As the US tries to normalise ties with China, India worries about its commitment to the Indo-Pacific strategy
India’s main concern at the fifth round of ‘two plus two’ dialogue between Indian and US foreign and defence ministers held in Delhi on November 10 was strategic rather than bilateral. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian interlocutors wanted to know from their American counterparts whether US’ commitment to balance China by the Indo-Pacific strategy would be affected by Washington’s involvement in two regional wars (Ukraine, and Israel-Hamas), and its attempt at reproachment with China at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit where Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will meet in San Francisco on November 15.
At the APEC summit, Biden would want Xi to agree to bilateral military-to-military talks across the entire chain of command involving senior and junior leaders to avert any accident or misunderstanding at sea or air in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea that might lead to an escalation.
Wishing to discuss this issue from a position of strength, the recent whirlwind visit of US secretary of state, Antony Blinken to Israel, West Bank, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Japan, South Korea, and India was meant to convey to China that America can handle multiple crisis across the globe. But, Blinken’s spectacular tour has left India wondering about the strategic, defence and military bandwidth the US would have for India whose regional competition with China and military stand-off with the PLA on the disputed border needs firm US backing.
After all, once India signed the joint statement with China on 10 September 2020 in Moscow for peace on the disputed border following the 15 June 2020 Galwan killings, it signed the last military foundation agreement—Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA)—with the US during the third ‘two plus two’ meeting in Delhi in October 2020. This led to the formal integration of Indian military into the US’ Indo Pacific defence network; an enhancement of QUAD status to summit level; and a dramatic change in Modi government’s foreign policy—from Act East to Indo Pacific—to align with US’ interest in the region. The latter meant that India was willing to expand its strategic reach to include Indian Ocean Region (IOR), Southeast Asia, and 14 Pacific islands (including Australia and New Zealand).
Since then, the focus of India and the US has been on defence and military issues to meet the China challenge. The US needs India to do its dirty work (combat) in the IOR, and India wants to build deterrence (military power) against China piggybacking on the US. Given this, India joined the US-led Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) under the Indo-Pacific partnership which was announced in Tokyo in 2022. Under this, the Quad members are to do data collection and sharing of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) feeds with partners in Southeast Asia and Pacific nations.
India, given its location, has a special responsibility which is evident from two things: It is the only country which has operational interaction with three US theatre commands namely, Indo Pacific command, Central Command, and Africa Command. And the Indian Navy’s Gurgaon-based Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC), whose software has been supplied by US companies CISCO and Raytheon, will be the nerve centre of the MDA project. To keep data cyber-secure, new undersea cables are being laid connecting all Quad members.
Against this backdrop, the Innovation on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) framework was a key takeaway from Prime Minister Modi’s state visit to the US in June. This framework has two components: joint defence production and the India-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X) for emerging technologies which are built on two general purpose technologies: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and synthetic biology. The third component of defence cooperation—interoperability (ability to combat together on a common mission)—got a boost with the signing of ‘Master Ship Repair Agreement’ under which Indian naval shipyards and docks in the public and private sector would be available to the Quad navies for maintenance and repairs (read, as temporary military bases) of their naval vessels in the IOR.
Under joint defence production, the US has agreed to transfer General Electric’s F-414 engine technology to India. However, there will be no Transfer of Technology (ToT) of turbofan, casting technologies, and metallurgy formulae which comprise 95 per cent of engine’s Intellectual Property Rights. What India will get is assembly rights under India’s Aatmanirbhar (self-reliance) programme. Moreover, since India has agreed to buy 31 General Atomics’ (GA) Sea Guardian and Sky Guardian drones costing USD three billion (to be used for US’ MDA in Indo Pacific), GA will set up their Maintenance, Repair, Operations (MRO) facility in India as offsets. India has also agreed to consider co-production of Stryker armoured fighting vehicle used by the US Army. The overall US aim is to wean India away from Russian military equipment by 2027 when it hopes to have capabilities to combat with the PLA across the Indo Pacific.
Meanwhile, the two sides held meeting with Indian and US investors in Delhi for speeding up INDUS-X, two days before the fifth ‘two plus two’ on November 8. Run by the two defence ministries (Pentagon and Indian department of defence production), INDUS-X is meant to identify Indian start-up companies which, with help from investors, could scale up commercial capabilities for the Indo-Pacific defence network. Two projects, namely, subsea communication and oil spill management were cleared for development and production. The US Space Force too signed an agreement with Indian start-up for scaling up production of AI for MDA. Meanwhile, India’s request for investments in AI for Indian cyber, space, and small arms programmes has not yet been met by the Pentagon.
A big question overlooked in India is the impact that the tight India-US strategic, defence and military embrace will have on China and Russia. Especially when relations between India and China are at the lowest since they fought the 1962 war.