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Indo-US Naval Cooperation Geo-Strategic Ramifications for the Region.

Byline: Waqar-un-Nisa

Keywords: Indo-US Relations, Maritime Cooperation, Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs), Maritime Security, Indo-Pacific Region (IPR).


India aspires to be an influential power not only at regional but at global level and it is ambitiously modernizing and upgrading its military capabilities as well as investing in the indigenous defense industry.1 Its geo-strategic location and its ability to develop military muscle to counter China's maneuvers in Asia pacific have made India an indispensable ally of the United States (US). The Indian ambitions are invigorated by the US policy of rebalancing in Indo-Pacific Region (IPR).2 The US can help India overcome the wide gap between the 'technological and military'3 capabilities of China and India. Leadership of both India and the US have realized this.4 The Indo-US maritime partnership has seen a substantial progress in the last decade; from defining the strategic vision to materializing it by taking significant initiatives in this direction. This study sets out to explore the drivers and contours of Indo-US naval cooperation.

Although, Indo-US naval partnership claims to create balance of power in the region, it might lead to 'imbalance' of power. The study tends to explore the implications of the counterbalancing efforts in the region, which could be destabilizing for the region.

US Pivot to Asia and Role of India

The US has had its presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) since 1960s when British Navy withdrew from the region. Diego Garcia was a British Colony in the central Indian Ocean, which was handed over to the US to be used as military base in 1960s and the inhabitants of this Island were forced to leave the place.5 After the end of Cold War, the US remained the unchallenged guarantor of 'freedom of navigation' in the Pacific. Primarily, it had two objectives: to control the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs), and to prevent any rival power from increasing influence in the region. These objectives are more of a strategic nature than merely economic. The choke points in the region provide the US Naval fleet with a feasible maneuvering between three important areas of responsibility i.e. European, Central and Pacific Commands.6

With the beginning of the Twenty-first Century, China underwent an economic rise and increased its engagement in the Asia-Pacific to alleviate Malacca Dilemma7 and to safeguard its economic interests. These developments were perceived as a threat by the US to its hegemony. The US National Security Strategy (2002) discussed the Chinese threat explicitly for the first time warning China against developing maritime capabilities, which will pose a threat to the littoral states and the Asia Pacific at large and that such development would jeopardize China's own interests.8

In this backdrop, the US started considering Asia-Pacific as priority area due to the presence of an emerging power capable of challenging its hegemony. To maintain its predominance in the region, the US shifted its focus towards Asia-Pacific. Kurt M. Campbell, who served as an Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, while speaking at a forum in 2011, alluded to the significance of this region that the Twenty-first Century was 'going to be written in the Asian Pacific region'.9

US geopolitical strategist Christopher Layne asserts that the US offshore balancing strategy entails sharing the burden with its regional allies by devolving power. Involving the stakes of major Asian powers in containing China will also serve Washington's interests. Hence, allying with Japan and India in this regard will also prevent the US from any direct confrontation with China that could lead to war.10 Mearsheimer and Walt propose that offshore balancing strategy while maintaining balance of power in Europe and Northeast Asia will help the US encircle two major Asian powers-i.e. Russia and China.11 They further added that 'Instead of policing the world, the United States would encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary.' 12

US secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recent remarks given in May 2019 explicitly stated, 'we are banding together with the likeminded nations like Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea to make sure that each Indo-Pacific nation can protect its sovereignty from coercion.'13 However, it will not be enough for Washington to only rely on the allies in Asia to hedge China as neither will be capable of dealing with China without its support. Since China is faced with territorial disputes with its neighboring countries in South China Sea, US has a favorable environment of cooperation and alliance formation against China in the region. It increased its engagement with Southeast Asian states. Among the partners and allies, Japan has been a key ally, however, in recent years, India has emerged as a preferable partner of the US in the Asia Pacific region.

Being immediate neighbor of China, having favorable geographical position in Indian Ocean Region (IOR), willing to enhance its military might to play an influential role in regional political theater, and the historically unfriendly relations with China, India stands as a key strategic partner of Washington. In this regard, the US is equipping India with advanced technology in maritime affairs. Hence, significant developments have been made in the recent years including cooperation on aircraft carriers, the conclusion of naval agreements such as Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) along with sale of P8 I maritime aircraft and two-dozen multi-role MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters to India to bolster India's maritime arsenal.14

While the maritime cooperation is a recent phenomenon, the security relations between the two states have significantly developed post 2000s. In the year 2000, US President Bill Clinton visited India, which proved to be a 'turning point' in the history of Indo-US security relations as it put the relations between the two countries on a smooth trajectory.15 The warmth of Indo-US relations can also be seen by the frequency of presidential visits to India in the last two decades. The first five decades (1947-1999) witnessed only three presidential visits, whereas four Presidential visits by the US presidents have been made since 2000s i.e. in less than two decades, which hints at the significance and depth of this strategic partnership.

President Clinton visited India in 2000 and the joint statement issued during his visit provided a framework for future cooperation between the two countries, especially in the security domain. The statement termed the US and India as 'partners of peace' in the Twenty-first Century.16 Later, George W. Bush, before becoming President, while referring to significance of developing ties with India in his foreign policy speech of 1999 stated, 'We should establish more trade and investment with India as it opens to the world. And we should work with the Indian government, ensuring it is a force for stability and security in Asia.'17 Indo-US defense and security ties took momentum in the aftermath of 9/11 i.e. during the tenure of Bush. The strategic partnership strengthened further in President Obama's tenure, who visited India twice. Some major defense and security deals were agreed upon between the two states to reinvigorate the strategic partnership.18

Later, US President Donald Trump, in his speech on South Asia Policy, pointed towards enhancing the strategic partnership with India.19 US National Security Strategy issued in 2017 maintains, 'we welcome India's emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner.'20 Trump is more assertive in increasing American influence in Asia-Pacific continuing Obama's Pivot to Asia and is frequently using the term Indo-Pacific that signifies India's greater role in IO as well as in countering China in the IOR.21 Therefore, some substantial and significant developments have been made on strategic front during his era, despite some divergences between both the states.22 For instance, in 2018, Trump Administration designated India as Strategic Trade Authorization (STA) Tier 1 country to materialize a major defense partnership, which would allow India to enjoy the benefits of treaty ally in defense trade.23

Maritime Cooperation

Maritime security has taken a significant place in the Indo-US bilateral cooperation in recent years. The US is encouraging India to eye for the leadership role in the IOR. Therefore, both states are vigorously pursuing collaboration in maritime affairs in the wake of US rebalancing. This is also evident from the commitments made in "US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region" on former US President Barack Obama's visit to India as the Chief Guest at India's 66th Republic Day in 2015.24 Since then, both states have been actively engaged in maritime security and diplomacy, wherein India is expected to play a greater security role by the US, which will have far-reaching regional ramifications.

Meanwhile, Indian Premier Narendra Modi's maritime diplomacy has also strengthened the belief among political circles that India is capable of playing the role of 'net-security provider', as envisioned by the US, in the region. The initiation of Mausam Project,25 Modi's maritime diplomacy, his vision for Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), India's naval endeavors in IOR and beyond, all point towards India's aspirations to embrace a lead role in the region.26 However, to assume this role, India requires a rapid naval build up. In this regard, Washington's assistance to Indian Navy for increasing its maritime prowess remains indispensable.

Drivers of Maritime Cooperation

Since the US can only maintain a limited fleet in the region due to geographical and financial constraints, it would depend on India to play the role of a balancer against 'rising' China. Consequently, the US would equip India with all the advanced technologies to counter Chinese naval threat. At the occasion of Raisina Dialogue initiated in 2016 by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the US Pacific Command Chief Admiral Harry Harris remarked, 'India is beginning to exert its leadership in the Indo-Asia-Pacific...Let's be ambitious together.'27 This urge for cooperation with India would greatly facilitate Indian aspirations to develop blue water naval capabilities and attain the role of great power. Ashley J. Tellis writes that this partnership will enhance 'the Indian Navy's combat power and would resonate throughout the Asian continent to India's strategic advantage.'28

The Indo-US naval cooperation is well explained by the then Secretary of State Ashton Carter who called it a 'strategic hand shake' referring to the US rebalancing as well as Modi's Act East Policy and the US pivot to Asia.29 This convergence of interest has resulted in joint vision for Asia-Pacific. During former US President Obama's visit to India in January 2015, the leadership of both the countries announced their joint vision for Asia-Pacific. This was the first time when the two countries clearly referred to monitoring South China Sea. They stressed upon the significance of protecting maritime interests and 'ensuring freedom of navigation' in the region, 'especially in the South China Sea.'30 The Joint Vision statement was offensive for China as it mentioned South China Sea, China's littoral region, as the priority area of obligation.

However, this Vision Statement proves to be the turning point as well as the major driver in the history of Indo-US naval cooperation. According to this joint vison, Washington envisages India's role as a key balancer in the region. Therefore, a 'closer partnership' between the two countries is 'indispensable' to promote 'peace, prosperity and stability' in the Asia-Pacific region.31 Furthermore, signifying India's role in the region, Trump administration has adopted the term 'Indo-Pacific' instead of Asia Pacific. Though 'Indo' in the term does not mean India,32 it recognizes the Indian leadership role in IO and encapsulates its role in Pacific as well, to enhance India's role in emerging geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific.

India's role in Asia-Pacific as key US ally was elaborately described by the former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who asserted that Indo-Pacific required a strong partnership between the US and India.33 Building a rationale for the Indo-US cooperation, he blatantly accused China for making provoking moves in South China Sea, challenging the 'international law and norms that the US and India both advocate.'34 Comparing China with India, he considered China as 'a less responsible' actor in the region undermining the sovereignty of other nations. He considered the Indo-Pacific, 'the world's center of gravity' where the US and India should collaborate and act as 'the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific.'35

Contours of Naval Cooperation

The implementation of this strategic vision is reflected in defense cooperation in maritime affairs. Materializing the Joint Vision and ensuring Indian leadership's role in the region, both countries have come up with substantial cooperative initiatives in the maritime domain. Following are some significant initiatives:

US-India Joint Working Group for Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation (JWGACTC)

Joint Working Group for Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation (JWGACTC) is one of the most significant and the biggest initiatives since the launch of Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in 2012, which aimed at boosting defense trade between the two countries.

JWGACTC is among the 'four path finder' projects under DTTI.'36 Commenting on the initiative, Ashley J. Tellis highlights that the main objective of this cooperation is to equip Indian next-generation aircraft carrier with capability and capacity 'superior' to that of the Chinese.37 Currently, one Indian aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, is operationalized and India's first indigenous aircraft carriers, IAC-1 INS Vikrant and IAC-2 INS Vishaal, are expected to be operationalized in 2020 and 2030 respectively.38 The two parties have signed a protocol, Information Exchange Annex (IEA), in September 2018, for sharing technological data and information regarding aircraft carriers,39 as the name suggests.40 It would enable India to buy Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) technology, for the second indigenous aircraft carrier IAC-2 INS Vishaal.

In addition, it is likely that the carrier would be nuclear powered with US assistance as EMALS are installed on nuclear powered carriers.41 EMALS would enable Indian aircrafts launch from carriers 'at a higher rate' putting 'less stress on the aircraft' contrary to the steam-catapult systems.42 It would enable the carrier to be equipped with 'larger, bulkier and more heavily armed aircraft.'43

This arrangement is specific to India as no other non-treaty ally has been promised with defense cooperation of this level. Even among the treaty ally, only United Kingdom has benefited from aircraft carrier technology. Ashley Tellis considers it as the second big initiative in Indo-US strategic partnership, after the 2008 Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal.44

Maritime Security Dialogue

Maritime Security Dialogue was initiated in 2016 during Ashton Carter's visit, the then US Defense Secretary to India.45 The purpose of the dialogue was to deliberate on issues of maritime security in the IPR and to explore the avenues of further cooperation between the two countries in the maritime domain.46 The two countries conducted three rounds of dialogue till April-May 2018.47 Maritime Security dialogue has given a platform to both countries to discuss and deliberate on the emerging situation in Asia Pacific specifically against the Chinese threat.

2+2 Ministerial Dialogue

Taking the maritime dialogue one step further, the two countries initiated a 2+2 Ministerial dialogue in September 2018. The purpose of the dialogue was to focus on the matters of strategic importance between the two nations, including the cooperation in Indo-Pacific and Western Indian Ocean. The most tangible outcome of the dialogue remains the conclusion of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement(COMCASA).48 Moreover, the two countries have also agreed on setting up of hotlines between US defense secretary and Indian Defense Minister and US Secretary of State and Indian Foreign Minister; enhancing cooperation between the defense innovation units/organizations of both countries; and stationing Indian Naval attache in the US Central Command.49 Apart from seeking technological support through such agreements, this high official dialogue is indicative of an ever increasing naval cooperation. This would allow India to secure maximum benefits in naval domain and on the matters of strategic importance.

Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA)

Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) (2016) is one of the Foundational Agreements. Originally, it was Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) that was later modified upon India's insistence and named as Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement.50 The agreement enables both the countries to utilize each other's naval bases for logistics support and supplies in Indo-Pacific, while establishing 'basic terms, conditions, and procedures' for the cooperation between the two navies on 'Logistic Support, Supplies, and Services.' It aims to facilitate the countries in following four domains: a) Port calls; b) Joint exercises; c) Training and humanitarian assistance and; d) Disaster relief.51 Apart from these areas, other issues would also be dealt on case-by-case basis with mutual agreement.52

Under this treaty, the US would be able to use Indian naval bases, while on the other hand Indian Navy would gain access to the whole Indo-Pacific Ocean, benefiting from the US military bases in Djibouti and Diego Garcia. It would help materialize the Indian vision of playing the role of net security provider in the region and undertaking blue water missions.53 The proposal has been on the table since 2003 but India has been reluctant to sign the agreement due to the political opposition at home over compromising the long standing policy of neutrality in military alliances.54 However, Modi administration has been very active on maritime diplomacy front and has taken bold initiatives to bolster Indian maritime power.

Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA)

Two years after the LEMOA, the two countries concluded another important foundational agreement called COMCASA, originally known as Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). The agreement was concluded during the first meeting of 2+2 Ministerial dialogue held in 2018. COMCASA allows India to access advance US communication technology and enhance interoperability between the two navies.55 Previously, India was purchasing US defense products and platforms excluding encrypted communication technology. It would enable Indian Navy's patrol aircrafts to access secure data from the US during surveillance and operations. 56 Furthermore, India will now be able to purchase latest Sea Guardian drones.57 Under this agreement, the US would be supplying India with advanced and sensitive technology to counter Chinese threat, this would heighten security implications for Pakistan as well and the region at large.

Opportunities for Power Projection

Indo-US maritime cooperation has given Indian Navy new confidence to project power beyond its coastal waters. This includes both soft and hard power. The hard power is being manifested through Malabar exercises held in 1992, 2015, 2017 and 2018, whereas the soft power is projected through humanitarian missions.58 Indo-US first ever tri-services exercise would start in later half of 2019, focusing on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief trainings.59 Despite trilateral and multilateral exercises, this initiative, like Malabar Exercises, is another strong indicator of deep Indo-US maritime partnership.

Malabar exercise, initiated in 1992, has become a key indicator of strengthening Indo-US maritime collaboration. Malabar is aimed at creating 'balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region'; the exercise has become a multilateral arrangement with the inclusion of Japan as a permanent member in 2105.60 In Malabar exercises of 2017 and 2018, the navies of these three countries came up with their largest warships. The US participated with its nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz; Japan with its largest warship JS Izumo; while India flexed its military muscle with the inclusion of INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier.61 Malabar, hence, is a demonstration to signal India's naval outreach and leadership role in IOR along with its allies.

Geo-Strategic Implications: An Analysis

The US approach towards Asia-Pacific, in general and India, in particular, could disrupt the fragile balance of power in in the Asia Pacific, which may give rise to conflicts and confrontations in the region.

US strategist Christopher Layne maintains that the probability of conflict rests with the strategy adopted against China; the conflict is in the offing 'if the United States tries to maintain its current dominance in East Asia'.62 Layne argues for adopting offshore balancing strategy to delegate the responsibility of containing China to regional allies.63 Since there is no one in Asia-Pacific to challenge China's rise, the US has found a potential challenger eyeing for leadership role in the region i.e. India. Other regional states are being engaged diplomatically and militarily by the US and India to accept the Indian leadership role. However, Washington is not going to pull back unless New Delhi actually assumes the role of a challenger, which may take decades.

Militarization of Asia Pacific

As the focus of global politics has shifted towards the Asia Pacific, the region is headed towards militarization. According to SIPRI's Military Expenditure Database 2018, around 507 billion US$ were spent collectively in Asia-Pacific in the year 2018, which consisted of 28% of global military expenditure. The increasing trends in militarization are led by the United states followed by China and India; their military spending rose to 649 billion US$, 250 billion US$, 66.5 US$ respectively.64

US policies have encouraged the Southeast Asian States to make defense agreements specifically in maritime domain with the countries in territorial disputes with China. China, too, is investing to boost its maritime security prowess seeing the emerging security alliances in the region. It is enhancing its strategic capabilities in Asia Pacific region in order to deter enemy forces from encroaching into South China Sea and East China Sea and any prospective conflict over Taiwan. The US has allies in the region with security commitments from the US. It also has sizeable military troops in Japan and South Korea.65 It is investing in building strategic relationship with Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan, banking on their conflicts with China. In addition, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) or Quad, a naval alliance of maritime democracies-the US, Japan, Australia and India-has been recreated against China.

Conversely, China under its flagship project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is making significant investments in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Maldives to develop their ports which would secure its SLOCs.66 The US is not only increasing its presence in Indo-Pacific with the deployment of 'next-generation aircraft, destroyers and drones throughout the Pacific,'67 it is also strengthening and preparing a regional rival of China as a part of offshore balancing. Equipping India with naval capabilities superior to that of China, maintaining the competitiveness of the US naval capabilities, denying competing state from rising as global power while supporting the ally to acquire all necessary weapons and technology to contain the enemy at its backyard are against the contours of rules-based system in maritime domain.

Possibilities of Conflict and Confrontation

Although India and the US vow to collaborate in Indo-Pacific for prevailing 'Freedom of Navigation' and rules-based order, both are pursuing a dangerous strategy of militarizing the Indo-Pacific. The current surge of militarization of Asia-Pacific is the indicator of emerging conflict and confrontation. Freedom of navigation does not entertain the provocative policies of adversaries and secondly the rules-based order is not to be defined by either party.

On the other hand, China is also engaged in development of ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, though without installing military bases. Nevertheless, apprehensions are there. Former Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said in a lecture at the Indian Maritime Foundation, 'There are no Chinese bases in the Indian Ocean today despite talk of the 'string of pearls' ... The question is whether and to what extent this improved access and infrastructure will translate into basing arrangements and political influence in future.'68 Former US Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye once said, 'If you treat China as an enemy, you are certain to have an enemy.'69 Yet, the US considers China a potential hegemon in the region and is bent on rebalancing its influence in the region. This policy will certainly have implications.

The counterbalancing efforts do not go unopposed or without any reaction as Christopher postulates, 'Great powers that seek hegemony are always opposed-and defeated-by the counter balancing efforts of other states.'70 This counterbalancing would become counterproductive if it leads to confrontation. Concerned with the China-centric security defense deals in Asia Pacific leading to Malacca Dilemma, China has also increased its naval activity in the region. It is also developing ports in the littoral countries, among these ports Gwadar stands as the most significant port providing an alternative to China to avoid its Malacca problem. In the transition of power, China insists to rise peacefully, however, any resultant conflict may hinder China's ascent. Therefore, it is pursuing the policy of economic engagement and peaceful relations with its neighbors. It has reassured India as well as other countries that its policies and projects especially maritime silk road initiative are not a threat to any country.

China has offered to engage with regional countries to dispel their apprehensions. It even offered India 'to link the 'Belt and Road' initiatives with India's 'Spice Route' and 'Mausam' projects,' which evinces its desire for a peaceful rise.71 On the other hand, the US is encouraging India to take initiatives in response to BRI and India is eyeing to be a Pacific Power that will only happen if India collaborates with the US in a bid to contain Chinese influence in the region. In that scenario, India would be reluctant to engage with China in the backdrop of Indo-US naval alliance formed to challenge China in the region.

Costs and Benefits for Asian Powers

While China insists to minimize the possibilities of conflict and confrontation, the US appears to be set to increase these possibilities whereas the cost of such confrontation will be shifted to its regional allies. Enabling India to perform a larger role in the region, the US is shifting the cost of any potential conflict with China on India as well as on other allies in the region. Investing in India would be cost effective in terms of avoiding direct confrontation with China that could probably wane US hegemony further. American strategic thinkers are well aware that if the US could not win a war in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, how it can possibly afford a direct conflict with an emerging global power? So, it is coming up with a systematic plan to contain China at the cost of a conflict between Asian regional powers. These regional powers would bear the political and strategic cost of the conflict whereas America would only bear a financial cost that would not be beyond its military budgets.

While increasing its global profile, both economically and militarily, China is more likely to avoid conflict which can encumber its rise. Nonetheless US policies indicate strategic as well as economic debilitation of China to slow down its ascent.

Formation of Counter Alliances: Revival of Cold War

US policies of containing China may divide the countries of Indo-Pacific region into two blocks. A cold war in Indo-Pacific is about to erupt as a result of US rebalancing strategy. The status of India in this region would be of the most trusted US ally. A competition between India and China has already begun to increase influence in the South Asian and Southeast Asian states.

The US already has signed joint defense agreements with many countries in the region which legitimize its strong presence in the region. Admiral Arun Prakash argues in The New Arthashastra: A Security Strategy for India that India being economically and militarily weaker than China, should turn toward sea and exploit China's Malacca Dilemma. India could 'invoke Chanakya-niti' that is encircling China by making alliance and pursuing partnerships.72

In response to Indo-US Naval cooperation, China and Pakistan would get closer naturally as China fears the blockade of the Malacca Strait. Pakistan being strategically important for China providing an alternate route for sea-borne trade via Gwadar, which is located near one of the significant SLOCs i.e. Strait of Hormuz, remains important vis-a-vis politics of Indo-Pacific. If China brings its naval forces at Gwadar port and turns it into a naval base, it can create a dilemma for India over Strait of Hormuz.73 Robert Kaplan, American Naval Analyst refers to such formation of alliances as a 'Maritime Great Game.' He warns, 'With a Chinese-Pakistani alliance taking shape, most visibly in the construction of the Gwadar port, near the Strait of Hormuz, and an Indian naval buildup on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, near the Strait of Malacca, the Indian-Chinese rivalry is taking on the dimensions of a maritime Great Game.' 74

In these balancing and counterbalancing efforts in Indo-Pacific, Russia is likely to side with China. It has already shown interest in China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a pilot project of BRI.75 As the smooth implementation on the project continues, India and the US both continue to raise concerns as it would affect the geopolitics and geoeconomics in the Asia Pacific.76 The Russia, China and Pakistan triangle will strengthen the counter alliance to Indo-US naval nexus along with other allies of the US.


Being the most pertinent area of strategic convergence between India and the US, maritime partnership is most likely to grow despite some divergences on the economic front.77 In spite of the tensions on economic front, both countries took important strategic initiatives, namely 2+2 Ministerial dialogue, signing of a key naval communication agreement i.e. COMCASA, and the visit of Indian naval chief to India.78 The massive militarization in Asia-Pacific, Indo-US naval collaboration, and the strategies to hedge China would lead to greater possibilities of conflict and confrontation in the region. It may start a maritime cold war and regardless of the fact that who wins or loses, the regional littoral countries would bear most of the cost. Therefore, it would be difficult for the smaller states to take sides with any of the alliance.

The most dangerous scenario could be the escalation of conflict between India and Pakistan, threatening a nuclear war. As the Indo-US alliance against China gets stronger, India's policy towards Pakistan would be more stringent. The world has witnessed the preview of it in the aftermath of Pulwama attack, which escalated tensions between the two arch-rivals: India and Pakistan.79 After facing defeat in the much-touted air strike,80 India sent its submarine towards Pakistan's territorial waters which was timely detected by Pakistan's navy.81 Therefore, the strategic significance of Gwadar as well as its vulnerability will increase with Indo-US alliance and India's increasing ventures in IOR. Pakistan's reliance on China and urge for a grand maritime strategy will increase manifold.

While the cost of the conflict would be borne by almost all the regional countries, China, India and Pakistan will share the larger part of it, followed by Japan and Australia. However, while Japan is very firm in its policies against China, Australia despite being a major ally of the US in the region is mindful of pronouncing explicit approach against China apprehending the fallout. However, other littoral countries would be in a difficult position to side either with the US or China and Pakistan. For example, being an important littoral state in the region, Iran's cordial relations with India, its normal relations with Pakistan and China; and hostile relations with the US would make it difficult to join either of the alliance.

Similarly, neighboring countries of China- Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia etc.-and India's neighborhood-Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka-would be struggling to maintain balance in their relationship with these powers or facing repercussions in case of taking sides. India, being a South Asian power has a history of adopting hegemonic policies towards its smaller neighbors in the region. How would it be transforming itself to assume the role of an 'Indo-Pacific' power? How would it manage the competition with Chinese Navy? Or even if it would go for collaboration, all these questions remain to be answered. Developing a Blue Water Fleet at the cost of Washington's interests in the region would not allow India to move towards a collaborative approach with Chinese Navy, an approach that may benefit China in its peaceful rise.

Adopting a strategy of cooperation and collaboration by the US seems a distant dream in the current state of Affairs. However, China is a strong proponent of cooperation, which is crucial for minimizing the possibilities of conflict. Littoral countries of Southeast Asia and IOR should move forward to adopt a regional dialogue forum to shrink the possibility as well as cost of conflict and to control the naval arms race in the region.


1 Walter C. Ladwig III, "Indian Military Modernization and Conventional Deterrence in South Asia," The Journal of Strategic Studies 38, no.5 (2015): 729-772, DOI:10.1080/01402390.2015.1014473.

2 Office of the Press Secretary, White House, Government of the United States, "US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region," press release, January 25, 2015,

3 Harsh V. Pant, review of Forged in Crisis: India and the United States Since 1947, by Rudra Chaudhuri, Asian Affairs 46, no. 2 (2015): 341-342 (342),

4 Ibid.

5 Lyn Gardner, "Stolen Island: The Shameful Story of Diego Garcia Hits the Stage," Guardian, February 15, 2012,

6 A. Z. Hilali, "Contemporary Geopolitics of Indian Ocean and Great Power Competition over Gwadar," in Major Powers' Interests in Indian Ocean: Challenges and Options for Pakistan, ed. Mushir Anwar (Islamabad: Islamabad Policy Research Institute, 2014), 138,

7 The Straits of Malacca and Singapore are one of the most vital SLOCs in the world, constituting the main passage from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. China is heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil, with up to 80 percent of its energy supply passing through the Straits. President Hu Jintao identified the need to alleviate what he termed China's 'Malacca Dilemma.' Therefore, China is developing several major new routes as part of BRI, that are likely to reduce China's over-dependence on the Malaccan Straits as a conduit for oil imports.

8 White House, GoUS, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Government of the United States, 2002),

9 "The Obama Administration's Pivot to Asia - A Conversation with Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell," YouTube video, 25:24, posted by Foreign Policy Initiative, December 13, 2011,

10 Christopher Layne, "China's Challenge to US Hegemony," Current History 107, no. 705 (2008): 13-18,

11 John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, "The Case for Offshore Balancing-A Superior US Grand Strategy," Foreign Affairs 95, no. 4 (2016): 70-83.

12 Ibid.

13 Michael R. Pompeo, "A Foreign Policy from the Founding" (speech, Beverly Hills, May 11, 2019), US Department of State,

14 Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, "Deepening US-India Maritime Ties in Focus with Navy Chief Visit," Diplomat, May 15, 2019, For further details, please see the section on Contours of Naval Cooperation.

15 Patryk Kugiel, India's Soft Power: A New Foreign Policy Strategy, 1st ed. (New York: Routledge, 2017), 55.

16 William Jefferson Clinton and Atal Behari Vajpayee, "Joint Statement on United States-India Relations: A Vision for the 21st Century" (statement, New Delhi, March 21, 2000), US Government Publishing Office,

17 George W. Bush, "A Distinctly American Internationalism" (speech, California, November 19, 1999), Mount Holyoke College,

18 Office of the Press Secretary, White House, Government of the United States, "Joint Statement by President Obama and Prime Minister Singh of India," press release, November 8, 2010,

19 Donald Trump, "Full Texts of Donald Trump's Speech on South Asia Policy" (speech, Arlington, August 22, 2017), Hindu,

20 White House, GoUS, National Security Strategy of United States of America (Government of the United States, 2017), 46,

21 Alyssa Ayres, "The US Indo-Pacific Strategy Needs More Indian Ocean" (brief, Council on Foreign Relations, 2018),

22 "2018-A Landmark Year for India-US Strategic Relationship," Business Today, December 30, 2018,

23 Ankit Panda, "Strategic Trade Authorization: A Fillip for India's 'Major Defense Partner' Status with the US," Diplomat, August 1, 2018,

24 K. Yhome, ed., "US-India Joint Strategic Vision for Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region," South China Sea Monitor, February 2, 2015,

25 Project Mausam, an initiative of Ministry of Culture India, aims at reestablishing India's trade and cultural relations with ancient trade partners along littoral states of the Indian Ocean, in order to restore an 'Indian Ocean World' stretching from east Africa, Arabian Peninsula, southern Iran to the major South Asian countries and then to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. It focuses on monsoon patterns, cultural routes and maritime landscapes. The project has been termed by analysts as a response to China's Maritime Silk Road Initiative.

26 G. Padmaja, "Modi's Maritime Diplomacy: A Strategic Opportunity," Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India 11, no. 2 (2015),

27 Harry B. Harris, Jr. "Raisina Dialogue Remarks-Let's Be Ambitious Together" (speech, New Delhi, March 2, 2016), US-Indo Pacific Command,

28 Ashley J. Tellis, "Making Aspiration: Aiding India's Next-Generation Aircraft Carrier" (brief, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C., 2015),

29 Jim Garamone, "Carter: US-India Relationship Will Define 21st Century" (US Department of Defense, Government of the United States, 2016),

30 Ibid.

31 Office of the Press Secretary, White House, GoUS, "US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region."

32 Mercy A. Kuo, "The Origin of 'Indo-Pacific' as Geopolitical Construct-Insights from Gurpreet Khurana," Diplomat, January 25, 2018,

33 Rex Tillerson, "Defining Our Relationship with India for the Next Century" (speech, Washington, D.C., October 18, 2017), Centre for Strategic and International Studies, df.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Tellis, "Making Aspiration: Aiding India's Next-Generation Aircraft Carrier."

37 Dinakar Peri, "Navy to Use US Aircraft Launch System in Ship," Hindu, November 5, 2017,

38 Robert Farley, "Why No Nation Should Mess with India's Aircraft Carriers," The Buzz, February 19, 2019,

39 US Embassy and Consulates in India, Government of the United States, "India-United States Joint Statement on the Visit of Secretary of Defense Carter to India," press release, April 10-13, 2016,

40 Rajesh Roy and Nancy A. Youssef, "US, India Sign Military-Intelligence-Sharing Agreement," Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2018,

41 Vishal Thapar, "US Hard-Sells Nuclear Powered Carrier to India," Sunday Guardian, May 2, 2015,

42 Jeff Smith and Alex Werman, "Assessing US-India Defense Relations: The Technological Handshake," Diplomat, October 6, 2016,

43 Ibid.

44 Tellis, "Making Aspiration: Aiding India's Next-Generation Aircraft Carrier."

45 Carter was the strongest proponent of bolstering Indo-US defense ties during his tenure. For instance, he established India Rapid Reaction Cell in Pentagon to boost Indo US defense trade under DTTI45; even DTTI was led by him as Deputy Secretary Defense in 2012.

46 Dinakar Peri, "India, US Hold First Maritime Security Dialogue," Hindu, May 17, 2016,

47 "India, US Hold Round 3 of Maritime Security Dialogue," Indian Express, May 3, 2018,

48 Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, "The COMCASA Question in US-India Military Relations," Diplomat, September 4, 2018,

49 Jeff Smith, "COMCASA: Another Step Forward for the United States and India," Diplomat, September 11, 2018,

50 Jeremy Maxie, "China Threat Drives US - India Strategic Handshake, Forbes, June 7, 2016,; and Gurpeet S. Khurana, "Indo-US Logistics Agreement LEMOA: An Assessment" (essay, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi, 2016),

51 Dinakar Peri, "What is LEMOA?" Hindu, August 30, 2016,

52 Ibid.

53 Peri, "What is LEMOA?"

54 Khurana, "Indo-US Logistics Agreement LEMOA."

55 Rajagopalan, "The COMCASA Question in US-India Military Relations."

56 Ankit Panda, "What the Recently Concluded US-India COMCASA Means," Diplomat, September 9, 2018,

57 Smith, "COMCASA: Another Step Forward for the United States and India," Diplomat.

58 David Scott, "India's Aspirations and Strategy for the Indian Ocean - Securing the Waves?" The Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 4 (2013): 484-511,

59 "First Indo-US Tri-Services Exercise Likely to Include Special Forces of Both Countries," Economic Times, October 14, 2018, https://economictimes.indiatimes. com/news/defence/first-indo-us-tri-services-exercise-likely-to-include-special-forces-of-both-countries/articleshow/66204419.cms.

60 Prashanth Parameswaran, "The Malabar Exercise: An Emerging Platform for Indo-Pacific Cooperation?" Diplomat, June 12, 2016,

61 "Malabar Naval Exercise to Feature Largest Warships of India, US, Japan," Economic Times, July 12, 2018, ppst.

62 Layne, "China's Challenge to US Hegemony."

63 Ibid.

64 Nan Tian, Aude Fleurant, Alexandra Kuimova, Pieter D. Wezeman and Siemon T. Wezeman, "Trends in World Military Expenditure-2018," fact sheet (Solna: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2019),

65 Nicholas Borroz and Hunter Marston, "Washington Should Stop Militarizing the Pacific," New York Times, October 9, 2016,

66 Mohd Aminul Karim, "21st Century Maritime Power-Politics in the Indian Ocean Region with Special Reference to the Bay of Bengal," Pacific Focus: Inha Journal of International Studies 32, no. 1 (2017): 56-85 (67),

67 Borroz and Marston, "Washington Should Stop Militarizing the Pacific."

68 Quoted in R. Sidda Goud and Manisha Mookherjee, eds., China in Indian Ocean Region (New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 2015), 17; and K.V. Prasad, "India Should Initiate Discussions with China on Security," Hindu, December 17, 2016,

69 Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "Only China Can Contain China," Huff Post, March 11, 2015,

70 Layne, "China's Challenge to US Hegemony," 18. 71Atul Aneja, "China's Silk Road Diplomacy Willing to Enmesh India's Projects," Hindu, April 6, 2015,

72 Arun Prakash, "Crafting a Strategy for India's Maritime Security," in The New Arthashastra: A Security Strategy for India, ed. Gurmeet Kanwal (Noida: Harper Collins Publishers, 2016),165.

73 Shiv Shankar Menon, "Maritime Imperatives of Indian Foreign Policy," Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India 5, no. 2 (2009).

74 Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (New York: Random House, 2010).

75 "Russia Supports China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Project," Gulf News, December 17, 2016,

76 "Chinese Connectivity Projects Across the World Have National Security Element: Mike Pompeo," Economic Times, March 29, 2019, https://economictimes.indiatimes. com/news/defence/chinese-connectivity-projects-across-the-world-have-national-security-element-mike-pompeo/articleshow/68629109.cms; and Montgomery Blah, "China's Belt and Road Initiative and India's Concerns," Strategic Analysis 42, no. 4 (2018): 313-332 (318),

77 For instance, there are concerns over the recent rift between the two countries on the issue of trade tariffs, which is the result of Trump's trade policy across the world.

78 Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, "Deepening US-India Maritime Ties in Focus with Navy Chief Visit."

79 "44 Indian Security Personnel Killed in Held Kashmir Attack," Dawn, February 15, 2019, On February 14, 2019, Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed as a jeep with 350kg of explosives rammed a bus in a large security convoy at Pulwama, in the Indian-Held Kashmir. India claimed that Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) group had accepted the responsibility of the attack and tried to link the incident with Pakistan, which was vigorously denied by Pakistan.

80 Helen Regan, Nikhil Kumar, Adeel Raja and Swati Gupta, "Pakistan Says It Shot Down Two Indian Jets as Kashmir Border Crisis Deepens," CNN, February 28, 2019,; and "No Pakistani Citizen Killed in Balakot Strike, Admits Indian Minister," Samaa TV, April 18, 2019, After the Pulwama attack, India carried out an airstrike and violated Pakistan's airspace on February 26, 2019 over the disputed border region of Kashmir. In response Pakistan downed two Indian planes in Kashmir the next day and also took an Indian Air Force Pilot Abhinandan into custody, who was later released by Pakistan, as a gesture of peace.

81 "Pakistan Navy Says It Stopped Indian Sub from Entering its Waters," Japan Times, March 6, 2019,
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