BY: SENIOR FELLOW ALAN DOWD
AUGUST 2017—Warships from the United States, India and Japan recently converged on the Bay of Bengal for the largest naval exercise in the region in more than two decades. Dubbed “Malabar,” the exercise is just the latest indication that India is ready and able to play a growing role in what strategists call the Indo-Asia Pacific.
This burgeoning U.S.-India partnership is in the national interest. And as President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi made clear during their summer summit, it’s a partnership built on shared values, shared economic interests and shared threats.
“We are not just partners by chance,” Modi explained, pointing to a common commitment to fighting “the serious challenges of terrorism, extremism, and radicalization,” “growing defense and security cooperation…to protect our strategic interests,” and a “robust strategic partnership” that “touches upon almost all areas of human endeavor.” He even suggested that the destinies of America and India are intertwined: “India’s interests lie in a strong, and prosperous, and successful America,” Modi said. “In the same way, India’s development and its growing role at the international level are in the USA’s interest.”
Echoing Modi, Trump added, “Both our nations have been struck by the evils of terrorism, and we are both determined to destroy terrorist organizations and the radical ideology that drives them.” Both nations are committed to “progress…prosperity and growth.” And both are working to solve problems from Korea and Afghanistan to jihadism and regional instability. “The security partnership between the United States and India is incredibly important,” he added.
It was the Bush administration that made the farsighted decision to lay the foundations for a strategic partnership with the world’s biggest democracy. Early on, President George W. Bush recognized that “U.S. interests require a strong relationship with India.” Toward that end, Bush pushed for a landmark agreement with India on nuclear energy and opened the door to an explosion in U.S.-India trade. Consider that total U.S.-India trade was $14.3 billion in 2000 and $43 billion by the end of the Bush presidency—a 300-percent increase. Last year, U.S.-India trade exceeded $67 billion.
It was also during the Bush administration that India and the U.S. began to view one another as helpful counterweights to China, each providing strategic depth vis-à-vis China. Joint land-warfare maneuvers began in 2002; joint exercises grew “dramatically in size, scope and sophistication” in the first decade of the 2000s, according to a Pentagon report; and the two began partnering on aircraft-carrier development and arms sales.
During the Obama administration, India and the U.S. signed important agreements on military logistics and defense technology; Indian warplanes participated in Red Flag; Indian warships participated in RIMPAC; and India became a “Major Defense Partner.”
On the strength of these developments, India is rapidly upgrading and upsizing its military, which boasts the world’s fifth-largest navy and fourth-largest air force. Recent and planned acquisitions by the Indian armed forces include heavy-lift cargo planes, 126 fighter-bombers, new aircraft carriers and a U.S.-built amphibious docking ship. India has 75 new warships slated for christening by 2019. In addition, India recently added a new nuclear-powered submarine to its fleet and tested a new missile, the Agni V, with a range of 3,100 miles. The Indian press has dubbed the Agni V the “China killer.”
That brings us back to the Malabar naval exercises. All three participants have security- and/or territory-related disputes with China: India is concerned by China’s increased naval activity in and around the Indian Ocean, and the two Asia giants have a simmering land-border dispute. China has made claims on Japanese islands and waters in the East China Sea, which has spurred Japan to increase military activity in the region. And China has begun constructing artificial islands in the South China to stake its dubious claims over international waters, prompting pushback from the U.S. (Echoing Washington’s position on China’s reckless island-building actions, Modi says India “supports freedom of navigation based on international law.”)
This year’s Malabar exercises featured 17 warships—including the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, India’s INS Vikramanditya aircraft carrier, and Japan’s JS Izumo (a helicopter carrier)—and more than 95 warplanes. It was the first time all three countries deployed aircraft carriers to Malabar.
The U.S.-India partnership is a natural fit. First, the two countries have strong democratic credentials. After all, India calls itself the world’s largest democracy, and the U.S. considers itself the world’s oldest continuous democracy. India and the U.S. embrace similar views on freedom and free enterprise, as Trump and Modi noted.
Second, while public opinion about America waxes and wanes in other democracies, the Indian people have held positive views of the U.S. for more than 15 years running. Recent Pew polling reveals that a healthy majority of Indians (56 percent) view the United States favorably, and an equal share of the Indian population views China as a “major threat.”
It pays to recall that immediately after 9/11, India offered unequivocal support to the U.S., and India remains a stalwart partner in the effort to stabilize the spawning ground of 9/11: Afghanistan. India has poured more than a billion dollars into Afghanistan, building hospitals, schools, roads and government facilities.
To be sure, this is partly a function of India’s desire to counter Pakistani influence over Afghanistan. However, India’s commitment to a more stable Afghanistan is a function of something more than regional rivalry. India understands the deadly danger of terrorism. To borrow the parlance of the Cold War, India is a frontline state in the war on terror. The State Department places India “among the world’s most terrorism-afflicted countries.” Terrorists attacked the Indian parliament in 2001, commuter-trains in 2003, markets and schools in 2005 and 2006, and trains, mosques and an amusement park in 2007. Then there was 2008, a year that proved to be a bloody turning point for India. After a terrorist attack on India’s embassy in Afghanistan killed 54 people, the jihadists launched what amounted to a seaborne invasion of Mumbai, India’s financial center. The siege of Mumbai killed 183 people, including six Americans. More attacks followed in 2011 in Mumbai, in 2016 in Uri, this year in Anantnag. The list goes on and on.
Third, India’s economic muscle, demographic heft, and strategic location demand that it play a larger role on the global stage—a development that is sure to ease some of the burdens an overstretched America is carrying in the Indo-Asia Pacific. Indeed, India is primed to play what military thinkers call a force-multiplying role, buttressing U.S. goals by helping to expand the zone of peace and prosperity in the Indian Ocean, South Asia and beyond. In recent years, Indian warships have steamed to the Atlantic Ocean for exercises with the French and British navies, and the Indian navy has participated in U.S.-led counter-piracy operations off the coasts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
This spirit of partnership linking America and India is a dramatic change from the Cold War, when India led the “non-aligned movement” and was usually at odds with the U.S. But today, fueled by a common vision of economic dynamism, a common enemy in jihadist terrorism and a common challenge in China, the U.S.-India partnership, in Trump’s words, “has never been stronger.”