India-US naval exercises: Can symbolism translate into powerplay?

Despite the US raising the ante with China over South China Sea and prioritizing freedom of the oceans, New Delhi remains wary of entering into a formal alliance with Washington, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor

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The Indian Navy’s (IN)  eastern fleet carried out a routine naval exercise with the US Navy (USN)  led by its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz (100,000 tonnes), in the Indian Ocean on Monday (July 20)  and it is instructive to note that the US carrier strike group  was sailing  from the South China Sea in the western Pacific Ocean towards the Persian Gulf.  This ostensibly routine bilateral military engagement has  multi-layered  significance for its impact on the prevailing geopolitical dynamic in the Indo-Pacific  and the  troubled US-China bilateral as also the India-China military stand-off across the Line of Actual Control.

A routine passex between units of the Indian and US  navies in the Indian Ocean is not going to have any immediate tangible impact on events in the high Himalayas but the symbolism is significant. It sheds light on  tactical opportunities in the maritime domain, long-term challenges and structural constraints  in India-US naval cooperation, even as there is a flicker of irony in the unfolding patterns of geopolitical choices made by nations and the centrality of the temporal context.

Irony of Indo-US ties

The irony first.  During the Cold War decades,  India and the USA were "estranged" over strategic issues (the nuclear  strand ) and China was a junior partner to the former Soviet Union as the two Communist nations joined hands to oppose the democratic   US-led ‘West’. For the USA, official  China was Taiwan and Beijing (then Peking) was not officially acknowledged.

In the second phase of the Cold War (1970 onwards)  the US embarked upon a rapprochement with Communist China and between the Nixon-Kissinger team  the foundation was laid for deepening US-China ties since Moscow was the "evil empire" that had to be contained. At the time Beijing had no qualms about switching sides, much to the chagrin of  Moscow.

India soon became a preferred ‘friend’ of the former USSR while a US-China-Pakistan triangular alliance was being advanced.  It peaked in the 1971 war for Bangladesh and during that period India was confronted with an anomalous situation where a US carrier – the USS Enterprise - steamed into the Bay of  Bengal in a show of support for Pakistan. However, the show of force was more symbolic and Bangladesh was midwifed successfully by India, thereby hereby irrevocably altering  South Asian geopolitics.

Fast forward by about 50 years  and now the USA and India are on the same page to uphold the rule of law at sea and the freedom of the high seas, even as China has been unambiguously identified as the determined transgressor and disruptor of global good order by the Trump administration. The USS Nimitz and the exercise with the Indian Navy testifies to the inherent geopolitical flux that has now brought formerly the two ‘estranged’ democracies into a partnership where the correspondence in relation to China is  more than evident.

However, the structural constraints in deepening the India-US relationship have acquired sharper focus in recent days. Despite the US raising the ante with China over South China Sea and prioritizing freedom of the oceans, New Delhi remains wary of entering into a formal alliance with Washington. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar noted  (July 22)  that the USA needs to go beyond "alliances" and evolve more pluralistic arrangements appropriate to a multi-polar world.

The USA has reiterated its partnership with India and in an expansive turn of phrase US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo asserted of the bilateral  relationship (July 22): “We  have the ability today by working together to shape the world” and added further:  “We see each other for what we are – great democracies, global powers, really good friends.”

While this is heady endorsement of India’s profile, the reality is that New Delhi has a modest kitty by way of material resources it can bring to the global table and this gap is most visible in the maritime/naval domain.

Thus while the two democracies are pursuing the annual Malabar naval exercises and indicating that it will soon acquire a multi-lateral operational identity in the form of the Quad with Japan and Australia, the political and strategic underpinning for this grouping remains a work in progress. Can the Quad and other like-minded nations ( those committed to the rule of law as it now  obtains at sea and upheld by the USA and the larger global community)  acquire the collective naval heft to prevail upon / or compel China to conform?

India's naval capabilities

This, in turn, will be predicated on the tangible naval capability that India can acquire and sustain for the long term which is directly linked to fiscal support and appropriate technological / manufacturing competence in the maritime domain.

But the more immediate constraint is that countries like India  that have been adversely impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic will find it difficult to commit large resources to the military sector.  Some creative out-of-the-box thinking is called for between the USA and India to see what would be the most viable options to enhance the capabilities of the Cinderella service in India – the navy - that currently receives just under 14 percent of the total defence budget.

The empirical reality is that while China builds five major warships annually, India takes almost 5 years to build one ship. And apropos the USA, if current warship building schedules in China are maintained, by 2040 the PLA Navy will have more major platforms at sea than the US Navy.

These indicators need to be reviewed and redressed by both India and the USA as they consolidate their maritime accord, but be warned - for there are no easy answers.

(The writer is Director, SPS. The views expressed are personal)