This is Part 1 of a special 3-part series on US-India Naval cooperation being published by usindiamonitor, timed in coordination with US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s critical voyage to India on April 10th, 2016.
If it seems diplomatic relations between the United States and India are all over the map, that’s because they are. Scan the headlines in 2016, and you will find a complex and confusing array of bilateral interactions. Today the two nations are duking it out over solar panels and H-1B visas at the WTO while engaging in a war of words over a proposed sale of U.S. F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. Meanwhile the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is sending warning letters citing violations to Indian pharmaceutical companies that supply the American market, India is roundly rejecting the offer of joint South China Sea patrols with the United States, and India’s previous External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told students at Georgetown University of the Republican presidential front-runner, “I would think India would be very, very worried if Mr. Donald Trump is to be your president.”
The media stories can be misleading. The concerns and disagreements are real, but minor in the grand scheme of things. The United States and India are now cooperating like never before in their history, chugging forward thanks in large part to their leaders. President Obama, the first sitting US president to visit India twice, and Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the first-ever hotline between the two nations in late 2015. Indians continue to pour into the United States for tourism, education, and work. 40% of the drugs sold in America are manufactured in India. India’s troops dramatically came to the rescue of Americans stranded in Yemen last year- an operation that “impressed and inspired” US Ambassador Richard Verma. Indian-born executives are running Google, Microsoft, Pepsico, South Carolina, and Louisiana. The United States and India are increasingly locking arms to combat climate change, cybercrime and terrorism. They have even set a record for initiating the farthest bilateral collaboration humanly possible, on Mars, through their respective space agencies.
One specific piece of the puzzle has stood out from the others, and it’s all about water. The tip of the spear in US-India diplomatic relations just may be the established and institutionalized cooperation between the two nations on the high seas. As US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter prepares for his next trip to India on April 10, we are publishing a special 3-part series on the Navy to Navy interchange that is helping shape the larger bilateral relationship due to common goals, interests, and challenges. And we may as well come out and address the elephant in the room: an aggressive China figures heavily into the equation, joining stateless terrorism and piracy on the list. China is even largely to thank for the cooperation that exists, so we will put Chinese developments into context.
Part 1 will focus on the background and history. Part 2 will cover the expected outcomes from Ash Carter’s trip to India. Part 3 will project what the future may hold for the two Navies.
Part 1: A History of Cooperation on the High Seas
Both The United States and India are coastal states with 12,383 and 4,671 miles of sea coast respectively. By no coincidence the two nations have their own traditions of storied maritime history, encompassing exploration, commerce, and military applications. Christopher Columbus actually stumbled upon the Americas while sailing the seas blindly in search of India, so the two countries have been inextricably linked by water ever since 1492.
In the case of India, through 5,000 years of recorded history its people have been highly dependent on the oceans for survival and progress. A quick look at the Indian topographical map would show why. Most of India is essentially a peninsula jutting out into the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal- and on the very Southern tip of India, at Kanyakumari, these three bodies of water actually meet. Toward the Northern edges of India are the tallest mountains in the world, including the Himalayas which are formidable barriers to interchange with other countries over land.
The United States not only abuts the Pacific Ocean to the West, Atlantic Ocean to the East, and the Gulf of Mexico to the South. Hawaii and other territories in the Pacific give the United States reach deep into that massive body of water, Alaska juts out toward to the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean, while islands in the Caribbean provide access to that sea as well. All of these waters provide both opportunity and risk.
The American Revolution, War of 1812, and American Civil War were all affected greatly by skirmishes and blockades at Sea. Building a strong naval force has been an American military priority since 1775. It’s no coincidence that the Japanese chose to attack the U.S. Naval forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941, a move that forced a reluctant nation into World War II; the Japanese calculated that crippling the U.S. Pacific Fleet would help them win the war.
It’s also no coincidence that India played a huge role in World War II, including sailing alongside Americans and other allies in several naval endeavors such as Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 (though the Royal Indian Navy was fully under England’s thumb at the time). Largely unknown and overlooked in the West, over 2.5 million Indian troops were deployed at the peak of World War II to theaters around the world to fight the Axis powers. This is likely the only time that American and Indian troops openly fought side by side, though technically the Indians were still representing the British.
During the Cold War which played out in the decades that followed, India and Pakistan were treated as pawns in the larger chess match between the United States and the USSR. Often, the strategic interests of the US and India were not aligned, as the United States supplied Pakistan with arms and other support, while New Delhi became cozier with Moscow most of the time, resulting in most Indian weaponry being Russian. The US Navy would navigate through the Indian Ocean, sometimes close to India, but by and large India did not interpret these as a threat.
Though there has never been a real naval skirmish between the United States and India, the 1971 Indo-Pak War came uncomfortably close. US President Richard Nixon infamously ordered Task Force 74– a fleet of US Naval assets assembled to be a show of force against India and by proxy, the USSR- into the Bay of Bengal in December of that year after a severe breakdown in diplomatic communications. Task Force 74 included an aircraft carrier group led by the now-decommissioned USS Enterprise, at the time and still probably the most powerful nuclear-powered carrier ever made. Americans did not directly engage India, but without the intervention, India may possibly have pushed its luck and tried to over-run West Pakistan as it did East Pakistan- now known as Pakistan and Bangladesh, respectively (soon after, both India and Pakistan began nuclear weapon tests, making such an outcome virtually impossible ever since). The 1971 Indo-Pak War resulted in a peace treaty and Bangladeshi independence anyway; but resentment towards the United States among Indian elites continues to this day for interfering in the war and aiding India’s mortal enemy.
The end of the Cold War in 1991 ushered in a dramatic new era of relations between the United States and India. While US-Pakistan cooperation remained a thorn in India’s side, and still does in 2016, the military establishments and markets began opening up to each other more than ever before. The inaugural Exercise Malabar in 1992 was a direct result. Malabar started out as a modest joint US-India naval exercise that year with the two navies working “hull to hull” in partnership off the Southwest Malabar coast of India. This was described by Gurpreet S. Khurana of the National Maritime Foundation as a “token passage exercise (PASSEX) between the Indian Navy (IN) and the US Navy (USN).”
Over the years since 1992, Exercise Malabar has come to constitute the backbone of US-India naval interchange. It is also the premier joint exercise series between the two countries, though the armies, coast guards, air forces, and special operations forces also have their own separate exercises and interchanges. There have been hiccups over time, especially the hiatus caused by the 1998 Pokhran desert nuclear weapon tests that resulted in US sanctions, but the post-9/11 era saw a revamp of Malabar, with increasing levels of complexity and new partner nations over time. In fact, sometime participant Japan has joined Malabar as a permanent member in 2015, making it an official trilateral exercise, and one that has drawn the ire of China and Pakistan. Since 2008, Malabar has taken place annually and is expected to continue on this trajectory. Below is a map by the National Maritime Foundation depicting exercise locations, years, and participating nations from 1992-2014.
As we can see, Exercise Malabar 2007 saw the most participation, with two separate exercises that year, one of them including Australia, Japan, and Singapore joining, and a complex operation involving 30 warships and 200 aircraft in the US-India segment. We can also see that the Western Pacific became a more frequent exercise location in the most recent years.
With Exercise Malabar now becoming a permanent trilateral between three nations that China considers to be in varying degrees hostile, and with whom China disputes territorial claims, the participants will need to consider how to react. China is certainly building up its naval capabilities, including carrier-destroying torpedoes, creating artificial islands for military bases in the South China Sea, and developing its own carrier capacity. The United States and India have taken measures to assure that Malabar is not about threatening China, but this message is unlikely to be trusted. Alternatives to consider would be inviting Chinese officials to observe the exercises in an official capacity, or even to participate. There have been other occasions of such cooperation, but they have been rare, and it’s not clear if China would agree to either scenario, for political reasons.
2015 was a big year in US-India naval cooperation for other reasons. The US-India Aircraft Carrier Working Group was finally convened. This idea was in process for several years, with the goal being for the two countries to work together at a high level on designing, developing, and producing aircraft carriers jointly. This is a big deal, as the two nations are still in the very early stages of military weapon or vehicle co-development, and aircraft carriers are the jewels of the US Navy’s crown- and key piece in America’s capacity to be a global superpower. India has just one running carrier, with a second being built, and its own ambitions in Asia and beyond would depend heavily on upgrading these or acquiring new ones. The contact group should help in both endeavors. The United States, in turn, would find a more capably equipped partner to share some of the burdens of keeping the world’s sea lanes safe from pirates, terrorists, and other threats.
Later this week, Parrikar will have the chance to return the favor when he hosts Carter in India for their next meeting- including an inspection aboard India’s Russian-made carrier INS Vikramaditya for the first time by a high-ranking US official. This follows close on the heels of President Obama and Prime Minister Modi meeting in Washington for the nuclear security summit last week. There is no question that US-India security ties are on an upswing. As Mr. Parrikar told NDTV after the tour of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The most important is trust building, which I think is happening for the first time after Prime Minister Modi had good discussions with President Obama.”
It also helps to have two government bureaucracies, such as the US Navy and Indian Navy, who have had a history of working together and have developed relationships and trust for more than two decades running- an environment that certainly did not exist before.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor