India-U.S. Strategic Convergence in the Indo-Pacific Region

By Jyotirmoy Banerjee

As early as 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the need for U.S. naval cooperation with the Indian Navy, given the importance of the Indo-Pacific basin for world trade. Although the Pacific was already an American lake since the end of World War II,1 in 2011 President Obama launched the new strategy of “rebalancing “Asia-Pacific as a “pivot.” This, notes a Philippine study,2 was an indication of the growing alarm that the U.S.—and many Indo-Pacific littorals—continued to feel about the dramatic rise of China’s economic and military power. Further, as a U.S. commentary noted, “China scared everybody into our arms”3 The U.S. Defense Department’s strategic guidance released around this time singled out India to observe that the U.S. “is also investing in a long term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.”4

To be sure, the U.S. has a large number of military bases in the Asia-Pacific region, and deploys some 80,000 troops in Japan and South Korea. U.S. naval and air power can be credibly projected into every part of this region stretching from Bollywood to Hollywood and from the polar bear to the penguin. Under President Obama, however, the U.S. strategic priority, or “rebalancing,” was meant to shift from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, and expand U.S. presence within the region by forging closer military, trade, and other ties. President Trump’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took the shift further and termed India as a “Major Defense Partner” while urging U.S. agencies to expedite drone sales to India.5 On 30 May 2018 he renamed the U.S. Pacific Command as INDOPACOM, or Indo-Pacific Command, in Honolulu as America’s “priority theater.” Shortly thereafter, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore Mattis stressed the concern of not only the U.S. but several other littorals of Asia’s eastern periphery at China’s allegedly overbearing behavior, e.g. placing war potential on the features it occupies in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, including “the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island.”6

India’s Prime Minister Modi, however, refrained from censuring China, presumably to avoid being openly ensnared in a U.S.-led “counter-China” strategy. But Mattis called for underpinning a free and open Indo-Pacific with his country standing “shoulder to shoulder with India, ASEAN and our treaty allies and other partners.” He identified the “Indo-Pacific” region as “critical” for America. He did not hesitate to transparently arraign India against China: “The U.S. values the role India can play in regional and global security, and we view the U.S.-India relationship as a natural partnership between the world’s two largest democracies, based on a convergence of strategic interests, shared values, and respect for a rule-based international order.”7 Indeed, Hillary Clinton had openly come out against China’s long-standing claim of practically all of the South China Sea—with its so-called “9-dash Line”—during her Hanoi visit in 2010. This was welcomed by the affected states of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.8 Nevertheless, China continued to pursue its “active defense strategy” and “anti-access /aerial denial (A2/AD)” to counter any intervention in waters under its control, presumably by the U.S.

In November 2013 Beijing had gone ahead with establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over portions of the East China Sea. It was a matter of concern that China might establish a similar zone in the South China Sea conflicting with territorial claims by others. In August 2018 the PLA Navy (PLAN) sent two frigates and a supply ship to the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia. And a Chinese commentary proudly proclaims, “As China’s ship-building industry has been making rapid progress in recent years, the number of warship types has also increased, including combat support ships that are essential among the ocean-going fleets…The Type-901 comprehensive supply ship Hulunhu (Hull 965) is known as the “nanny of aircraft carriers.’” 9

There were other reports of PLAN exercises too. “Naval vessels from three theater commands of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have conducted air defense and anti-missile live-fire exercises in the East China Sea,” declared the PLA Daily in August 2018. The exercises would beef up the PLAN’s defense capability “in response to potential threats from anti-ship missiles from Japan, the U.S., and other countries near China.”10 The PLAN hosted that same month “Seaborne Assault,” a five-nation military exercise.11 China deployed several hundred surface-to-air missiles as well as the anti-ballistic missile interceptor HQ-26 on the South China Sea islands. Chinese military expert Yin Zhuo justified such deployment in light of the powerful naval force of the U.S. in the region. Yin alleged that the U.S. was the one which truly threatened regional stability, though Western media had been spreading the theory of the “so-called China threat.”12

The reasons for China’s apparent high-handedness around the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in the East and South China Seas through the Indian Ocean all the way up to eastern Africa are not far to seek. Beijing’s energy-hungry, export-driven economy that heavily depends on raw material and fuel imports seeks to buttress its supposed lordship over regional SLOCs which, however, are also critical to the survival of other Asia-Pacific states. China transports $1.5 trillion worth of goods, including petroleum through the IOR.13 In 2015, in an unprecedented move that worried New Delhi, a Chinese nuclear submarine deployed to the IOR. Stretching Beijing’s overseas influence, a PLA military contingent also appeared that year in South Sudan on a UN peace-keeping mission while a hospital ship offered free medical services to Fijian islanders.14 In July 2017 reports circulated that the PLA was setting up China’s first permanent overseas deployment in Djibouti – right next to the U.S. Navy’s Camp Lemonnier base there – since its withdrawal from North Korea in 1958.15 In August 2017 the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning started its exercises in the East China Sea but then quickly shifted its force to South China Sea and flew its combat aircraft – the J-15 “Flying Shark” – for the first time over that sea. The U.S. has sent a number of aircraft carrier strike groups to cruise in the South China Sea and, alleged China Military, frequently harassed Chinese soldiers stationed on the islands. The presence of the Liaoning was to stake out China’s claims in the region. Moreover, the South China Sea is an important advance base for China’s strategic nuclear submarines and Liaoning can be there to provide air cover for them.16

Regarding China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), there are fears that engaging China in these large infrastructure projects could put participating countries at debt risk. The port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka is an example. And many in Pakistan anticipate a similar debt-ridden fate over the Chinese-aided Gwadar port in their country. It is feared that this debt will then be used by China as leverage to gain access to resources and pursue its strategic interests.17

The issue of military or economic dominance in the Indo-Pacific is just a part of the greater challenge: finding a balance of power between the U.S. and China that is acceptable to both nations. Ever since the 1997 Bill Clinton-Jiang Zemin talks and despite a number of other high-level meetings, U.S.-China relations remain characterized by the classic “Thucydidean trap,” where the status quo power (U.S.) is concerned at the rise of another power (China). The resulting strategic tension bodes ill for both as well as the region.

In such a changing strategic naval scenario, where the U.S. has been taking a fresh look at its naval deployments and diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific, India with its vast coastline and geographic position can play a significant role. Over 80 percent of world oil exports, 50 percent of the global container traffic and 33 percent of global cargo trade move through the IOR and its strategic chokepoints like the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. The renaming of the Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific clearly signaled the role the US expected India to play in countering China.

In its turn India had already stressed in its January 2015 statement on “U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. In a transparent reference to China it had added, “We call on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means…”18

India also provided some muscle to that statement. In May 2016 a strong Indian naval force deployed to the South China Sea,  took part in the Malabar-16 exercise with the  U,S, and Japanese navies,  and also called at the  ports of several littorals stretching all the way to the East China Sea right up to Vladivostok. The Indian Navy declared the region as being of “vital strategic importance to India.”19 In 2017 a U.S. naval study observed that “India’s maritime engagement and activities with Southeast and East Asian countries are increasing…indicating greater space for USN-Indian Navy cooperation” and that “U.S.-India naval ties under the Modi administration are thriving.”20

Following the new U.S. conventional arms transfer policy and the drone export policy of April 2018, State Department official Ambassador Tina Kaidanow declared that the U.S. was “raising the bar in the [arms transfer] relationship with India.”21 India, however, has been more circumspect on that relationship. Even though the Doklam border conflict with China was just a few months old,22 Premier Modi did not raise the issue of China’s assertiveness at the Shangri-La Dialogue, as already noted. However, he highlighted India’s naval activities and cooperation with regional navies, including the U.S. Nor did India quickly fall in line with Japan urging an early meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the quad, revived in 2017, with U.S., India and Australia. The dialogue was held in June 2018 only after India completed its diplomatic engagements with China and Russia. New Delhi was also careful to not mix up the Malabar Exercises with the U.S. navy with the Quad, which India believed would be a red flag to China.23

At the same time, India was delighted that in April 2018 the Trump administration decided to release armed Guardian drones to India,24 no doubt partly upon Mattis’ urging, and thus taking a step further to cement bilateral strategic ties. It would be the first time U.S. sells a large armed drone to a country outside the NATO. For the past few years only unarmed drones had been permitted to India. India’s importance for the U.S. lies in the fact that its navy, with its two dozen destroyers and frigates, an aircraft carrier, and assorted submarines, including a nuclear-powered one, as well as other vessels, is the largest among Indian Ocean Region (IOR) littorals.

In July 2018 the Indian Navy adopted a “new mission-based deployment” plan. It involves deploying mission-ready ships and aircraft along critical sea lanes of communications.25 This was in response to the uneasiness created by China’s “string of pearls” strategy, a U.S. coinage, which China calls the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road.”26 It refers to Beijing’s ever-expanding overseas commercial and concomitant military ties, naval movements and base and facility acquisitions in the IOR (Hambantota and Colombo port  in Sri Lanka, Cocoa Island and Kyaukphyu in Myanmar, Gwadar and Karachi in Pakistan, and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa),  construction of seaports, railroads and highways in littoral states,  island-building in the distant waters of the South China Sea and a massive submarine-building program, with the country now boasting more submarines than the U.S.27 What’s more, a Pentagon report on 16 August 2018 raised the spectre of PLA bombers training to strike the U.S. and its allies.28

In early September this year, an Indo-US ‘2+2′ dialogue was held for the first time at the Foreign at the Foreign and Defence ministers’ level in New Delhi. The significant results included the signing of The Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). This was a landmark agreement in  Indo-US defence and security relations. The ensuing joint statement described the two countries as “strategic partners, major and independent stakeholders in world affairs.”29

Beijing’s ambitious moves look very much like an attempt to turn China into the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. It is also to counter the U.S. “pivot” to Asia. China’s $40 billion Silk Road Fund and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are further indicators of its policy. It plans to develop a 3,000-kilometer, $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) connecting its restive Xinjiang province to the Baluch port city of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. India has responded with a comparatively feeble “Look East Act East” policy, but India will need the U.S. as much as the U.S. needs India to shore up countervailing power to China’s seaward thrust in the IOR.

Dr. Jyotirmoy Banerjee, former Professor of International Relations (Strategic Studies), Jadavpur University, Kolkata has over four decades of academic experience, including frequent research and teaching stints in Germany, Poland and the USA. Besides winning Fulbright, Alexander von Humboldt and Goethe Institute Fellowships, each several times, he has been recipient of other post-doctoral grants of the Rockefeller, Erasmus Mundus, InterNationes and UGC research programs. His academic peregrinations have stretched from India’s academia to California-Berkeley, Pennsylvania, Hawaii (Manoa), Massachusetts, St.Francis College, Indiana, Berlin (FU), German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn and Berlin, German Foreign Ministry (AA), the Toenissteiner Kreis in Cologne as well as Wroclaw University in Poland. He has presented at the State Department, U.S. National Security Council, and the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

References

[1] Cumings B. (2016) The Obama “Pivot” to Asia in a Historical Context of American Hegemony. In: Huang D. (eds) Asia Pacific Countries and the US Rebalancing Strategy. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp 11-30.

[2] Uriel N. Galace, “In Retrospect: Assessing Obama’s Asia Rebalancing Strategy”, http://www.fsi.gov.ph/in-retrospect-assessing-obamas-asia-rebalancing-strategy/, CIRSS Commentaries, VOL. III, NO. 16, December 2016, electronically accessed 8/9/2018, 10.34 P.M. IST (All times are in Indian Standard Time unless otherwise mentioned).

[3]  MICHAEL J. GREEN, “The Legacy of Obama’s “Pivot” to Asia”, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/09/03/the-legacy-of-obamas-pivot-to-asia/. | SEPTEMBER 3, 2016Electronically accessed 8/10/2018, 06.20 A.M.

[4] Quoted in S. Amer Latif,”India and the New U.S. Defense Strategy”,https://www.csis.org/analysis/india-and-new-us-defense-strategy,February 23, 2012.Electronically accessed on 8/19/2018,6:50 AM.

[5] “’Once-in-a-generation’ opportunity for US to find more common ground with India: Jim Mattis”, Apr 27, 2018, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defense/once-in-a-generation-opportunity-for-us-to-find-more-common-ground-with-india-jim-mattis/articleshow/63936701.cms. Electronically accessed on 8/26/2018, 4.00 AM.

[6] Euan Graham, “Mattis Lays Out U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy at Shangri-La,” https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/06/04/mattis_lays_out_us_indo-pacific_strategy_at_shangri-la_113504.html, June 04, 2018. Electronically accessed on 8/14/2018, 04.50 A.M.

[7] Remarks by Secretary Mattis at Plenary Session of the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis; John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS, June 2,2018.Transcript. https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1538599/remarks-by-secretary-mattis-at-plenary-session-of-the-2018-shangri-la-dialogue/ Electronically accessed on 9/13/2018, 04.46 A.M.

[8] Jeffrey A. Bader, “The US-China Nine-Dash Line: Ending the Ambiguity”, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-u-s-and-chinas-nine-dash-line-ending-the-ambiguity/, Feb.6, 2014. Electronically accessed on 14 August 2018, 6.12 A.M.

[9] Bei Guo Fang Wu,” PLA Navy ends era of “supply-ship troika” in its escort mission”, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-08/09/content_9247256.htm, Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018, 4:36 AM. Emphases added.

[10] Li Jiayao (Global Times Editor), “PLA naval exercises in East China Sea test missile interceptions”, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-08/13/content_9249528.htm, Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018, 4:38 AM.

[11] Li Jiayao, “”Seaborne Assault” concluded in China”, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-08/11/content_9249169.htm. Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018 4:41 AM.

[12] “China’s missile deployment in South China Sea completely reasonable: expert”, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Opinion/2017-01/04/content_4769263.htm. Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018 5:17 AM.

[13] Sarosh Bana, “Rebalancing with India”, https://idsa.in/idsacomments/rebalancing-with-india_sbana_310516. Electronically accessed on 8/25/2018, 3.34 AM.

[14] http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-08/09/content_9246542.htm. Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018 4:43 AM; http://search.chinamil.com.cn/search/milsearch/stouch_eng.jsp. Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018 4:56 AM. 12 Charles Clover,Sherry Fei, “Chinese military base takes shape in Djibouti” https://www.ft.com/content/bcba2820-66e1-11e7-8526-7b38dcaef614, JULY 12, 2017.Electronically accessed on 9/9/2018, 4.55 A.M.

[16] “Expert: China’s home advantage in South China Sea cannot be overlooked”, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Opinion/2017-01/04/content_4769264.htm. Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018 5:27 AM. The expert Li Jie, however, believes that aircraft carrier Liaoning is developed based on the Russian-made aircraft carrier Varyag and therefore it will inevitably be affected by the original design. But more critically, the number of ship-borne fighter jets of Liaoning is only half of that of US super aircraft carriers. In this way, it is hard for ship-borne fighter jets of Liaoning to bear air defense, anti-submarine and long-range strike at the same time.

[17]  Darlene V. Estrada, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Implications for the Philippines,” VOL. V, NO.3,March 2018, http://www.fsi.gov.ph/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-implications-for-the-philippines/ Electronically accessed on IST 8/10/2018 6:36 AM.

[18] US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region”, January 25, 2015, http://www.mea.gov.in/bilateraldocuments.htm?dtl/24728/USIndia_Joint_Strategic_Vision_for_the_AsiaPacific_and_Indian_Ocean_Region. Electronically accessed on 8/25/2018, 5.11 AM.

[19]  Sarosh Bana, op.cit.

[20] Nilanthi Samaranayake, Michael Connell,Satu Limaye,”The Future of U.S.-India Naval Relations”,February 2017,Center for Naval Analyses, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1029962.pdf. Electronically accessed on  8/25/2018,5:58 AM.

[21] U.S. Arms Transfer Policy: Shaping the Way Ahead,August 8, 2018 (transcript), https://www.csis.org/analysis/us-arms-transfer-policy-shaping-way-ahead. Electronically accessed on 9/9/2018, 7 AM.

[22] The dispute was over Chinese construction of a road in Doklam near a trijunction of India-China-Bhutan border area.

[23]  Indrani Bagchi, “ India, Australia, US, Japan to hold meet in Singapore”, Jun 6, 2018. Electronically accessed on 8/19/2018, 6 A.M.

[24] Ajay Banerjee, “India could be gainer as US changes policy on supply of armed drones”, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/india-could-be-gainer-as-us-changes-policy-on-supply-of-armed-drones/576937.html, 8/19/2018, 6:16 AM.; “US offers India armed version of Guardian drone: Sources”,  “https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/us-offers-india-armed-version-of-guardian-drone-sources/articleshow/65043647.cms, Jul 18, 2018. Electronically accessed on 9/9/2018, 6/20 AM.

[25] “Navy to implement new plan for warships in Indian Ocean region”, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defense/to-counter-china-navy-to-implement-new-plan-for-warships-in-indian-ocean-region/printarticle/61231821.cms. Elecronically accessed 8/21/2018, 1.20 AM. 

[26] “China reinvents ‘string of pearls’ as Maritime Silk Road”, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/China-reinvents-string-of pearls-as-Maritime-Silk-Road, April 29, 2015. Electronically accessed 8/21/2018. 2.21 AM.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Chinese bombers ‘likely training for US strikes’ says Pentagon”, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-Relations/Chinese-bombers-likely-training-for-US-strikes-says-Pentagon, August 17, 2018. Electronically accessed 7/21/2018, 8.01 PM.

[29] Indrani Bagchi, “2+2 talks set strategic direction for Indo-US ties”, Sep 9, 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/22-talks-set-strategic-direction-for-indo-us-ties/articleshow/65737608.cms, Electronically accessed 16 Sept.2018, 6.16 PM.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington, D.C., June 26, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

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