This is Part 3 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. Part 1 focused on the background and history. Part 2 covered the short-term outcomes from Ash Carter’s 3-day trip to India in the context of April 2016 current events. Part 3 will project what the future may hold for the two Navies.
What does the future hold for US-India naval relations? Will the two countries work ever more closely together on the high seas to protect commercial lanes, slay pirates, capture terrorists, rescue hostages, and keep the peace generally? It’s hard to say at this time, especially accounting for the domestic political realities of both America and India. Following this bizarre election year, nobody is confident in what a President Trump, Cruz, Clinton, or Sanders might bring to defense policy, not just in relation to India. It’s possible that US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will be replaced early next year. Meanwhile, India’s fervent anti-US voices are making themselves heard right now. The two Navies, and two military establishments in general, may continue floating adrift from one another as they have done for most of the last 7 decades.
However, a very different narrative is percolating after Carter’s trip to India from April 10-13. The United States and India, if they so choose, could not only tie up to accomplish all the above strategic outcomes, they could also potentially form the world’s strongest naval partnership in history. Such a route would be a dramatic sea change from current course, and it could quite possibly launch during the partnership of Carter and Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar while they are both serving.
Carter’s trip resulted in more forward progress than expected, certainly more than any other delegation in recent memory that the two nations have sent to one another. Below we will examine the specifics and what they mean.
Carter and Parrikar inspect India’s aircraft carrier
The Pentagon’s India Tiger Team Ashton Carter is the first SECDEF to create an “India Rapid Reaction Cell” at the Pentagon specifically focused on advancing cooperation with India on research, development, and acquisition under the aegis of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), an outcome of President Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Modi in India in January 2015. This is the only such country-specific cell in operation at the Pentagon. As a result of its work before and during Carter’s trip, there were a host of wide-ranging collaboration goals ready to be discussed on aircraft carrier co-development, F-18 fighter jet joint production, sales of US arms rarely shared with other nations, such as Predator drones, and planning for US defense contractors to participate in India’s new Make in India program, which encourages companies from around the world to invest in Indian manufacturing. Participation in Make in India by the US military could be of benefit to both nations and also others.
Every single one of these actions would be unprecedented, and the fact that they were discussed in detail during the delegation is a big deal.
Preliminary Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement Any closer cooperation between the US military and Indian military will require a large number of baby steps- or baby swim strokes. One of those is a logistics agreement, which would allow the two governments to share military bases for repairs, rest, refueling, or resupply, while also sharing digital mapping protocols and advanced lines of communication. There has never been such an agreement. The United States has signed them with its full military allies, a status that India does not share at this time. For example, Carter visited the Philippines following his trip to India, and the two nations this month inked an agreement for the US military to use five Filipino bases for major operations.
India has expressed concern with these types of logistics sharing for several years, especially balking at being forced to accommodate US assets and troops at Indian bases. Carter assured his Indian hosts that India would have the right to approve or refuse each specific logistics request, initially expected for operations such as disaster relief. The wording has been changed accordingly, a concession only being offered to India. If a US-India agreement is signed, which may happen in the next few weeks despite serious Indian domestic opposition, a new door would open that will affect the naval forces the most, especially their ability to work with each other more. Naval assets are the most important that the US military has in Asia. We have shown that the two navies are in the vanguard of the US-India relationship through Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, but a logistics agreement would be next-level.
Misgivings Amidships The best way to gauge the importance of US-India military discussions is the responses they receive from the usual suspects. An article in Chinese state-owned Global Times in response to Carter’s trip stated that “India wants to be the most beautiful woman, wooed by both US and China.” This show of bravado, and China’s attempt to equate itself with the United States, is clearly a sign that Chinese thinkers are worried about US-India cooperation on logistics, which they are quick to note has languished on the table for years.
Pakistani commentators rang the alarm, on cue. “The US alliance with India has obvious and significant negative implications for Pakistan’s security,” writes former Pakistan UN Ambassador Munir Akram, who waxes quite eloquently about unfair treatment by India and the United States towards Pakistan without mentioning the country’s outsize influence by the military in government, and ineffectiveness in controlling terrorism despite billions of dollars in unconditional US military and civilian aid.
On a different tack, India’s cadre of Non-Alignment Warriors such as Atul Bhardwaj believe America is trying to throw another new colonial yoke onto India: “India’s strategy must address the issue of freedom from Western thought and question imperial alignments ingrained in such defense agreements.” Some Indian thinkers do not take into account the rapid changes happening in the world and their effect on the calculus faced by Indian leaders today. The British Raj is actually over.
There is no better proof that the latest US-India military developments are significant in nature than bravado in the Chinese media, fear-mongering and umbrage in Pakistani media, and anti-imperial rants in Indian media. All while the ADD-addled US media-entertainment complex is too busy covering the adolescent behaviors of the 2016 election or potential infidelity in the Jay-Z marriage to Beyonce involving a half-Indian designer named Rachel Roy- the closest you will get to US-India “relations” making a splash in mainstream media.
The United States political, diplomatic, and military establishments have all grown bored with Pakistan’s games, foremost among them the harboring of Osama Bin Laden and countenance for the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai, both with some unknowable level of Pakistani official involvement. As the United States troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s leverage in holding back US cooperation with India will also proportionally diminish as the major factor in US-Pakistan relations will become keeping nukes out of terrorists’ hands, which is no fun. I love Pakistan, but they won’t have much of a say in this matter.
As for China, that country can still avoid becoming a rogue state on a much conjectured-about collision course with the United States and its allies in Asia over Taiwan or islands in the South China Sea. The epic power struggle between the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army are artificially inflating tensions with Japan, India, ASEAN, and the United States. China can decide to participate in more military exercises with the United States, as they are already being invited to do in the RIMPAC joint naval exercise in Hawaii. Person to person contact could help lessen tensions. Even joining Exercise Malabar with India, the United States, and Japan would be a solid show of goodwill while helping reduce hostility. Ultimately, just like the United States in the Mideast desert, China is blundering around in the water. Beijing machinations are actually pushing most of its neighbors toward the United States and in India’s case, kicking and screaming the entire way.
US-India military cooperation could help reduce flareups with Russia, which is quite clearly challenging NATO and the US with aggressive military maneuvers in Eastern Europe, Alaska, and Syria, including against the US Navy. That’s because India is probably Russia’s best friend outside of former USSR satellites- and India’s good offices with Russia perhaps represent the world’s last best chance to prevent a conflagration between Moscow and Washington in a bad re-run of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or worse. This will test Narendra Modi’s diplomatic chops to the maximum, but he is certainly more capable of pulling Putin’s ear than any other world leader.
What Happens Now? India has remained non-aligned for almost 70 years. That means it has not had military allies despite three wars and an additional skirmish with Pakistan, nor in an embarrassingly pathetic war effort against China. India maintained relations with both the United States and USSR throughout the Cold War, buying arms from both, but not officially taking sides. India also has massive territorial disputes and the constant threat of hostilities with both Pakistan and China.
The potential partners could not be more different in outlook. Mysteriously spiritual India overthrew the British using Gandhian non-violence, while America became the land of the free and home of the brave by butchering the British up lovely. The United States has maintained formal military allies around the world for many decades. It won two World Wars and would win the next one if forced to. It leads NATO in Europe. It has major bases as part of that construct, and also other ones throughout Asia and the Middle East. Americans have been spoiled when it comes to security. Threats outside of terrorism are far away from US shores, and the United States has a military presence close to all of its threats around the world. As President George W. Bush said, “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” The opposite of the intended effect may be happening, but that’s why we are where we are today.
The superpower will need to understand the trepidation on the other side. For India to enter a real logistics agreement now would have consequences both domestically and internationally. It would mean, finally, the beginning of the end of India’s non-aligned stance, built in order to remain free to buy and sell with everyone, retaining ideological independence, while trying not to threaten anyone beyond its borders. India has been comfortable mostly coasting under the radar.
But there is an upside that will become harder and harder to ignore as time goes on, not just for India, but for the world. India’s window of opportunity isn’t unlimited: the next US administration could engage in several behaviors that India would find offensive, such as invading another country, or cozying back up to Pakistan, or withdrawing its technology transfer offers.
In the 21st century, the biggest threats to global peace will continue to come from authoritarian regimes who will need to act tough in order to cling to power such as North Korea, Russia, and China, or non-state terrorists with a scorched-earth agenda. A smooth-running US-India naval partnership with deep reach into the (fast melting) Arctic, Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal would be a formidable force between the world’s two largest democracies on, above, and under the water toward addressing any threat. It would in fact be the strongest naval alliance in the history of the world, as a number of friendly democratic nations from NATO, to Japan and Australia would be providing backup. And it’s now within reach, if India decides to jump on board.
India needs US technology transfer and a ramp up in training and naval assets in order to become a global power. The United States needs Indian ports and logistical cooperation in order to successfully complete its Asia pivot. The two, in concert, could help maintain peace on the high seas for the rest of this century. Or not.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
April 2016 brought a most remarkable trip to India by a US Secretary of Defense in recent memory. Ashton Carter is the most well-versed SECDEF we’ve seen on matters related to India, as the videos below will show. On a substantive level, the two sides talked about surprisingly advanced levels of technology sharing, weapons co-production, and logistical cooperation. These types of discussions never happened before. Washington is clearly trying to push further than New Delhi seems comfortable with, and Carter stands out for remaining assertive, yet understanding and patient through it all in recognition of India’s lively internal political processes.
The USS Blue Ridge docked in Indian harbors in time for Carter’s arrival. Early in the trip Carter gave a speech to the sailors and marines aboard the 7th fleet’s command ship, focused on why the United States was working so closely with India on security issues. The most memorable part was when Carter told them, “Our militaries grew up separately, our technologies grew up separately… now when we want them to work together, we have to try to get the gears to match up, and that’s not automatic; we have to work on it…that’s why I’m here, that’s why you’re here, but it’s a winning hand we’re playing out here… remember, when you look back, in the years ahead, and say ‘I remember that, I was part of the beginning of that’ – you will, I promise you, in the future be thinking exactly that.”
The following clips show Carter visiting Old Goa, including a temple and a church, guided by Parrikar who was formerly Chief Minister of that state.
The following two interviews on NDTV show that Carter is very much in his depth while talking of the US-India relationship, and many other subjects.
Carter was also in attendance at a repatriation ceremony for the remains of World War II KIA, finally unearthed in recent days in Arunachal Pradesh.
This is Part 2 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. Part 1 focused on the background and history. Part 2 will cover the expected outcomes from Ash Carter’s 3-day trip to India in the context of 2016 current events. Part 3 will project what the future may hold for the two Navies.
They say that time heals all wounds. This cannot be more aptly applied than to US diplomatic relationships in Asia. In the last installment, we discussed how President Nixon sent Task Force 74 to the Bay of Bengal as a menacing warning for India just 45 years ago. For much of the early 20th century, America was brutally fighting an insurgency in the Philippines, while trying (and failing) to hold on to its overseas colony. In the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s the United States was at all-out war, first in Korea and then in Vietnam, some of the hottest patches of the Cold War resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties. Most dramatic of all, in 1945 President Truman ordered the only nuclear bomb attacks in history on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan.
In the 20th century America spent a fair amount of time embattled with Asian countries. Yet today, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines are American allies. India and the United States are meanwhile on the path toward developing a closer strategic relationship as well. We are predicting that US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s 3-day trip to India this week will help smooth that path- which will still be a challenging one. This makes the trip that much more critical. On the eve of his second visit to India in less than a year, Carter said of the US-India defense relationship: “Over the course of my years at the Defense Department, I have seen a remarkable convergence of US and Indian interests – what I call a strategic handshake.” The term strategic handshake has only been used by him in this context.
Naval matters will rank high on the agenda. Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar is hosting Carter at a naval base in his home state of Goa, while giving the US delegation a tour of India’s only functional aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya. The US Navy 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge made a port of call to Goa after a stop in Mumbai, and will be on hand for Carter’s visit to Goa. In the meantime, US sailors and marines will be participating in community service and taking on local college students in some friendly athletic competition, including a few cracks at the bat… the cricket bat.
There are substantive negotiations going on during this trip. The Indian Navy is interested in buying 40 unarmed Predator drones for surveillance over the Indian Ocean. If a deal were to go through soon these unmanned spy aircraft, made by the US company General Atomics, would be the first Predators ever to be operated by the Indian armed forces. The US government and Indian government would first need to agree to this deal before General Atomics could fulfill the order. Considering that the Predator is one of the sharpest tools in the US military arsenal, such a purchase would be a very big deal. It could also open the door in the future for Predators that go beyond surveillance and reconnaissance, but are also armed with precision missiles.
Carter has also said in Goa that the United States backs India’s naval expansion “as a net supplier of security in the region,” an oft-repeated phrase that has been analyzed in different ways for many months. Taken literally, it would seem to mean that India is being encouraged to increase its naval capacity to be able to supply the vast Indian ocean with greater force projection capability than it needs for itself. A number of other announcements expected this week include the sharing of aircraft carrier technology, but are contingent on the desired American roadmap for the future of the Indian Navy.
One can expect another important discussion item would be joint US-India naval patrols, which has never happened before. In the weeks leading up to Ash Carter’s trip to India, Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris, Jr. voiced welcoming intimations to India about such a development, especially freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea along with Japan and Australia, during a speech in New Delhi. However, India has never conducted joint patrols with any country, as part of a larger structural foreign policy of non-alignment. Defense Minister Parrikar and others promptly denied that India would conduct any such patrols. The Obama White House and Pacific Command have had to say there is no “gag order” in response to rumblings that naval officers are off-message on China Sea related issues.
We covered in the last installment how Exercise Malabar has become a successful partnership, but patrols are an unlikely step at this time. India is no doubt worried about a Chinese response, especially in the three bodies of water, the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal, where India and China are already pushing to establish the naval upper hand.
China has for some years engaged in a strategic encirclement of India by close cooperation with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma. The Chinese Navy recently docked its ships and submarines in Colombo’s port in a “friendly visit” that was not well-received by India in its own backyard. China has also extensively supplied Burma’s military, and uses Burmese ports frequently. Finally, the Chinese government helped build Pakistan’s Gwadar port, with the expectation of free passage for China’s Navy and commerce, while Pakistan conducts joint naval exercises with its closest ally.
China’s encirclement of India cannot be completely dissociated from the perceived US encirclement of China. Joint US-India naval patrols in one of the China Seas could trigger joint China-Sri Lanka-Pakistan-Burma patrols, or some combination thereof, in the waters around India. Meanwhile, India still has to watch its vulnerable flank on the long, disputed, and treacherous shared borders with Pakistan and China. Indian leaders consider themselves to be truly alone on these borders, and their actions on the seas could backfire along both land and sea. Not to mention, both Pakistan and China have nuclear weapons pointing toward India’s major cities.
India is keen to not draw too much attention from China when it comes to US-India naval cooperation, while not rejecting America’s extended hand in cooperation on the seas altogether. It is a difficult and delicate water dance indeed. So far, India seems to be threading the needle by occasionally sending ships into the South China Sea, but not on joint patrol; aiming to procure Predator drones to spy on the oceans around India, but unarmed drones to start; participating in increasingly complex US-India joint exercises, but not joint patrols; training with US counterparts, but not fighting next to them against, for example, the common enemy of ISIS.
The United States appears willing to do more with India, when India is ready, not only on naval cooperation but also with other military branches. Ash Carter is spending a precious 3 days in India even while his Defense Department is at war in the Middle East, because without increased Indian cooperation, there can’t really be a successful American “pivot to Asia.” We are in the waning days of the Obama administration- and the highly restrained “Obama Doctrine” in US foreign policy. Who knows what sort of US administration comes next?
It’s time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, and their teams to decide if India wants to fully engage the world’s only superpower, leaving non-alignment behind on terms that are favorable to both sides, and engage in the risky climb towards superpower status. The risk comes from having to manage its own encirclement on the water, by land, and in the air.
Time heals all wounds, and India believes it has suffered many in its relationship with the United States over the years. But we are in the year 2016. The tea leaves seem exceedingly clear. China has its grand global ambitions and is going to act very predictably the same regardless of how diplomatically or non-confrontational India behaves.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
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
This winter season we witness a whirlwind of promising activity in US-India government to government contact. All evidence indicates that this phenomenon is being led personally by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi as countless of their underlings have publicly announced. Is there a bromance blooming as Obama prepares for his second India trip this month, as the first sitting US president to smell the Indian stench twice? I have long argued that the governments’ cooperation is just one prong in the bilateral relationship, and not even the most important one. However, when this goes well it is usually an indication that the relationship is on the right track, and poor diplomacy can certainly derail all the progress. Read the rest of this entry