Strategic situation in Indian Ocean with U.S., Chinese and Indian bases and port facilities

Washington poised to become New Delhi’s partner in the Indian Ocean

  • India is anxious about Chinese economic and military expansion in South Asia
  • The U.S. is also rethinking its approach and small footprint in the region
  • Closer military cooperation and deeper U.S. engagement is the likely outcome

Not since the last decade of the Cold War has the United States viewed the Indian Ocean as such a competitive strategic space. This time the competitor attracting Washington’s attention is not the Soviet Union. It is China. At the same time, the American relationship with India – a country with a lot at stake and deep concerns over Chinese designs in the Indian Ocean – continues to gain momentum. The consequence of these two developments will be an abiding U.S. military, economic and diplomatic presence in the region, closely coordinated with the government in New Delhi.

Unprecedented advances in cooperation between the U.S. and India on maritime, security and regional policies can be expected over the next year. These initiatives are by no means a surprise, but result from a sea change in relations between the U.S., China, India and other regional powers. To understand where these policy changes are headed, it is vital to understand the foundation upon which they are being built.

China’s push

There is little question but that Washington’s growing attention to the Indian Ocean is a response to China’s expansive foreign and security policy. The most notable example is Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which encompasses a plethora of infrastructure and investment projects that span the region, including a robust maritime transportation network. China’s aim is to establish a Eurasian economic and trading area to rival the transatlantic space. Central to this goal is the “strategic imperative” of establishing a secure line of communications across the Indian Ocean, according to a 2016 report by the National Bureau of Asian Research. This is a key element in the Chinese military’s “two-ocean” strategy that envisions naval operations conducted from the East and South China Seas into the Indian Ocean.

South Asia is a focus for Chinese military diplomacy

While many aspects of the Chinese initiative remain boldly aspirational, some are quite concrete, such as the recent $1.1 billion investment for control and development of the deepwater port of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka. Another well-known example is China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti, guarding the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. China is also developing port facilities and a potential naval base at Gwadar in Pakistan, near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

Equally notable is a ramping up of China’s military diplomacy. According to a recent report by analysts at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the U.S. National Defense University in Washington, 41 percent of the diplomatic missions and other international activities involving the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) occurred in Asia. And in this part of the world, South Asia is the second-most important focus, accounting for a quarter of Chinese military diplomatic activity in the entire Asia-Pacific region. The intensity of this push has picked up sharply since 2012, involving more than 400 events such as military exercises, port calls and senior-level meetings with officials from Pakistan, India, the Maldives, Djibouti, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other countries.

Military and naval operations have also increased, which has attracted much attention in the Indian press. Most notable is growing Chinese submarine activity and a live-fire naval exercise by three PLA Navy warships in the western Indian Ocean in August.

Shipyard workers ready the first of the new Kalvari class of Indian submarines
India’s growing naval power, including the new domestically produced diesel-electric submarines of the Kalvari class, is looming large in U.S. strategic calculations (source: dpa)

India’s concern

New Delhi clearly regards both the BRI and China’s growing ambitions in South Asia as a major strategic concern. The Indian government has proposed its own infrastructure initiatives and has embarked on a thorough modernization of its military. Procurement of new fighters and missiles, and especially an ambitious naval buildup of new fleet carriers, surface combatants and submarines, are explicitly designed to counter Chinese expansion.

The Indian government’s strategy includes engaging other partners in its regional efforts. Most notably, India and Japan have signaled their intent to work together more closely. This summer, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a last-minute decision to add France to his European itinerary. In part, the decision reflected New Delhi’s desire to get more European powers besides Germany involved in security cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

Just as important, India wants to engage with the U.S. as a partner in containing Chinese influence. This effort seems to enjoy broad political support. The main opposition Congress Party shares the Modi government’s concern about China’s regional ambitions and its desire for closer military, diplomatic and economic ties with the U.S.

Washington rethinks

In turn, Washington seems to be listening. President Donald Trump’s administration is currently drafting a comprehensive strategy toward China. This document will most likely address security challenges in the Indian Ocean and a response to the BRI infrastructure program. Indicators are that this emerging U.S. strategy will be heavily influenced by input from New Delhi and Tokyo.

Matthew Pottinger is the lead for coordinating Asia policy on the National Security Council (NSC). Lisa Curtis is the NSC lead for South Asia. Another influential voice is Brian Hook, who heads Policy Planning at the State Department. By all accounts, these officials perceive the Chinese challenge in alignment with Indian and Japanese views.

Mr. Pottinger, in particular, is well-known and respected by the U.S. Asia policy community, and his role is crucial. As a recent article in The New York Times described it: “Mr. Pottinger is supposed to corral the varying views on the Asia-Pacific region within the government, including how to handle nuclear-armed North Korea, and help synthesize them into a coherent policy for his new boss, [National Security Advisor] General [H.R.] McMaster.”

American strategic interests in South Asia are significant. The Indian Ocean is a vital shipping route for much of the world’s oil and gas, along with most of the goods traded between Asia and the U.S.’s closest allies and friends in Europe.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany
One thing India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump have in common is a shared alarm at China’s strategic expansion along the South Asian littoral (source: dpa)

From a military perspective, the U.S. interest in the region has been obvious and growing for years. A key focus for the U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM (whose area of responsibility includes South Asia and the Indian Ocean) has been building a closer relationship with the Indian military. There is also increased interest in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, as the commander of PACOM made unprecedented visits to both countries this year.

The American military presence remains minimal. Compared with the Middle East and the Pacific, there are far fewer U.S. assets stationed in the region. Most are devoted to assistance and training programs, or support counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. One growth area has been naval exercises, especially the trilateral Malabar maneuvers involving the U.S., India and Japan. Most U.S. units taking part in these activities are drawn from forces transiting the region and do not represent a permanent presence.

Quiet commitment

Aside from China’s military activities, Washington remains concerned about the future of Diego Garcia. This key U.S. naval base is leased from the British, but the island is also claimed by neighboring Mauritius. Diego Garcia is crucial to the U.S. regional strategy and Washington is anxious to keep it in British hands.

The question is how fast cooperation between the U.S. and India will intensify and how deep it will become

While there is little doubt that U.S.-Indian cooperation will intensify, the question is how fast and how deep it will become. The American side has quietly proposed conducting joint naval patrols in the Indian Ocean – an offer that New Delhi seems reluctant to take up for now.

The most likely scenario is for joint naval exercises to expand as the U.S. redoubles efforts to build up Indian naval capabilities, especially in maritime domain awareness and antisubmarine warfare. On the diplomatic front, security concerns are likely to add momentum to the “quad dialogue” between Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., which could result in at least informal talks in 2018.

It is probable that India, Japan and the U.S. will formally adopt a coordinated approach to the Belt and Road Initiative, most likely aimed at certain aspects of the program’s maritime component. This response will likely include military, economic and diplomatic elements. In addition, expect U.S. bilateral engagement with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to deepen over the next year.

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