Strategic Insight 006/2022
Sarabjeet S Parmar
30 November 2022
Trust forms the basis of any meaningful relationship, and the degree of trust will dictate the strength of a relationship. Since India’s independence in 1947 until the end of the cold war, India-US relations were severely impacted by the prejudices and personal relations between Indian and US leaders as well as global and regional alignments. From 1990 onwards, specifically since the economic reforms undertaken by India in the early 1990s and the signing of the Nuclear Deal in 2008, India-US relations saw a marked improvement. This upward trend is supported by shared common values between the two nations like upholding democracy, respect for international law, and upholding the rules-based international order. To this list can be added the contemporary Indo-Pacific aspects of addressing common non-traditional threats, challenges, and risks, while availing of opportunities to ensure a free and open region. The 2013 Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, and QUAD engagements amongst other bilateral and minilateral interactions, has seen the US place India as a major strategic partner and international player in its 2022 National Security Strategy (2022 NSS), which was released in October 2022.
Convergences and Divergences
The 2022 NSS looks at engaging India in several areas based on common interests. Democratic values are a benchmark for most US engagements and the 2022 NSS looks at engaging India and other like-minded nations through the QUAD and I2-U2 (India, Israel, UAE, United States) minilaterals towards “creating a latticework of strong, resilient, and mutually reinforcing relationships that prove democracies can deliver for their people and the world”. While minilaterals offer a pragmatic means of cooperation on specific issues, some issues may require deeper introspection. One example is the position of the I2-U2 grouping vis-à-vis the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNLCOS) and the two implementing agreements relating to the Implementation of Part XI of UNCLOS and Provisions of the Convention relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. In the I2-U2 grouping only India has signed and ratified the UNCLOS. The UAE has signed but not ratified the convention, while Israel and the US have neither signed nor ratified it. The US has signed but not ratified the agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI of UNCLOS and has also ratified the second implementing agreement. This could impact the efficacy of I2-U2 on issues related to UNCLOS. On the bilateral plane, India and the US have differing positions on several UNCLOS issues, such as the innocent passage of warships and military activities in Exclusive Economic Zones. In the annual US Department of Defence Freedom of Navigation (FoN) Reports to Congress, India is frequently mentioned as one of the strategic partners against whom the US regularly conducts FoN operations. Despite these differences both nations operate jointly and multilaterally, indicating the will to amicably overlook divergences in the pursuance of common aims.
The main arena for these common aims is clearly the Indo-Pacific. The NSS identifies India as the world’s largest democracy and a major defence partner with whom the US will work, both bilaterally and multilaterally, to support the shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. While there are several bilateral and multilateral platforms India and the US work on, the 2+2 dialogue and QUAD stand out as the most promising. The NSS calls it the vitalised QUAD with a focus on non-traditional threats. This focus on non-traditional threats was also elaborated upon in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy that was released in February 2022. These two strategy documents seek to expand the role of the QUAD beyond the oft-perceived notion of it being a hard-security construct aimed at containing China. The approach extends the role of the QUAD to matters of maritime security, which has been defined as “freedom from threats arising in or from the sea” and addresses issues that will aid prosperity, stability, security, and peace in the region. These factors could certainly enlarge the inclusivity factor and perhaps broaden acceptability of the QUAD by dispelling the notion of it being solely a hard-security dialogue exclusively driven by its four constituent nations. This aspect could also address the issue of choosing sides, an aspect often stressed upon by ASEAN. Centrality of ASEAN is an essential element in the Indo-Pacific calculus of India and the US and, hence, forms a major aspect for cooperation at both the bilateral and multilateral levels.
Engaging China and Russia will remain a divergent point for several reasons. The US sees China as a “competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective”, and Russia as “an immediate threat to the free and open international system, recklessly flouting the basic laws of the international order”. Though these aspects do not directly impact the US homeland, the 2022 US National Defence Strategy (NDS), which immediately followed the 2022 NSS, has stated that both nations pose “more dangerous challenges to safety and security at home, even as terrorist threats persist”. India’s engagement with China follows a different path due to a long-standing border dispute and increasing maritime challenges and risks. Both aspects have a direct impact on India’s security and engagement matrix with other nations, which differ from that of the US. However, the 2022 NDS looks at advancing the defence partnership with India to “enhance its ability to deter PRC aggression and ensure free and open access to the Indian Ocean Region”. It is not clear if this role envisaged for India is by mutual understanding, which is highly unlikely given India’s strategic autonomy approach and stance of not being seen as part of any military alliance. The US also needs to review its approach to issues that impact India’s security. Therefore, packages like the recent USD 450 million support for sustainment of Pakistan’s F-16 aircraft fleet for counter terrorism purposes need to be relooked, while keeping the doors of trust and cooperation open. The US urging India to reduce its dependency on, and slowly transit away from Russia contradicts the aspect of “countries must be free to determine their own foreign policy choices”, which has been mentioned in the Enduring Vision section of the 2022 NSS.
India’s relations with Pakistan, China, and Russia are well known and have been emphasised sufficiently in the past at various international forums. Hence, to increase the trust element and maximise cooperation, contentious issues need to be addressed and the 2+2 dialogue provides the right engagement platform for such discussions.
Captain Sarabjeet S Parmar is a serving Indian Naval Officer and is presently a Senior Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the policy of the Government of India or the Indian Navy.
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