The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11 have increased the strategic significance of the Indian Ocean, transforming the region into a center of geopolitical rivalry. The two wars accelerated what was already a trend: South Asia, a relative backwater during the Cold War era, had begun to gain in prominence, a reflection of persistent regional instabilities.
The war in Afghanistan forced the West to rethink its geopolitical priorities, with an increased presence in the Indian Ocean. Western powers re-formulated their policies, understanding the need to reset relations and form new strategic partnerships with littoral states.
Most important has been the relationship between India and the U.S., which has experienced dramatic fluctuations since the outset of the Afghanistan conflict.
Before that, though, the post-Cold War approach to links between Delhi and Washington was crystallized when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government delineated India’s relationship with America on the eve of President Clinton’s visit to India in 2000. The Indian government’s response was received favorably and India was accommodated in U.S. policies, as illustrated in the 2002 US National Security Strategy.
According to that document, “The Administration sees India’s potential to become one of the great democratic powers of the twenty-first century and has worked hard to transform our relationship accordingly.”
It goes on to say, “The United States has undertaken a transformation in its bilateral relationship with India based on a conviction that U.S. interests require a strong relationship with India.”
Another element in bilateral relations was formed with the The Defence Policy Group in 1996, charged with reviewing and developing bilateral approaches within the defense policy parcel. After 9/11, the Group was revived and modified once America removed the sanctions it had earlier imposed against India.
Indo-U.S. defense co-operation has a history. During the first Gulf War, India provided refueling facilities to American warplanes. What has occurred, though, is a rapid reconfiguration of power that has radically modified the geo-political equilibrium in the Indian Ocean, in favor of the U.S. And so, in the aftermath of 9/11, India was one of the first countries to offer its support for the Afghan invasion, deploying its warships for escort duties in the Straits of Malacca.
Increasingly, America has shown a keen interest in the internal politics of the countries in this region. Take Sri Lanka, an island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which lies six nautical miles from four major ocean routes that link the Western Pacific to the Western Indian Ocean via the strategically important South China Sea and Straits of Malacca. It’s no surprise that Sri Lanka’s internal politics are of interest to several outside powers.
In March, India voted against Sri Lanka in favor of a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on the Tamil issue. The wisdom of that decision is up for debate. Traditionally, Sri Lanka’s lengthy conflict had played out in a sub-continental context, within which India has sought to play a significant and positive role, shaping and influencing the regional balance. In the broader sense, the Sri Lanka conflict mirrored the prevailing strategic tensions between regional and international powers. The struggle of the Tamils was a lever, which could be manipulated to keep Sri Lanka from aligning itself with the West.
Thus, India’s geopolitical ambitions in the 1980s remained limited to securing its national interests. That calculation meant it acted as a buffer between Colombo’s oppressive military and long-standing Tamil national aspirations, indirectly protecting the democratic rights of the Tamil people.
The post-Cold War “unipolar moment” changed the strategic environment. The power shifts in the Indian Ocean has brought a growing convergence of interests between India and America and has neutered the previous power balance. The new alliances and reorientation reflect Delhi’s realization that if it wants the ability to counter Chinese influence in the region and project power beyond traditional strategic boundaries it needs American support.
But India cannot leave itself wholly reliant on the U.S., which after all is going to pursue its own interests, as underscored by a recent piece in The New York Times, which describes a secret deal signed between Pakistan’s ISI and CIA in 2004. Under the deal, Pakistan allowed American drone strikes on its soil on the condition that the unmanned aircraft would stay away from its nuclear facilities and the mountain camps where Kashmiri militants are trained for attacks on India. It’s a classic example of how the U.S. and its agencies at times work in their own interests, even when that might be contrary to the interests of allies.
Another example: after very considerable pressure from Washington, India's former energy minister R.P.N. Singh announced that India would reduce oil imports from Iran by 11%. Yet India remains heavily reliant on Iran for oil. Thankfully, after many delays and glitches, India and Iran have finally agreed to draw up a transit pact, which would enable goods to reach Central Asia through Iran. The Indian Cabinet has meanwhile announced it will invest over $100 million in the expansion of Iran’s Chabahar port, which could act as a hub for the new transit arrangement and enhance the trade prospects with both countries.
Like the West, India has its own strategic and economic interests. Even as it engages with the U.S. on strategic and geopolitical matters, it should secure those interests.