A region normally peripheral to U.S. foreign-policy debates received considerable attention in the new National Security Strategy, which contains eight mentions of U.S. objectives in the “Indo-Pacific” and seven of India itself — more than allies Japan and South Korea. The NSS signals a desire to continue efforts begun by the George W. Bush administration to deepen the U.S.-India strategic partnership, and builds off several key moments in 2017, including a successful meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the rollout of the administration’s South Asia strategy, and Secretary Tillerson’s glowing “love letter” to India.
As the United States seeks to transform lofty rhetoric into operational reality, however, stumbling blocks in the relationship are readily apparent. For instance, India’s statement on the recently revived Quad — the quadrilateral dialogue among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — showed a reluctance to link it too closely with regional security. Indian analysts still express misgivings about the utility and reliability of the U.S.-India partnership. Deeper cooperation is perennially frustrated by bureaucratic inertia, demands for technology transfers, and longstanding partnerships with each other’s rivals.
To incorporate India into its vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” Washington should also pursue quieter, noncontroversial initiatives to ease Indian doubts over the United States’ commitment to the relationship and to bolster New Delhi’s capacity to balance Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean region, or IOR. In 2018, the United States should increase naval cooperation with India in the western IOR; co-develop financing tools to counter China’s One Belt, One Road initiative; and upgrade India’s maritime domain awareness capabilities. These lower-profile wins are more likely to foster a productive, long-term partnership with India than rhetoric alone.
The Trump administration’s embrace of the “Indo-Pacific” concept suggests Washington understands (and shares) New Delhi’s concerns related to Chinese influence in the IOR. Yet, Washington has not yet internalized that India’s interests are greater in the western IOR than the eastern portion. Six to seven million Indian citizens live in the Middle East, a population that sends over $35 billion in remittances home every year. OPEC countries also account for 86 percent of the country’s crude oil imports, while its two largest export markets also lie in the west. The concentration of India’s trade and resource flows in the western IOR means India is less sensitive to disruptions to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea than are the United States and its East Asian allies.
Partnerships require give and take. To incentivize India to support U.S. interests in the eastern Indo-Pacific, U.S. policymakers should begin attending to New Delhi’s core interests in the western IOR.
U.S. military cooperation with India in the western IOR is anemic. All Indian military engagement currently falls under U.S. Pacific Command, which has no institutionalized ability to discuss, work, or exercise in the western IOR due to the arbitrary geographic delineation between PACOM and U.S. Central Command. Naval analysts have suggested a host of steps to address this challenge, including inviting Indian Navy liaisons to U.S. Central Command and Africa Command, discussing cooperation outside of PACOM at the next Maritime Security Dialogue, and opening channels of communication on disaster response, non-combatant evacuation, anti-piracy, and maritime domain awareness outside of PACOM.
Craft an Alternative to China
The second way the United States should engage India in 2018 is primarily economic. New Delhi is sensitive to the advance of One Belt, One-Road-financed projects in its neighborhood as it fears smaller South Asian states falling into Chinese debt traps that may grant Beijing significant concessions, including potential military bases. A prime example of this trend is the recent Chinese acquisition of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.
In response, the United States and India should co-develop financing mechanisms to compete with OBOR and inoculate small IOR states from what the United States has described as the “predatory economics” of OBOR.
Such a partnership could be accomplished through a capital base expansion of the World Bank and direct financing for Indian-led connectivity initiatives like the India-Japan Asia-Africa Growth Corridor. Likewise, the United States should support India’s entry into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Expanding the authorities and capacity of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. agency that aids American businesses investing in developing economies, would be another useful measure. Japan and the United States appeared to make progress on this front during Trump’s inaugural visit to Japan during which OPIC and Japanese partners committed to offering “investment alternatives in the Indo-Pacific region.” Expanding such an initiative from a bilateral U.S.-Japan effort to a trilateral mechanism (perhaps through the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor) would be a prudent step.
Each country brings a comparative advantage to the table. Japan possesses the capital surplus and large-scale project finance experience. The United States still wields considerable influence over the banking industry and experience coordinating multilateral financing. And for many countries that rim the Indian Ocean, India possesses the knowledge and history to navigate the socio-political terrain.
Improve India’s Maritime Domain Awareness
Third, the United States should do more to help India strengthen its maritime domain awareness. India has prioritized this capability area for two reasons. First, it improves Indian deterrence against the Chinese Navy by rendering their naval movements—particularly submarine movements—more visible, reducing Indian vulnerabilities. Second, it enables India to act as a net security provider to smaller IOR states and distribute security and economic information (e.g., hydrology, fishery, and weather conditions) as a public good.
While the United States may wish to elevate U.S.-India defense cooperation to the level of a near ally with interoperable planes, ships, and communication systems, building these capabilities and practices will take years. In the meantime, the United States has an immediate interest in improving Indian capabilities vis-à-vis China; boosting maritime domain awareness represents a meaningful and inconspicuous way of doing so.
The United States can do this by transferring and selling intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance technology and sharing tactics, procedures, and other operational knowhow. The June authorization to sell Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles to India is a good step. Other potential areas to consider include underwater sensors and unmanned platforms; the United States might, for example, consider helping India connect to the U.S.-Japan “Fish Hook” undersea defense system.
While any advancement in U.S.-India defense cooperation triggers Pakistani fears about India’s conventional superiority, improving maritime domain awareness should limit this concern. Unlike the Javelin missile system or fighter platforms like the F-16 or F-18, such capabilities are less overtly threatening to Pakistan’s core interests and would neither alter the South Asian land or air balance nor improve offensive sea capabilities.
U.S.-India relations have shown remarkable continuity in 2017, constituting a smooth patch in a relatively turbulent year in foreign policy. In 2018, however, the United States cannot afford to become complacent. Washington has a limited window in which to draw India into deeper cooperation before India’s 2019 national elections. Putting even small wins on the board through bureaucratic, economic, and military cooperation offers a way forward to elevate the U.S.-India partnership to greater heights in the years ahead.