US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on America's 'Relationship with India for the Next Century' at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on October 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Yuri Gripas
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on America's 'Relationship with India for the Next Century' at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on October 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Yuri Gripas

It is us against them. Speaking at a think-tank in Washington last Wednesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the basics of President Donald Trump’s strategy for the Indian Ocean region. The top US diplomat bluntly said the United States had to team up with India in the face of China’s attempt to subvert the rules-based global order.

Tillerson’s words came ahead of his upcoming visit to Delhi, and elicited a bitter response from Beijing.

Defense ties between the US superpower and the Indian giant started improving more than a decade ago, at the time of George W Bush’s presidency, and got a boost under the tenure of his successor, Barack Obama. The question is whether conditions are ripe for a strategic partnership – or quasi-alliance – between Washington and New Delhi.

Chinese doubts

A recent piece in China Military, the English-language news website of the People’s Liberation Army, argues that the US-Indian relationship is actually quite fragile. The current security dialogue between the US and India revolves around their common opposition to China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region and New Delhi’s arms acquisitions from US defense contractors, the article’s authors explain. However, despite the increasing level of military cooperation between the US and India, they say the two countries have “different aims” in South Asia.

Indeed, while Washington wants to sell its weapons to a dynamic regional power like India, and is not interested in technology transfer, New Delhi aims to ramp up its indigenous defense industry and make itself independent of costly arms purchases from abroad – be it from the US, Russia or others. Furthermore, Washington’s desire to maintain its strategic clout across the Indian Ocean would clash with New Delhi’s objective to assert its naval power in that region.

The first objection does not take into account Washington’s overtures to the Indian government. In September, during his trip to India, US Defense Secretary James Mattis pointed out that his country was ready to share its most advanced military technology with New Delhi through the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative.

As well, it is certainly true that India aspires to become a regional power in the Indo-Pacific space. New Delhi’s growing defense spending (US$55.6 billion in 2016) indicates that it is moving in that direction. Yet there are rising doubts that the Indian government has the financial resources to try to bridge the military gap – especially as far as naval warfare is concerned – with China.

On the other hand, the US cannot deploy many forces in the vast Indian Ocean region at a time when its military is already overstretched. Washington is heavily engaged in the Pacific Rim to try to contain China’s military projection and North Korea’s nuclear challenge; it is beefing up its presence in Eastern and Northern Europe to protect its allies against a potential threat from a resurgent Russia, and has troops in Afghanistan, “Syraq” and Africa’s Sahel combating radical Islamist organizations.

Codifying the US-Indian partnership

The US Senate and House of Representatives are negotiating a final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018. The current formulation provides for advancements in defense cooperation with India. US lawmakers are calling on the Trump administration to explore the feasibility of joint exercises, operations and patrols, mutual port calls, military exchanges, coordinated defense planning and interoperability with India’s armed forces.

According to congressmen on Capitol Hill, the US-Indian military interaction is facilitated by Washington’s recognition of the Asian country as a “major defense partner”, which has elevated India to a level equivalent to those of America’s closest allies and partners. And this goes for the improvement of joint capabilities, as well as for defense trade and technology sharing between the two countries.

The Indian government has hailed Tillerson’s remarks as a “significant policy statement”, even though it has cautiously avoided any reference to China. India has always pursued a multi-vector foreign policy, trying to strike a balance between different world and regional actors. But the strategic challenge coming from Beijing could push New Delhi to end this praxis and side with Washington.

After all, the United States and India could compensate for each other’s strategic weaknesses. And this complementary US-Indian partnership could also be extended to Japan and Australia if Beijing were to expand its global reach in the middle term, as suggested last Wednesday by President Xi Jinping at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China.

The NDAA for next year authorizes security assistance for the Baltic states and, more generally, supports the European Deterrence Initiative to deter perceived Russian aggression. If one day Washington’s military budget bill includes an explicit reference to the US-Indian deterrence against China in the Indo-Pacific region, then the bar for defense cooperation between the two countries will definitely be raised.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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