The regional ramifications of the US-India bonhomie

The United States (US) Secretary of Defence, Lloyd J. Austin, recently concluded an official visit to India. During his stay, he held meetings with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. According to the joint remarks between the US and Indian defence chiefs issued by the US Department of Defence, Austin acknowledged the American commitment to a comprehensive and forward-looking defence partnership with India. Indian Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, also showed the Indian assurance to further consolidate a robust defence partnership with the US. Surprisingly, the joint statement avoided any direct reference to the Chinese threat. India issued a careful statement while distancing itself from the American strategy of containing China. So far, the US has failed to mobilise India militarily to contain China.

For the last 20 years, India and the US have increased the potency of their defence relations. But shortly after Modi took oath as prime minister of India in 2016 a fresh change in ties took place. Since 2016, New Delhi has signed three fundamental “strategic agreements” with Washington, which facilitated deeper collaboration and the exchange of classified information and equipment between the two countries. These foundational arrangements are Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Intelligence (BECA). It seems that the major aspiration of the US is to increase the liabilities of India by keeping New Delhi dependent on defence technology and resupply from Washington. In this regards, Pravin Sawhney opined that,

“By signing the BECA, India has potentially mortgaged the digitised military capability of its three services – army, air force and navy – to the United States.”

Notwithstanding the recent surge in the Indo-US strategic arrangements, certain quarters in India are sceptical about the dividends from this incomparable strategic association which will further narrow New Delhi’s policy options. India’s strategic proximity to the US has led to deteriorating ties between India and several other nations, in particular Russia and China. Its quick acceptance as a Western partner has signalled the departure of India from its conventional non-alignment position while creating some fissures in New Delhi’s relations with other significant countries in the region. India will possibly lose strategic compatibility in South Asia if it continues to serve US interests globally.

In the regional context, the US and India have an intervening strategic interest in countering China’s peaceful economic rise. India has cleverly introduced a narrative of common threat perception with the US regarding China’s economic rise. To counter this threat, both countries are building deeper and stronger strategic partnerships which will ultimately push the entire Asian region into an uncertain and volatile environment. India’s approach of appeasement towards China during the recent disengagement in Ladakh shows that the Indo-US unholy nexus is less to keep a check on China but more to harm regional peace.

The constant American military and strategic support to India, without accounting for the fragile politics of disputes, is a worrying development that will further intensify an arms race in the region. The US strategic support to India in terms of military logistic agreements, supporting the Indian bid for Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and rejection to arbitrate over territorial disputes has severely dented the outlook for peaceful co-existence in South Asia. Today, India’s defence ties with the US are not directed towards countering China’s peaceful rise but this association will further exacerbate regional hostilities.

The policy orientation of India and its ambitions to become a regional force warrant stronger ties with its neighbouring states, which are to some degree become the victim of the Indo-US defence relations. The military imports from the US will enable India to follow a policy of coercion at the regional level primarily against Pakistan, which shares the history of hostility and violence due to longstanding territorial disputes such as Kashmir. In New Delhi, there is a growing perception that South Asian political affairs may be dictated by a militarily strong India.

The American politicians should sensibly evaluate India’s strength and avoid the temptation to treat India as a more capable and dedicated actor to pursue American interests in the region. American dependence on the military capacity of India will have a devastating impact on regional peace because the emerging defence relations between New Delhi and Washington will ultimately fail to balance out deterrence stability in South Asia.