In the days preceding Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington, the state of the Indo-U.S. defense relationship has been a popular topic of conversation. Assessments in both Washington and Delhi have mostly lauded the progress in defense ties overseen by Modi during his two years in office. Yet many of these laudatory reviews have also been accompanied by a caveat: while impressive, the gains to date have been uneven and a great deal of work remains to be done.
As evidence the defense relationship is still underperforming, many accounts cited a seemingly embarrassing episode from this spring, when India appeared to reject a U.S. proposal to conduct joint naval patrols. In the popular telling, Washington “jumped the gun” by proposing such patrols in private only to have Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar flatly reject the idea in public. Commentators billed the episode as symptomatic of Washington’s overzealous efforts to court India at a pace and level of enthusiasm not matched by Delhi.
The events that spawned this narrative resemble the popular children’s game “Telephone,” in which a short story is conveyed through hushed tones one-by-one down a line of people. By the time the final person recites the story aloud, it often bears comically little resemblance to the original.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This story began with a February 10 Reuters article titled “Exclusive: U.S. and India consider joint patrols in South China Sea – U.S. official.” The headline understandably generated a great deal of buzz: India and the U.S. had never conducted a joint patrol anywhere, let alone in the powder keg of the South China Sea. In fact, India had never conducted a joint naval patrol with any country anywhere (although it’s conducted plenty of “joint exercises” and “coordinated patrols”). Unsurprisingly, the Reuters headline was reproduced in countless stories sourced to the original report.
On March 2, U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris further raised eyebrows during remarks in Delhi at the annual Raisina Dialogue. “In the not too distant future,” he said, “American and Indian Navy vessels steaming together will become a common and welcome sight throughout Indo-Asia-Pacific waters, as we work together to maintain freedom of the seas for all nations.”
With reports of potential South China Sea patrols still percolating, Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar was soon questioned on the subject and appeared to firmly renounce such an initiative. “India Rejects Joint Naval Patrols with US in South China Sea,” blared several headlines.
A closer reading of events suggests a great deal was lost in translation. First, let’s look at where and how the South China Sea entered the equation. The original Reuters article, often misquoted, did not claim the U.S. and India were preparing to conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea. Indeed, it didn’t even claim they were discussing joint patrols in the South China Sea. What it did say was: “The United States and India have held talks about conducting joint naval patrols that a U.S. defense official said could include the disputed South China Sea.” As in:
“Are the U.S. and India discussing joint patrols?”
“Could they include the South China Sea?”
While that’s just one potential interpretation of the original conversation the point is no one claimed, even off-the-record, that Delhi and Washington had begun preparing for joint South China Sea. Indeed, it wasn’t even implied that they were discussing the topic (though they may have been). An official merely speculated that such patrols, if they did happen, could one day include the South China Sea. In the global echo chamber, this key bit of nuance was lost.
A look at what Defense Minister Parrikar actually said is equally revealing. “As of now, India has never taken part in any joint patrol; we only do joint exercises.” Here, Parrikar is merely stating a fact. Yet, in his own frustratingly imprecise lingo, he followed with: “The question of joint patrol does not arise.”
Notably, he said nothing about the South China Sea and expressed no negative disposition toward conducting joint patrols with the U.S. in the future. He also did not deny general discussions about joint patrols were already ongoing, though it’s easy to see how his statement could be interpreted that way.
The truth is those discussions are ongoing and it’s a matter of public record. In December 2015, Defense Minister Parrikar made a landmark visit to Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, the first-ever visit by an Indian defense minister. While the joint statement issued during visit was devoid of any reference to joint patrols, the readout from PACOM’s Director of Media Operations was not. “The two leaders discussed the continuance of maritime security cooperation, the potential for joint U.S.–India maritime patrols, and the value of foundational agreements…” read a statement from Major Dave Eastburn.
The fact is joint patrolling in the South China Sea is so sensitive the U.S. has yet to conduct them with treaty ally Japan, and just conducted its first with the Philippines in April. By no means should their absence from the Indo-U.S. agenda be viewed as a commentary on the discord in U.S.-India defense ties.
The bigger story is how far Prime Minister Modi has come in loosening the artificial constraints that have long prevented India from pursuing mutually beneficial defense collaboration with the United States. At the same time growing segments of Washington are gaining a belated understanding of India’s unique interests, perspectives, and sensitivities. As Modi more firmly embraces America’s extended arm, U.S. policymakers are realizing the two things required to make a true partnership with India work: patience and respect. Paired with America’s souring disposition toward Pakistan, growing shared concerns about China, and India’s accelerating defense collaboration with U.S. partners across the Indo-Pacific, the impetus and prospects for a long-term strategic partnership have never been stronger.
Even in this more favorable environment the defense relationship will continue to feature hiccups, false starts and setbacks. It just so happens the issue of joint patrols is not one of them.
Jeff M. Smith is Director of Asian Security Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. Twitter: @Cold_Peace_