Abstract: The demise of the Soviet Union along with the end of the Cold War heralded a new era for Indo-US ties seeing as it was followed by a significant realignment in the global order. While the United States (US) enjoyed a brief moment of unipolarity, India emerged from its cocoon of protectionism and moved towards greater economic integration with the rest of the world. Said economic integration soon translated into political and strategic integration, in particular, the maritime domain came at the forefront of Indo-U.S. strategic cooperation. In the aforementioned domain, India laid aside its resentment towards U.S. forward presence and power projection in the Indian Ocean whereas the U.S. accepted the nation as a major regional player in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). As a result, the foundation for Indo-U.S. maritime cooperation came into being.
Bottom-line-up-front: The realignments in India and the US's strategic orientations were first granted traction through cooperation in the maritime domain. On the one hand, India laid aside its resentment against US forward presence and power projection in the Indian Ocean while the US accepted India as a major IOR player.
Problem statement: How can the reasoning, narrative, benefits and opportunities of close cooperation between India and the US in the maritime domain be understood?
So what?: India should seek enhancement of its naval capabilities. Platform acquisitions are expected to hold a lesser priority in comparison to enabling systems due to their high costs. A well-armed Indian Navy (IN) is beneficial to the US as it is a credible threat to China within the IOR. As such, close cooperation in the maritime domain becomes a US interest given that India - with its growing international profile - is more likely to play a larger role in burden-sharing.
Partnerships and Challenges in the New World Order
The fall of the Soviet Union resulted in a new world order, providing the US with a moment of unipolarity. Debates over a multipolar world which would see Japan, Germany, post-Soviet era Russia and China become poles of power in the new world order soon fizzled out as Japan’s economy - the sole premise behind it being a major power - stagnated and the unified Germany failed to take-off as expected. Meanwhile, Russia’s power was severely diminished whereas China was believed to be a few decades too far behind to catch up. The US enjoyed a superiority that was historically unparalleled, evidenced by its military expenditure which exceeded the combined spendings of the next 20 states on the list. Rather than looking inwards and adapting a policy of protectionism, it utilised the moment to influence the world into embracing a democratic, liberal international order. Consequently, the US got into conflict with rogue states that sought to reject the proposed rules-based international order. Throughout this period, the US took the opportunity afforded by its overwhelming superiority to incorporate fence-sitter states, including India, into the new global order. This granted it greater legitimacy in the pursuit of its interests.
Simultaneously, terrorist attacks led to a shift in the US’s primary threat perceptions ranging from state actors to non-state actors. The global scope of said threat coupled with even more from state actors had not reduced, which led to the US’s encouragement of burden-sharing among its allies and strategic partners. On another level, burden-sharing was arguably a product of the US’s economic stagnation, which had caused unrest in the domestic political environment. In other words, the perception that the US had over-invested in international security for the benefit of its partners despite them doing ‘too little’ existed. This view contrasted the Cold War environment, where US investment in entities such as NATO was deemed a necessary part of the country’s strategy in containing communism’s spread. Burden-sharing equally meant that US allies that benefited from its security umbrella had to put their boots-on-the-ground in wars that the US intervened in. Given that collective security had gained traction, most US security partners embraced their larger role under the burden-sharing framework. Thus, aside from gaining global legitimacy, burden-sharing was also a motivator for the US in seeking to improve its partnerships.
Burden-sharing equally meant that US allies that benefited from its security umbrella had to put their boots-on-the-ground in wars that the US intervened in.
A major geopolitical shift occurred in the first decade of the 21st century as the relative decline in US power coincided with China’s spectacular rise. On one hand the US and its NATO allies' saturated western economies stagnated while eastern economies for instance China and India began recording phenomenal growth. In the geopolitical sphere, the tilt in scales within economies was reflecting as debates of a gradual US withdrawal from regions around the world increased. On a different front China emerged as a major player and sought to assert what it believed were its rights as a unique, civilisational power. However, its assertions led to contestations with almost all its maritime neighbours - several of whom profited from the US security umbrella. The outlook has consistently been that the US hopes to retain superiority for as long as possible, and this is expectedly indicated by its continued dominance in the global system. Notably, China will presumably attempt to catch-up and rue over what it feels are impediments to its rights. In that manner, a global strategic competition between the US and China is conceived, and it could be orchestrated in various theatres with the expectation of a soaring number of contestations.
Drivers of the Indo-US Maritime Engagement
The realignments in strategic orientations of India and the US were first realized in the maritime domain as India laid aside its resentment towards US forward presence and power projection in the Indian Ocean while the US accepted India as a major regional player in the IOR. This became the foundation for Indo-US maritime cooperation: India sought to enhance its capabilities through engagement with the only surviving superpower as the US aimed to woo India into its hub-and-spokes approach for maritime security in the IOR.
The China Factor: Shared Threat Perceptions Trump Differing Imperatives
China’s emergence as a near-peer competitor to the US and India’s threat perception from China has become a significant driver of the Indo-US partnership. An important development in this regard came in the form of the US renaming its Pacific Command (USPACOM) to the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). Unfortunately, the concept has not been concretised due to the fact that vagueness in definitions persists. The US defines the Indo-Pacific region as the area that spans from the west coast of continental US to the west coast of India, which leaves out a substantial portion of the Indian Ocean. India’s perception in comparison, is even more ambiguous. The nation’s maritime strategy document states that the Indo-Pacific spans from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Ocean, stretching only to the Western Pacific. The obscurity is not surprising given that the security requirements of both India and the US are not the same, despite sharing major concerns.
The Indo-Pacific construct is a development of the Asia-Pacific construct, which proves to be inadequate at explaining the geopolitical changes of the 21st century. China’s rise led to a dependency on IOR littorals and as such, it increasingly adopted the maritime route for engagements with Asian and African states. Since the Pacific and Indian oceans were deeply interconnected through the SLOCs passing through Southeast Asia, China’s maritime rise saw the area quickly transform into the ‘maritime underbelly of Asia’. Consequently, the Asia-Pacific nomenclature proved to not only be overly continental in its orientation, it also excluded India from security establishments given that only the Pacific littorals of Asia were considered. Incorporating India in the construct was vital from the US point of view due to India's geographical dominance vis-à-vis SLOCs in the IOR. Hence, the US premised that any policy of containment of China would require India to play a vital role, making it the linchpin of the US’s policy to contain China. India, unlike the US, was not as concerned with China's containment as it was with China’s growing assertiveness, especially in the maritime domain. India’s adoption of the construct can best be understood as a policy that seeks to benefit from partnering with the US and other regional and extra-regional states who share security concerns vis-à-vis China’s assertive behaviour.
China’s rise led to a dependency on IOR littorals and as such, it increasingly adopted the maritime route for engagements with Asian and African states. Since the Pacific and Indian oceans were deeply interconnected through the SLOCs passing through Southeast Asia, China’s maritime rise saw the area quickly transform into the ‘maritime underbelly of Asia’.
Indo-US Maritime Partnership in Perspective
The Indo-US maritime partnership is one of the earliest post-Cold War engagements between the two geographical regions, the MALABAR Joint Naval Exercise for example, dates back to 1992. MALABAR has seen India gain legitimacy in the global maritime security establishment. In 2007, it was expanded to include Australia, Japan and Singapore whereas Japan became a permanent member in the year 2015. Owing to MALABAR, India took initiative to organise bilateral and multilateral naval exercises with several other states under the US security umbrella. Such exercises have enhanced interoperability between the Indian Navy (IN) and the United States Navy (USN) among other armed forces, having gained traction in recent years as the US strengthened its resolve to focus on the Indo-Pacific region. The US’s view of India as a linchpin in its Indo-Pacific strategy provides further impetus for it to aid in the development of the IN as a state-of-the-art modern expeditionary force with extensive reach.
Interestingly, the transfer of naval technology from the US to India dates back to before MALABAR’s initiation. The US sales of TPE-331 Turboprop engines for the IN’s Dornier-228 aircraft began in 1986; other notable engine procurements being the LM-2500 Gas Turbine for IN’s Shivalik Class frigates and India’s indigenously-built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant. Major platforms that have been supplied to India include the Landing Platform Dock INS Jalashwa, the first and so far only US vessel purchased by the IN. It was inducted into the IN on the 12th of September 2007 as the second-largest ship operated by the IN at the time. Nonetheless, the acquisition sparked debate since the vessel, earlier the USS Trenton, was 36-years-old at the time of acquisition and came with a restrictive clause prohibiting its use for offensive operations. Another clause was in place for monitoring the ship’s inventory through US inspections. It was asserted that the age of the vessel would result in India’s continued dependence on the US for technical support to maintain its functions. The IN acquired eight P-8I Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance (LRMR) aircraft from the US in 2013. As of 2021, it has placed an order for four more, with the expected delivery set to be in the same year. There are also plans to acquire six more P-8Is. The IN is said to have a requirement for 30 LRMRs given the increasing presence of Chinese submarines in the IOR.
Another important weapons transfer from the US to the IN is the Harpoon missile system - anti-ship missiles in use on P-8I aircraft, to be deployed under the Shishumar class of submarines. India is set to acquire 24 state-of-the-art MH-60 ‘Romeo’ Sea Hawk helicopters from the US, following a signed deal in February 2020. The Sea Hawk is believed to be the most advanced Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopter that can presently be operated. It is expected to replace the ageing fleet of Sea King helicopters. The IN is also slated to receive 10 Sea Guardian UAVs from the US, also known as the naval variant among Predator-B drones. The high-altitude and high-endurance drones are said to come equipped with missile and RADAR systems, though the IN is expected to primarily deploy them for reconnaissance missions.
India is set to acquire 24 state-of-the-art MH-60 ‘Romeo’ Sea Hawk helicopters from the US, following a signed deal in February 2020. The Sea Hawk is believed to be the most advanced Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopter that can presently be operated.
Institutionally, the US, Australia, Japan and India’s quadrilateral (QUAD) initiative forms the crux of the Indo-Pacific security architecture and is precipitated by these states' commitment to the shared values of democracy. Their virtues include preserving liberal international order and an open and free Indo-Pacific area in the face of Chinese authoritarianism and threats to freedom of navigation and overflight, especially in both the South and East China seas. As a result, freedom of navigation and other shared values have been drivers of India’s bilateral partnerships with several US allies. Additionally, India has entered into several logistics agreements with US allies that are akin to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). These are composed of the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) with France, the Logistic Support Agreement (LSA) with Australia the Implementing Arrangement between the Republic of Singapore’s Navy and the Indian Navy Concerning Mutual Coordination, Logistics and Services Support; and Agreement of Cooperation in Defence and Logistics with Philippines. Aside from those, the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with Japan and are in the pipeline. India was granted observer status at the US-led Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), allowing for a greater Indian maritime engagement with states in the Western Pacific region. Since 2016, India has been invited to partake in the US-led RIMPAC multinational naval exercise the world’s largest naval exercise at present.
Future Challenges and Prospects
India is keen on developing its naval capabilities in an effort to deter potential Chinese aggression. The US requires the IN to have sufficient resources that can support the USN in its strategy to contain China. Given that IN’s capabilities lag, an incremental approach to India’s naval modernisation may not be feasible due to time constraints. Hence, the focus should be on the speedy acquisition of advanced US technology instead. Such acquisitions should not be limited to platforms alone, which may prove to be too expensive and must implement enabling systems. The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) is an important mechanism for this. India is keen on developing an indigenous fleet of aircraft carriers and accessing high-end US technologies such as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). In fact, the India-US Aircraft Carrier Technology Joint Working Group is a step in that direction. India can strengthen the capabilities of its enabling systems by exploring avenues for cooperation over advanced sensors and weapons systems through the Joint Working Group on Naval Systems. Cooperation over enabling systems could prove to be a game-changer for the IN since its platforms commonly undergo mid-life upgrades where such systems can be integrated.
India is keen on developing an indigenous fleet of aircraft carriers and accessing high-end US technologies such as the Electromagnetic Aircraft launch System (EMALS). In fact, the India-US Aircraft Carrier Technology Joint Working Group is a step in that direction.
LEMOA, as a significant enabling agreement, was invoked by India as early as 2019 in the process of escorting Indian flagged merchant vessels through the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in light of the heightened US-Iran tensions in the region. IN warships have been refuelled by US tankers as part of the agreement despite India categorically refusing to be part of the anti-Iran coalition. Going forward, India could use the agreement for access to US facilities like those in Camp Lemonnier (Djibouti), Diego Garcia, Changi Naval Base in Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. This would enhance India’s capabilities in distant waters, including the South China Sea, which has turned into a theatre for intense US-China competition in recent years. It has been noted that LEMOA allowed India to sign similar agreements with other US allies. That being said, India should seek to enter related agreements with US allies such as Thailand and South Korea among others that have been left out. An additional focus area of the two states could be the expansion of QUAD to incorporate more regional players. Meanwhile, India could also benefit from including the US in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and making a case to become a full member of the WPNS. India could similarly seek participation in other US-led naval exercises to boost its interoperability with other navies.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, India lost the security umbrella that the USSR had offered since 1971. This development corresponded with a rising number and variety of threats it faced, both internally and externally. The country’s inventory was comprehensively dominated by Soviet weaponry which posed two challenges. The first one being that the weaponry and corresponding doctrines went obsolete without technological upgrades to their enabling systems in the age of technology-driven warfare. The second being that the timely supply of weapons from Russia could no longer be guaranteed. As a result, India had to diversify its military arsenal and find new strategic partners. The US and its partners emerged as natural alternatives. A factor that enabled the new partnerships was India’s regional power status and its stabilising role in its neighbourhood which served its perception as a responsible middle-power. Additionally, India’s economic engagements with global markets had made it a lucrative market for other states. Its status as a rising power could no longer be ignored.
As the unchallenged superpower after the fall of the USSR, the US used its superiority to shape global order into a liberal, democratic and rules-based international one. Major challenges to the new order initially came in the form of rogue states and non-state actors. Coupled with the US’s economic stagnation, the global scale of threats led to its envisionment of burden-sharing with its partners. By the second decade of the 21st century, China’s rise had propelled it to the position of a future US competitor, standing in opposition to the US-championed global order. From the US standpoint, India entered the dynamic as a country that had embraced the US-led global order and perceived a high threat from China. Furthermore, as a rising power, India was considered capable enough to share the US's burden.
Coupled with the US’s economic stagnation, the global scale of threats led to its envisionment of burden-sharing with its partners. By the second decade of the 21st century, China’s rise had propelled it to the position of a future US competitor, standing in opposition to the US-championed global order.
China is now the dominant driver of the Indo-US maritime partnership. The US's imperatives are to contain China and prevent it from becoming an equal power, while India's are to prevent China’s aggressive behaviour - a threat to its growth. Better said, India is uncomfortable with China entering its strategic backyard, the IOR. This brings India strategically closer to the US and its allies. Under its vision of burden-sharing, the US seeks major contributions from partners like India, Japan and Australia in containing China in the long term since it may no longer be equipped to do so unilaterally. The US’s push to the Indo-Pacific is in itself a move to incorporate India into the new maritime security architecture given that India occupies a commanding position on IOR’s SLOCs and choke points, which are China’s approach routes to resources in IOR littorals.
India and the US have institutionalised their maritime partnership with naval exercises starting with MALABAR. These have led to exercises between other armed forces of both states in conjunction with increases in said exercises between the IN and navies of US allies. The US has proved to be crucial for the IN in diversifying its equipment, with platforms and enabling systems steadily making their way into the IN. The Indo-US partnership has also allowed for greater integration of India with other partners who share similar interests towards preserving the current global order and perceive threat from China. QUAD has thus become a quintessential multilateral partnership in the Indo-Pacific. Besides, India has signed defence and logistic cooperation agreements with US allies like France, Australia, Singapore and Philippines, an agreement with Japan is expected in the near future. The Indo-US partnership has also assisted India in engagement with states in the Western Pacific through its inclusion in the WPNS and participation in RIMPAC.
India needs to enhance its naval capabilities considerably. Platform acquisitions are expected to hold less priority in contrast to enabling systems due to their high costs. India would, however, like to collaborate with the US on enabling systems, especially for its indigenous carriers and naval aircraft. A well-armed IN is beneficial to the US as it is a credible threat to China in the IOR. Therefore, close cooperation in the maritime domain will predictably be a US interest given that India’s role in burden sharing grows alongside its international profile.
Shishir Rao is a geopolitical researcher whose interests include India’s national security, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), maritime strategy and perception management. He holds a Master of Arts in Geopolitics and International Relations, another in English, along with a Bachelor’s in Media Studies (Journalism). He additionally brings along five years of experience as a former news desk journalist. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of his professional or educational affiliations.
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