It is time for the United States to recognize that the Indian Ocean is the next front line of world geopolitics and the emerging arena for a new “great game.” China’s aggressive inroads into the Indian Ocean through military bases, port leasing, and predatory economics present an imminent strategic challenge, as these advances will result in an Indo-Pacific that is less free, less open, less secure, and less prosperous for the United States and India.
In the midst of a global power flux, revival of strategic competition, rampant regional rivalries, and concerns about the future of a liberal order, India and the United States are well positioned to shape the future together in ways that sustain the interests of both countries.
The U.S. National Security Strategy describes India as central to U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and an essential component of Indo-Pacific security architecture. This recognition also underscores the need to meet the core challenge of China’s economic and military assertiveness and its manifest desire to create a Sino-centric Asian order. The collapse of ASEAN unity since 2012 has significantly eroded ASEAN centrality in regional security architecture; China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of conflict.
U.S. efforts to deepen its engagement in the Indian Ocean Region must not merely be intended to draft India into the existing Asia-Pacific security architecture, but also to recognize the growing strategic salience of the Indian Ocean itself. To make an Indian Ocean Region that is as prosperous as East Asia, the United States needs to join hands with India and work more closely with countries in the region to develop a security architecture that underpins free and open trade, preserves sovereignty, and is designed for a century in which the Indian Ocean will remain a vital connector of the global economy.
As matters stand today, the United States does not have a robust, consistent footprint in the Indian Ocean. From India’s security perspective, the United States has virtually opted itself out of Central Asia and has only marginal commitments in the Indian Ocean. From the U.S. perspective, India must also progress pending proposals to augment and deepen the defense partnership.
Based on the foregoing, we offer the following recommendations for a revamped U.S. vision of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
The United States needs to understand that India’s security interests lie both to its west and east. While the United States is still trying to turn the clock back to regain lost strategic space in East and Southeast Asia, China is already driving into the Indian Ocean where it aims to establish an overwhelming presence. There is need for a holistic look at challenges in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
If India is indeed to be a central pillar of the U.S. vision for the Indo-Pacific, it must be more deeply consulted in the development of a U.S. strategy which reflects the interests of both strategic partners. This requires a nuanced broadening from a predominantly East Asia focus, driven primarily by U.S. alliances and historical legacies, to a “whole of the Indo-Pacific approach” which draws on shared interests to achieve shared objectives.
The United States and India need to jointly evolve a common strategy that acknowledges the challenge China presents in the Indian Ocean as well as the need to preserve the role of ASEAN in regional security. A possible three-tier security architecture can be considered:
- An East Asian tier centered around U.S. alliances;
- An ASEAN-centric central tier buttressed by a web of Trilaterals and the Quad; and
- An Indian Ocean-centric tier alongside India (and Australia), where the United States commits to a greater coordination of defense assets, including Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR), and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
The inability to articulate a wide range of specific actions through a standalone policy proved to be a central weakness of the “pivot” or “rebalance” under the previous U.S. administration. Recent pronouncements of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offer a good start, but the United States needs to be more specific on how the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy will alter U.S. presence and partnerships throughout the region. The United States and India, along with other Quad partners, also need to elaborate a detailed architecture for regional economic engagement, connectivity initiatives, and multilayered regional security architecture. Any such framework of enhanced U.S.-Indian (and particularly Quad) cooperation will certainly evoke a strong response from China. Policymakers and strategic communities in Quad capitals must try and mitigate this coercive challenge if the reborn Quad is to enjoy continued traction.
Conclusions: The Defining Role of US-India Defense Ties
It is inevitable that despite broad convergences, U.S.-India relations will continue to face challenges in both the diplomatic and economic domains. It is thus important for both strategic partners to recognize that intensifying discussions on defense cooperation have already led to a much deeper appreciation in Washington of India’s concerns and interests both to its east and its west. The United States must now put forward a clear vision on how the three commands covering the Indian definition of the Indo-Pacific (INDO-PACOM, CENTCOM, and AFRICOM) can work together on issues of defense cooperation with India.
The 10-year framework agreement on bilateral defense cooperation renewed in 2015 already provides the platform for strengthening defense ties from a strategic perspective, while preserving each country’s strategic independence. Recent steps taken by the U.S. administration and Congress to bolster India’s Major Defense Partner status have further incentivized efforts by both sides to keep pace with the evolving security scenario across the Indo-Pacific, especially in the Indian Ocean.
Strengthening maritime domain awareness mechanisms, synergizing ISR assets, enhancing anti-submarine warfare capability, improving the efficacy of our novel cooperative mechanism (the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative), and concluding interoperability agreements (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Bilateral Exchange and Cooperative Agreement(BECA)) need to be vigorously pursued.
Finally, if there is one big idea that merits consideration as a symbol of U.S.-Indian defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, it is the enlargement of Malabar into a two-phase exercise next year: the first involving INDO-PACOM in the eastern Indian Ocean, and the second engaging CENTCOM in the western Indian Ocean. This will provide a qualitative boost to mutual confidence in the defense partnership and show Indian policymakers that the Indian Ocean is, indeed, part of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
The forthcoming inaugural meeting of the United States-India Ministerial 2+2 Dialogue (scheduled for September 6) provides a historic opportunity to lay the foundations of balanced and upgraded bilateral defense and security relations that deliver mutual reinforcement and preserve a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
Mr. Richard M. Rossow is senior adviser and Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Ambassador Hemant Krishan Singh is director general of Delhi Policy Group, New Delhi.