizing role in a free, fair, and open Indian Ocean. In the aftermath of the clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Ladakh last year, Indian naval planners realize the importance of a leveraging U.S. military presence in South Asia to more proactively deter China. To that end, India has been carrying out joint exercises with the U.S. Navy (and with the navies of Japan, Australia, and France). Yet the consensus in the Indian military over deeper integration with the U.S. military is so far limited.

In seeking closer coordination with the U.S. military, Indian planners are contending with two other realities. The first is the lack of convergence in Indian and American interests in the western Indian Ocean, (i.e., the fact that India does not support U.S. naval operations in the Persian Gulf aimed at coercing Iran). In recent years, as its interests in the Middle East have grown, New Delhi has been keen to improve maritime ties with all regional capitals, including Tehran. Washington’s antipathy for Iran, however, constricts India’s strategic space in the region.

The second reality for New Delhi is America’s expectations of strategic reciprocity in its partnership with India. Consequent to the signing of the U.S.-Indian mutual logistics agreement and other foundational pacts, Washington expects naval access to India’s bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India’s operational managers have been slow to operationalize the logistics agreement, unsure of the ramifications of opening up Indian island bases to the U.S. Navy (although New Delhi allowed a U.S. P-8 aircraft to refuel at the Andaman Islands last year). India has also shied away from pursuing joint projects of a strategic nature with the United States and Japan. Militarizing the Andaman Islands and the Bay of Bengal, many say, would impose inevitable costs.

Even on the issue of Indian-U.S. maritime cooperation in the western Indian Ocean, Indian planners remain hesitant. While Washington recently signaled an extension of its conception of the Indo-Pacific to the east coast of Africa, Indian commentators suspect the move is essentially selfish, driven by the need to relieve “the operational load borne by an over-stretched Indo-Pacific command in countering China.” Many in New Delhi remain unconvinced that sharing the security burden with the United States in the western Indian Ocean would result in commensurate gains for India in the strategic-military realm.

Indian apprehensions are heightened by the uncertainties surrounding the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. On a visit to New Delhi last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin informed Indian policymakers that India’s planned procurement of the S-400 Triumf air defense system from Russia would invite U.S. sanctions. The move could potentially trigger an embargo on transfer of new technology from the United States, adversely affecting U.S.-Indian operational cooperation in the maritime commons. Indian officials have pinned their hopes on a sanctions waiver, but with Indian defense imports from Moscow showing few signs of slowing down, there is no telling whether and how it will materialize.

Tempering Expectations

To optimize the navy-to-navy partnership, commentators and policymakers in India and the United States must balance expectations with what is realistic. Indian analysts need to come to terms with the U.S. military’s concept of presence in the littorals — it goes beyond showing the flag to include long-term deployments, training and support missions, and responses to grey zone conflicts. Inevitably, the Indian navy and the U.S. Navy will not agree to operate together in certain sensitive spaces like the Persian Gulf. That should not stop them from actively collaborating elsewhere.

With India’s energy and diaspora interests “weighted west,” Indian observers often complain that the U.S. Indo-Pacific command’s remit ends on the western shores of India. They posit ruefully that the U.S. Central Command, in charge of military operations in the western Indian Ocean region, lacks an organic connection with the Indian navy. U.S. bureaucratic seams in the Indian Ocean, however, are a reality that Indian planners must unprotestingly accept. There is little chance that the Indo-Pacific Command will ever have its area of responsibility extended to cover the entire Indian Ocean because the mandarins in Washington are convinced that the U.S. Central Command and Africa Command are ideally suited to deal with the challenges in their respective regions.

Even in the eastern Indian Ocean — where the U.S. 7th fleet has been active — it is worth acknowledging that U.S. naval power is unlikely to play a decisive role in a regional war — not on account of Washington’s unwillingness to play a part, but due to the land-centric nature of India’s conflicts with China and Pakistan. Whatever agency it might claim in South Asia, the U.S. Navy won’t be in a position to independently coerce or compel China in the eastern Indian Ocean.

Indian observers must also pare back their expectations of receiving high-grade military technology from Washington. It is well known that America does not share disruptive technologies with partners in areas where the United States has a head start on its rivals (such as antisubmarine tech). Co-development and coproduction of defense equipment with U.S. industry may be India’s best chance, even if the process is drawn out and wearisome. In many critical domains, Indian planners must be willing to be patient as the United States is the only reliable source of high-end technology in those areas.

On the issue of freedom of navigation, it’s worth pointing out that despite disagreements, India and the United States have refrained from a public airing of differences. Many in New Delhi have come around to accept U.S. freedom of navigation operations as an instrument in Washington’s military and diplomatic toolkit that gives it leverage in East Asia. U.S. officials, too, have learned to take Indian posturing in stride. Washington knows New Delhi’s real concern is the possibility of a greater Chinese naval presence in Indian waters, in particular the threat of People’s Liberation Army Navy submarines near Indian islands. New Delhi’s pronouncements on foreign military activity in Indian exclusive economic zones, American officials know, don’t need to be taken literally. 

Improve Synergy, Avoid ‘Overstretch’

As it plans to grow its presence in the “Indo” of the Indo-Pacific, Washington, however, must reflect on the political sensitivities of India and other Indian Ocean states. The security priorities of littoral states vary substantially from region to region, and different models of maritime cooperation apply. For instance, countries in Africa’s eastern littorals and small island nations care more about climate change, human security, resources management, and transnational crime than about power rivalries (which are a staple of Middle Eastern security conversations). Similarly, Bay of Bengal countries are averse to any form of maritime cooperation that might encourage big-power competition. Rather than pursue a one-size-fits-all template of defense engagement, the United States would be well advised to adopt a model of partner support.

With New Delhi, Washington must pursue an agenda of comprehensive security, but in ways that strengthen the Indian military and improve the Indian navy’s crisis response capabilities. In the western Indian Ocean, maritime cooperation is likely to be limited, at least until India and the United States are in better political alignment on the subject of Iran and the Chagos Archipelago, home to the U.S. military base at Diego Garcia.

It’s worth acknowledging that the onslaught of COVID-19 in India has depleted political capital in New Delhi to pursue ambitious foreign policy objectives. The pandemic has triggered a moment of reckoning in India’s foreign policy and security establishment, reducing Indian appetite for expansive diplomatic initiatives or hard military posturing in the neighborhood. In the circumstances they face, Indian decision-makers are unlikely to be willing to endorse U.S. moves in the Indian Ocean that might risk conflict with China.

The best way forward for the United States, then, is to maintain robust security interactions with India (and other Indian Ocean states) but, unless driven by great necessity, limit its activity to formal exercises, information sharing, and capacity-building initiatives. Washington can be a driving force in constructing an Indo-Pacific “concert” of maritime powers to maintain peace and tranquility and to construct a favorable balance of power in the region. In this, the U.S. Navy must leverage the Indian navy through joint operations and surveillance missions in the Indian Ocean. But the U.S.-Indian maritime partnership should aspire to be a reassuring symbol of stability rather than a duopoly of dominance in the Indian Ocean.



Abhijit Singh is a retired Indian naval officer and a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 3rd Class Aja Bleu Jackson)