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US-India security ties deepen but some in New Delhi worry about taking a back seat

Screenshot 2020-11-07 072122
Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh (centre) gestures towards US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: AP

The India-US alliance has been strengthened by the signing last month of a high-profile defence deal and this week’s three-day Malabar naval exercise featuring members of the so-called Quad, which also includes Australia and Japan and is regarded by Beijing as an anti-China grouping.

In India, politicians and commentators have debated whether New Delhi’s eagerness for US support against China’s expanding footprint in South Asia will make it a “junior partner” in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy and whether that ultimately serves India’s interests.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper last month met counterparts S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh, prompting some observers to question whether Washington has been allowed to dictate the terms of the relationship.

Kapil Kak, a former vice-marshal in the Indian Air Force, made those concerns explicit on the eve of the meeting during a YouTube discussion on the Urdu news portal JNN.

“I don’t see a scenario where, not only this government but any government in India, can accept to be a junior partner of the US and expect to be in power,” he said. “That will never happen.”

Former Indian diplomat Talmiz Ahmad, who served in various ambassadorial roles to the Middle East, also warned: “India has allowed itself to become a party to US concerns, acquiring needless Chinese hostility without any benefits for itself.”

He argued the US has been seeking to co-opt India into a maritime alliance against China by adopting the Indo-Pacific frame, merging the Indian and Pacific Oceans into one seamless strategic space.

In reality, according to Ahmad, India’s oceanic strategic space is limited to the Indian Ocean, stretching from the Malacca Strait to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. In that region, China and India have shared interests regarding freedom of navigation, safety of sea lines of communication and safe movement of energy and commerce.

“India’s rightful place is to shape and be a part of the new order that is evolving in Eurasia, an important strategic space that [New] Delhi has been ignoring because of its obsession with the Indo-Pacific,” Ahmad said.

On the other hand, Srinath Raghavan, professor of history and international relations at the Ashoka University, argued India’s ties with the US would offer a valuable counterweight to China’s influence.

“India’s decisions are shaped by its priorities and capabilities were stepping up in the Indo-Pacific theatre at this point would send a signal to China that it can’t take India for granted,” Raghavan said, although he noted that any ongoing benefit would depend on how the next US administration seeks to approach China and the Indo-Pacific.

“The US-China rivalry won’t go away but the way it will be dealt with will depend on who is the next president,” he said.

Raghavan also suggested concerns about India being relegated to the status of “junior partner” were misplaced as any ally is bound to play a smaller role in light of Washington’s vast military capability.

The Indian navy has about 150 ships and submarines and about 300 aircraft in its fleet, and its defence budget is more than US$62 billion. By comparison, the US naval fleet includes 290 deployable vessels and 3,700 aircraft, and its defence budget is US$686 billion.

According to C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Delhi-based think tank Society for Policy Studies, “in the current geopolitical context Delhi has the potential and the naval pedigree to be a valuable partner to the US in the maritime domain”.

India and China have been locked in a military stand-off along their shared but disputed 3,440km Himalayan border for more than six months, causing relations to plummet to their lowest point in decades.

Due to these heightened tensions, India has sought closer ties with its neighbours, last month gifting Myanmar a Soviet-era submarine. The two countries share a 1,600km land and maritime border, and the move was widely interpreted as an attempt by India to cultivate relations with Myanmar’s military, offering an alternative to China.

Still, US-China relations are shaped by “great power” conflict, on a different scale to India’s more local and more immediate concerns, Ahmad said.

The issues underpinning US-China tensions include trade, technology and even the status of Taiwan, whereas India-China disputes focus on the border stand-off and China’s long-standing support for Pakistan, India’s main geopolitical rival.

For Ahmad, the question remains straightforward: “What support can the US provide if we have problems with China?”