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An Enhanced U.S. – India Security Cooperation: A must have for the Biden Administration

Published by Foreign Affairs Bulletin by IDSA on

This short piece argues that the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) plays a vital role in the U.S. national security dimension more than any other, especially if the U.S. wants to keep its role and influence in the international order. Because of this exact reason, it must do far better in aiding its major regional allies, particularly India, as it has a natural advantage against China as well as the most competent navy in the theatre of the Indian Ocean. Because of the limited space this article only writes about the military aspects of regional cooperation and solely focuses on India. 

Where the Dragon hides…

In the last decades China has stretched far beyond its own borders and deep into the Indian Ocean as a result of its strategic imperative for the region, which is the protection of both sea lines of communication (SLOC) and a range of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) maritime infrastructures from state and nonstate actors. This includes everything under the aegis of China’s “Great Rejuvenation”, or in other words, as part of the creation of a Sinocentric regional order. China has acquired ports with strategic importance at Male, Maldives; Mahe, Seychelles; Colombo, Sri Lanka and last but definitely not least, Gwadar, Pakistan and its first foreign military base at Doraleh, Djibouti. The latter’s importance is clear, from this vantage point the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) can overlook the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, through which an estimated 12.5 to 20 percent of global trade passes every year. Not to mention that since the launch of the 2015 China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Beijing proved to be an important arms supplier to Islamabad and showed that they can move their warships to Gwadar without anyone’s approval. As for the naval weapon systems, the most important are the Type-039B ‘Hangor Class’ submarines (8) and Type-054 class frigates (4), which is considered the backbone of the PLAN.

Misplaced U.S. Foreign Policy?

For more than a decade the Middle East acted as a magnet for U.S. foreign policy, and even after several failures they failed to learn from their own mistakes, thus prolonging unnecessary wars and creating new ones. The Obama administration (2008-2016) not just failed to give enough focus to the Asia-Pacific region, it also provoked unnecessary tension. Obama’s stated policy was to accommodate China’s rise, cooperating with Beijing on global issues while avoiding a new cold war. Yet, the administration put American military power behind the leaders of India and Japan, those who are most determined to undermine China’s rise. On a smaller scale, the same containment strategy was favoured by strengthened military ties with the Philippines and Vietnam. Not so surprisingly, this was also the beginning of China’s enhanced A2/AD bubbles on the South China Sea. After Obama, the Trump administration also failed to ease tension between the two superpowers, enacting a trade war with Trump’s populist anti-China rhetoric only acting as more gasoline on the fire. Are these wounds so irreversible that there is no other choice but to stick to this containment strategy? If yes, the question stands as: is it enough?

It would be hard to deny the strengthened defence cooperation between the U.S- and India. So far four “foundational” agreements have been inked: the first was a 2002 agreement to protect shared military information, then came the logistics and secure-communication pacts in 2016 and 2018. Finally, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which allowed for the sharing of sensitive geospatial data to boost the accuracy of Indian drones and cruise missiles. The two countries have reached an increasing level of strategic convergence, which is most apparent in the area of defence and security, and particularly under the Modi and Trump era. As of 2020 the U.S. is the fourth -largest military supplier of India after Russia, Israel and France. Having said that, the Indian government has not yet officially allied with the U.S., albeit they share a diplomatic partnership – with at or above Strategic Cooperative Partnership – with China, and it is also part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. This gives their bilateral defence cooperation a sense of instability and uncertainty.

Winds of change 

India has a unique geopolitical environment – which explains its traditional posture of strategic autonomy from great powers. Surrounded with one of the world’s most important oceans on the South, threatened by China on the East and on the North while contained by Pakistan on the West. Having China as a neighbour was very much manageable in the last hundreds of years because of the Himalayas as a great obstacle, and even in the 20th century given a dysfunctional People’s Liberation Army. Unfortunately, the technological changes and China’s economic boom altered this gravely, which shows the increase and intensity of peace time border clashes between the two. Beijing’s territorial assertiveness in the Himalayas and increased activity in the mountains resulted in numerous clashes, which may have acted as a wake up call for India in that dealing with its giant neighbour without the clear support of the U.S. is risky. That is why India is more willing than ever before to work more closely with the Quad (Australia, Japan, India and U.S.).

As for the U.S., the 2020 election showed how deeply divided and troubled the nation is right now. As President-elect Joe Biden said many times, he “wages a battle for the soul of the nation” and aims to heal its wounds. Clearing up the mess at home is the priority, because he can’t manage a strong and stable Asia-Pacific foreign policy without relative peace and support in the homefront – just as Vietnam had proved. Another question is how the future administration will address the Modi government’s crackdown on  Muslims, especially in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir.  Considering that the Kashmir question is extremely sensitive and the ruling PJB party is a Hindu-nationalist one, foreign pressure against it might prove to be fatal to the future of a deep defence cooperation.

Conclusion for a Biden administration

Joe Biden indeed has a lot on his plate right now, and it won’t get better anytime soon. First and foremost, he must address the domestic issues of the United States, and only then turn his attention slowly on the Asia-Pacific. The administration must find a way to normalize the relations with China, and even accept its place on the world stage as an equal without alienating India. This is extremely difficult considering that China’s immediate neighbours do not want a strong China, as a soft approach on both Beijing and Islamabad means a heightened security threat to India. Then there is the already discussed Kashmir question which complicates things even more. Thus, the U.S. should face its own weaknesses and also address Beijing’s horizontal manoeuvring – the creation of small simultaneous challenges on a broad spectrum of competition – by strengthening the Quad.

— Written by Gabor Papp, Political Science major at the University of Szeged  and Associate Editor at FA Bulletin —