Assessing US-India Relations: The Strategic Handshake
Image Credit: Flickr/Ash Carter

Assessing US-India Relations: The Strategic Handshake


Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reflected on the remarkable progress he and his Indian counterpart, Manohar Parrikar, have overseen in bilateral defense ties over the last two years. With his gift for memorable analogies, Carter insisted the budding Indo-U.S. defense partnership was built atop two “important handshakes.” One was a “technological handshake,” a reference to the rapid growth in arms sales, co-development, and technology-sharing. A companion piece to follow this article will explore the technological handshake in greater detail, and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

The second of Carter’s two handshakes is a “strategic handshake,” representing a broad convergence of geopolitical interests as India “Acts East” and America “rebalances to Asia.” This is arguably the more consequential of the two handshakes, as bilateral ties mature beyond arms sales into more sophisticated arenas of strategic convergence, joint military operations, and multi-layered security and intelligence cooperation.

Growing Convergence

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The convergence is evident at the highest diplomatic levels, in the seven meetings between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi and the six meetings between Carter and Parrikar. That’s more than Carter has met with any other defense chief, which is remarkable given India is not one of America’s over two dozen U.S. treaty allies or one of the 69 countries with which it has some form of defense pact.

The convergence is evident in Modi’s description of the U.S. as a “natural ally” and a “natural global partner,” and in Carter’s praise for India as an “anchor of global stability.” More than once the embrace has been described as the “defining partnership of the 21st Century.” Yet the convergence extends beyond the rhetorical.

Last year began with the signing of a novel U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean”and ended with the first-ever trip to U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) by an Indian defense minister where the two sides discussed joint naval patrols. At the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi three months later, PACOM chief Adm. Harry Harris could barely contain his enthusiasm: “We are ready for you. We need you. Let’s be ambitious together…and create a model of strategic partnership for the rest of the world to emulate.” He continued:

In the not too distant future 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…We can’t go forward, together fast enough… all of us should be rushing to strengthen the U.S.-India relationship while helping India position itself as a global power and the security partner of choice in this region… India, indeed, stands like a beacon on a hill, building a future on the power of ideas–not on castles of sand that threaten the rules-based architecture that has served us all so very well.

In June 2016, a month after the first-ever Indo-U.S. Maritime Security Dialogue, the strategic handshake grew firmer still when Prime Minister Modi visited Washington. There, President Obama announced a special new designation for India as a “Major Defense Partner,” heralding an era in which America would share defense technology with India “at a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners.” While the designation carries no binding legal significance, it’s nevertheless a “powerful presidential statement,” according to one Pentagon insider; one that “facilitates the interagency process” and will endure across administrations as “an important reference point.”

Equally important, Obama and Modi reached agreement on a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) more than a decade in the making. The pact permits the two countries to “access each other’s supplies, spare parts, and services from military bases and ports, making it easier to coordinate their military activities.” In the past, India had provided such assistance only on a case-by-case basis.

While two other “foundational agreements,” CISMOA and BECA, remain more distant prospects, for India LEMOA represented an important victory over the resilient ghosts of “Non-Alignment.” It’s not that India has abandoned Non-Alignment, Modi has argued, it’s that “unlike before, India is not standing in a corner.”


Modi and Obama also took the opportunity to celebrate the two nations’ “strategic cyber relationship” and signaled a major cybersecurity pact was forthcoming. And they concluded an information-sharing agreement on commercial or “white” shipping. Even more consequential cooperation on Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) quietly began years ago, when Washington began sharing intelligence with Delhi on foreign submarines operating in the Indian Ocean.

Finally, Modi and Obama hailed what they called the “defining counterterrorism relationship for the 21st Century,” noting the two sides have begun sharing terrorist screening information. Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh followed Modi to Washington a month later for the Indo-U.S. Homeland Security Dialogue where his robust agenda included: “further cementing anti-terror cooperation, real-time sharing of intelligence inputs, cyber security and critical infrastructure protection, countering illicit finance, [and] global supply chain security,” among others.


Counterterrorism cooperation was also a focal point of last month’s Second-Indo U.S. Strategic and Commercial Dialogue. There, Secretary of State John Kerry and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj demonstrated just how far the two sides have come on counterterrorism cooperation and how thoroughly America’s South Asia policy has been “de-hyphenated.”

They “called on Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai and 2016 Pathankot terrorist attacks to justice” and “reaffirmed their commitment to dismantle safe havens for terrorist and criminal networks [headquartered in Pakistan] such as…Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D Company and its affiliates and the Haqqani Network.” After the meeting, Swaraj declared there had been a “meeting of minds on the issue of terrorism… We agreed that no nation should be allowed to have double standards on terrorism by differentiating between good and bad terrorists.”

As Kerry and Swaraj swapped notes on counterterrorism, Parrikar and Carter were miles away celebrating the formal signing of the LEMOA pact. Parrikar then enjoyed unprecedented access to the U.S. defense establishment, visiting U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and Joint Base Langly-Eustis for a tour of the Air Combat Command (ACC) and the 48th Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Wing. He held separate meetings with the U.S. defense industry and the leadership of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx).


The defense chiefs also used the opportunity to praise the increasing complexity of U.S.-India joint military exercises. It’s worth restating that India conducts more military exercises with the U.S. than with any other country in the world. Indeed, the two militaries conduct over 50 “cooperative events across all Services” annually, including tabletop exercises, training exchanges and dialogues.

Indo-U.S. joint naval exercises tend to get the most attention but the two sides have also been conducting joint army exercises annually for the past 12 years under the moniker “Yudh Abhyas.” Traditionally held in Hawaii in the odd years America plays host, in 2013 they were held for the first time in the continental U.S. at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In September 2015 the venue changed to Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Washington State.

In January 2016, JBLM welcomed a separate Indian military delegation of forty-two special forces soldiers to train with U.S. Green Berets. It marked the resumption of the “Vajra Prahar” special forces exercise after a four-year hiatus. Meanwhile, Yudh Abhyas 2016 will be held in the “mountains of northern India,” where the two armies will “swap-out troops within formations” and focus on “combined arms maneuvers and tactical training.”

The Indo-U.S. Malabar naval exercise, meanwhile, is now poised to add Japan as a permanent participant, as Modi’s India sheds its aversion to trilateral demonstrations of military strength. (Japan has not officially been included as a permanent member but all three sides have signaled its participation will now be regular). Malabar 2016 saw two new landmarks reached, including the first time Japan has participated in consecutive years, and the first time the drills were held in the North Philippine Sea, adjacent to the volatile South China Sea. (They’ve previously been held in the nearby Sea of Japan). Led by a U.S. aircraft carrier, the three sides rehearsed “scenarios for destroying hostile submarines, surface warships and aircraft.” As the drills came to a conclusion the group was joined by an additional nine Japanese warships for a separate tactical exercise.

South China Sea

Indeed, it is in the South China Sea where the U.S. rebalance to Asia and Modi’s Act East Policy may find the greatest strategic and geographic overlap. Washington has long encouraged India to take a more active role and interest in promoting stability in the Western Pacific and has warmly welcomed Modi’s efforts to elevate India’s profile there.

The UPA government (2004-2014) that preceded Modi began regular calls for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; under Modi they have grown stronger and more specific. At an Indian Ocean conference in Singapore this month, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar went farther than many of America’s closest allies in explicitly endorsing the legitimacy of an UNCLOS Tribunal that repudiated China’s nine-dash line claims over the South China Sea in July. A similar phenomenon was on display last year when Sushma Swaraj referred to the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea” in a joint statement with her Filipino counterpart.

Collectively the above moves represent a rather profound reorientation of Indian foreign policy; one as much growing trust and confidence as it is any tangible metrics. In years prior Delhi appeared constrained by the belief that moving too closely toward the U.S. would incur a political cost domestically and a geopolitical cost in its relations with Beijing. The UPA government began to tentatively test the assumptions underpinning that paradigm but the Modi government has de- and re-constructed the paradigm entirely. It’s concluded a closer partnership with the U.S. not only enjoys broad political support and serves India’s national security interests, but it strengthens, not weakens, Delhi’s position vis-a-vis China. In turn, China no longer stands as a reason to withdraw from America’s outstretched hand but yet another reason to grip it even tighter.

With the security order across the Indo-Pacific in a state of volatile flux, at the IISS Shangri La Dialogue in June Secretary Carter called for the emergence of an inclusive “principled security network” that “represents the next wave in Asia-Pacific Security.” The U.S. defense secretary has devoted a great deal of time and energy into ensuring India is not just a member, but a leader of that network. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, Defense Minister Parrikar, and Foreign Secretary Jaishankar, India appears more ready than ever to answer that call.

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