At the annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi this month, Admiral Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, made a comment that quickly generated headlines in India and the Western press. Speaking alongside Indian and Japanese counterparts, Harris bluntly referred to China as a disruptive power in the Indo-Pacific, and urged countries in the region to build their capabilities and work together. Implicit in these remarks was an awareness of shifting American priorities in the region, a reassessment of longstanding strategic assumptions—and a recognition of India as a vital partner for achieving American aims.
When the United States looks at Asia today, it no longer sees the peaceful rise of China but an economic and military rival that seeks to undermine the international liberal order that the United States helped establish after the end of the Second World War. Washington now seeks like-minded democratic, free-market societies as partners in upholding this rules-based order.
Indians believe in and have long sought foreign acknowledgement of Indian primacy in the Indian Ocean region. At a time when the Trump Administration is seeking partners, it appears that New Delhi is finally ready to move beyond speeches and vision statements to play a decisive role in the greater Indo-Pacific region.
South Asia was and will remain India’s primary sphere of influence, with over 85 percent of the annual development budget of India’s foreign ministry devoted to the immediate neighborhood. New Delhi has also learned that maintaining a sphere of influence is not simply a function of telling others what to do but being able to expend resources that deny space to competitors.
India’s recent experience in Afghanistan and the deepening Chinese footprint in South Asia, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have made New Delhi more receptive to projects like the Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure Initiative, co-sponsored by Japan and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as an alternative to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR).
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India views Japan not only as an economic partner but as a key strategic ally sharing similar threats and challenges, namely the rise of China. Building on ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that were developed while Modi was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, India has embraced Japan as the key partner for development of infrastructure both within India and in its neighborhood. In 2014 Japan offered a $35 billion investment in infrastructure projects in India, with a $17 billion bullet train project being announced in 2017. And in December 2017, Japan announced that it will invest in infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, offering favorable financing terms to a friendly neighbor of India’s.
India’s historical and civilizational ties with Southeast Asia date back centuries, with the region hosting a large Indian diaspora. However, it is only since the 1990s that India has pursued its “Look East” policy, aimed at building closer economic ties with the region, and only in the last decade that a security dimension has been added to this relationship.
This “Act East” policy was put on full display on January 26, 2018, when for the first time in seven decades all ten leaders of the ASEAN grouping were the guests of honor at India’s celebrations of its 69th Republic Day. India’s trade with the ASEAN countries currently stands at $76 billion, a figure that will surely climb if the ongoing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade talks are finalized this year.
Similarly, New Delhi has boosted relations with the Pacific Islands, another region with shared civilizational ties and a large Indian diaspora. Since 2014, there have been annual conferences in India or in the region itself, and New Delhi has offered massive assistance, increasing its annual grant-in-aid to each of the 14 Pacific Island countries to $200,000. India has also set up a fund to help the Pacific Islands adapt to climate change, assisted in capacity building of their coastal surveillance systems, and provided technical training and educational fellowships.
India’s growing economic and security relationships and interest in the Indo-Pacific region are aligned with its deepening partnership with the United States. Two years after signing the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision of 2015, India is a member of the Quad (a strategic grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia) and there is talk about making the grouping something more than an annual talk shop.
India, the United States, and Japan already participate in the annual Malabar naval exercises, and Australia may soon join them. While the symbolism of annual joint military exercises under Malabar should not be underestimated, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has rightly noted, the Quad should in addition include technology sharing, military training and strategic planning, while helping to build military-to-military institutional relationships between India and the United States. This is something Washington shares with its close allies in both Europe and Asia, but which is still being built with India.
Yet the two countries have undeniably made great strides already. From being “estranged” democracies during the Cold War, India and the United States today share, in the words of Secretary Tillerson, a “growing strategic convergence.” From having almost no military relations during the Cold War, India is today a Major Defense Partner of the United States. From $20 billion in bilateral trade in the year 2000, today the two countries’ trade flows stand at $115 billion.
Ever since 1947, Indian leaders have sought recognition for India, based on their belief in its civilizational greatness and the role it is destined to play on the global stage. For most of that time, American leaders have not shared that vision, or even understood what India wanted, given the preoccupations of the Cold War, priorities in other regions of the world, and Washington’s convoluted relationship with Pakistan.
Today, however, the United States views India as a potential regional security provider and seeks to build India’s security capacity through commercial and defense cooperation between the two militaries.
When it looks at the Indo-Pacific, Washington sees India and the United States as the two “bookends of stability,” in Tillerson’s words, two “natural allies” who share a commitment to “upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade.” The recent National Security Strategy for 2017also spoke of America seeking to support India’s “leadership role” in the Indo-Pacific region.
What remains to be seen, however, is how Washington and New Delhi prepare the contours of this partnership. The primary question is how the United States should deal with a country that does not fit the category of a traditional American military ally and yet seeks to become a strategic partner, one that does not seek American security guarantees and visualizes itself as a future great power. Further, unlike other American allies, India never joined any formal alliances and so there is no multilayered cross-institutional relationship between the two countries.
The United States and India share a similar vision for the future security architecture of the Indo-Pacific, and they also share similar goals in the region. However, America’s long and complicated relationship with Pakistan and the reluctance of Washington to include India in discussions of the Greater Middle East need to be resolved. The Middle East is an area of critical importance for India as it is home to a large Indian diaspora whose remittances boost the Indian economy, most of India’s energy needs are sourced from the region, and it is also critical for Indian security strategy.
With an American President who really seeks to boost ties with India and stand up to China, this is a rare chance to re-align U.S. and Indian policy in the interests of both countries, an opportunity to be seized—but one that the two countries will need to carefully manage as well.