With the increasing great power competition in the Indo-pacific region, the Indo-US ties have become a necessity more than ever. In the last two decades, US has become a ‘strategic partner’ from the ‘partner of choice’ due to increasing strategic Chinese influence in South Asia and South-East Asia.
Indo-US ties, however, have a different set of priorities for both countries.
For India, this deepening tie is about building a generational partnership to achieve the strategic milestone. India wants to put ASEAN countries at the center for Indo-Pacific Strategy and the QUAD alliance because India does not want to become a frontal state in a Sino-US ongoing trade war and geopolitical competition, to lose strategic autonomy in their foreign policy decision-making process.
In fact, China is not leaving any stone unturned to make strategic inroads in South Asia and Indian Ocean region by both building defence infrastructure on the Indian side of the border, attempting to alter the territorial status quo, not just selling nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan, but arms and weapons to other South Asian and South-East Asian neighbors too, which is a cause of concern for Indian strategic interests.
In this context, what are the choices India actually have? In order to get a clear understanding, let’s revisit Indo-US strategic partnership in last two decades and how the multi-aligned Indian foreign policy is doing every bit possible to make both an inclusive Indo-Pacific region and multipolar world order. Indo-US Strategic partnership revolves around four foundational defence agreements namely General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCAST), and Basic Exchange Agreement (BECA). India, however, already signed three out of four agreements, along with the ongoing negotiation on BECA because it involves sharing of critical geographical intelligence which includes satellite imagery and topographical data.
With the 9/11 attack in 2001 and ‘War on Terror’ operations, the US started to realise the strategic importance of India in the Asia-Pacific region.
India has been a long victim of cross-border terrorism and raised consistently voices against terrorism at several multilateral and regional forums for last many decades. It was the year 2002 when India signed the first foundational defence agreement - GSOMIA, which cleared the path of Indo-US strategic partnership for the coming decades. After a lot of public debate and deliberations, ‘Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal 2005’ was concluded, despite the non-signatory status of India in Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
In 2009, India signed End User Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) which cleared the way to the procurement of US defence equipment after extended negotiations to ensure that will kept intrusive and monitoring American inspectors away from Indian military bases. After this, India started to engage in bilateral trade discussions with the US in 2012, which is commonly known as the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). Since then the projectile of the Indo-US bilateral relationship is in an upward trajectory.
After a long wait of fourteen years, it was the year 2016 when India signed the second defence foundational agreement - LEMOA, to facilitate port calls, joint military exercises, training, disaster relief operations and bilateral access to logistical facilities on the case to case basis. The US immediately recognized India as a major defence partner under the ‘National Defense Authorization Act, 2019’. On October 24, 2017, India signed Helicopter Support Other than Aircraft Carriers (HOSTAC) agreement with the US at the sideline of ASEAN Defense Ministers Meet in Manila.
Within a year, India was granted ‘Strategic Trade Authorization-1’ status on July 30, 2018, which will be facilitating in the export of both defence and high technology products without the requirement of the individual license. This will be led to increased interoperability, reduce time-management and required resources within the US system to get more streamlined licensing approved at earliest. For the US, India is now at par with three allies namely Japan, South Korea, and Australia plus North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies for the sale of hi-tech critical arms and weapons including combat and communications platforms.
Within the time span of three months, India signed third foundational defence agreement - COMCASA during 2+2 Indo-US meet, which will allow secure peacetime and wartime communication with its proprietary encrypted communications equipment and systems between Indian and US military assets including aircraft and ships. It's just a matter of time when after signing of fourth foundational defence agreement – BECA, US would be able to set a framework through which both countries can share sensitive data to aid targeting and navigation with India.
All these developments can be understood effectively in the light of this question that why India’s major dependence on Russian arms import needs to be changed? In the current geopolitical context, confident India is equally giving importance to diversify their arms basket from US, Russia, France, Israel, and others. In addition, US agreed to establish a Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) in Bengaluru to design the arms and weapons under the Make-in-India Initiative, which highlight this fact that Indo-US strategic partnership is futuristic in nature.
US supported India in getting membership in three out of four non-proliferation regimes namely the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA), Australia Group (AG). It is just a matter of time when India will be a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which actually shows the level of strategic convergence in an Indo-US bilateral relationship. In a nutshell, deepening Indo-US ties highlights that India wants to keep their strategic option open and multi-aligned in this multipolar world order.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)