Next Steps in the US – India Strategic Partnership

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New Delhi – President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi met for the fifth time in a little over a year in New York on September 28, 2015. They took stock of the state of the bilateral relationship and noted with approval the achievements of the last 10 years since the nuclear deal was signed in July 2005. They had reasons to be satisfied with the manner in which the US-India strategic partnership has gained momentum and its potential as a force for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

n a joint press briefing after their meeting, President Obama said the two leaders discussed measures to “further refine our strategic vision” that encompasses many areas of security cooperation, including defense procurement. Prime Minister Modi said the relationship demonstrates “extraordinary depth and diversity.” He said defense cooperation was expanding. The two countries resolved to further deepen cooperation on counterterrorism, radicalism, and cybersecurity. The Indian prime minister welcomed the progress in giving shape to the joint strategic vision on the Asian, Pacific, and Indian Ocean regions.

Chinese Challenge

In keeping with diplomatic niceties, China’s increasing military assertiveness was not mentioned in public. However, the two leaders would have undoubtedly noted that China’s brazen violation of international norms, particularly in the South China Sea, and its growing military and economic power pose a strategic challenge to the United States and its allies and strategic partners.

China senses the emergence of a security vacuum in the Indo-Pacific region and is rushing to fill it. China has discarded Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy to “hide our capacity and bide our time.” It has also dropped the phrase “peaceful rise,” while referring to its military and economic growth. However, China’s coming out party may not be completely peaceful.

China’s rapid economic growth has been fairly uneven and noninclusive. There is a deep sense of resentment against the leadership of the Communist Party for the denial of basic freedoms and rampant corruption. The discontentment simmering below the surface could boil over and lead to an uncontrollable spontaneous implosion. David Shambaugh, a well-known China scholar, is the latest to have jumped on the China-may-implode bandwagon. The recent crash of Chinese stock markets may have provided the first glimpse of impending implosion.

Also, given its recent belligerence, China could behave irresponsibly somewhere in the Indo-Pacific region. It could decide to intervene militarily in the South China Sea or to occupy the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands or resolve territorial and boundary disputes. Though President Xi Jinping denied plans to “militarize” the South China Sea, surely China is not building air strips there to fly in Japanese tourists.

Both the contingencies have a low probability of occurrence, but they will be high-impact events with widespread ramifications if either of them comes to pass. Both India and the United States will need strong partners to deal with the fallout and to manage the consequences. Hence, the US-India strategic partnership makes eminent sense as a hedging strategy for both countries.

Preparing for Joint Operations

The defense cooperation element of the strategic partnership must now be taken to the next higher trajectory to enable joint threat assessment; contingency planning for joint operations; sharing of intelligence; simulations and table-top exercises—besides training exercises with troops; coordination of command, control, and communications; and, planning for deployment and logistics support. All of these activities will need to be undertaken in concert with other strategic partners such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam.

Together with the United States and its other strategic partners, India must take the lead in establishing a cooperative security framework for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and for the security of the global commons—air space, space, cyberspace, and sea-lanes of communication to enable the freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade. If China is willing to join this security architecture, it should be welcomed.

India as a Net Provider of Security

US leaders have expressed their support for India’s emergence as a major power several times in the last 10 years. They have used phrases like the United States is committed “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century” (briefing by US official after the visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005); “India is not just a rising power, it has already risen” (President Obama in 2010).

Now the United States expects “India to become a net provider of security” in the region, but the expectations have not been stated in specific terms. When asked, US officials normally point to India joining international counterterrorism and counterproliferation efforts; sharing intelligence; upholding the rules and norms governing maritime trade; providing help to the littoral states to meet their security needs; helping to counter piracy and narcotics trafficking; and, continuing to take the lead in humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations in the region.

While all of these expectations are unexceptionable, and India has been contributing extensively to achieving these common goals, there is little understanding of the extent of cooperation expected from India in terms of “hard” military power. The United States had requested India to send an infantry division to Iraq during the war in 2003. India declined to do so as it was not a vital national interest.

A similar request is again being made informally by visiting US scholars for fighting the militia of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Once again, it is not a vital national interest, and by definition, only vital interests are to be defended by employing military force when threatened. However, it could become a vital interest if ISIS is able to extend the area controlled by it to the Persian Gulf, as 60 percent of India’s oil and gas come from the Gulf.

India is developing robust tri-service capabilities for military intervention. India will not hesitate to intervene in conjunction with its strategic partners if its vital national interests are threatened in its area of strategic interest, which extends from the South China Sea in the east to the Horn of Africa in the west. India would prefer to do so under a UN flag but may join a coalition of the willing in case consensus is difficult to achieve in the UN Security Council.

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal
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Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (Ret’d.) is a Delhi-based adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.

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