India will frustrate the United States with its need for strategic autonomy and its aversion to formal alliances.
New Delhi will avoid military involvement in the South China Sea dispute for fear of inviting retaliation from China across their disputed border or through Chinese-Pakistani joint patrols in the Arabian Sea.
India's primary focus in the Indo-Pacific region will be to safeguard its critical transit routes in the Indian Ocean.
The world's three most populous countries are locked in a power struggle across the Indo-Pacific region. The United States wants to strengthen its defense partnership with India as part of a broader effort to counter China's growing influence in the region and around the world. India, too, is interested in challenging China by asserting itself in Southeast Asia's political, economic and security domains as it pursues its "Act East" policy. But although they share a rival in common, Washington and New Delhi have different aims in their efforts to contain Beijing. The divergences in their strategies will ultimately hamper improved cooperation in the region between the United States and India.
The Enemy of My Enemy…
The United States is the world's pre-eminent maritime power. As such, its main focus in the Indo-Pacific is to preserve the freedom of navigation the U.S. Navy depends on to safeguard global commercial and energy routes. But Beijing's strategic objectives in the region conflict with that agenda, at least as Washington sees it. By expanding its presence in the South China Sea to protect its own maritime transit routes, China has jeopardized freedom of navigation in those waters. Combined with its efforts to integrate with countries across Asia and Europe, China's maritime activities constitute a long-term threat to the United States' chief foreign policy priority — to prevent the rise of a power that could challenge U.S. primacy in Eurasia.
For India, the threat of China's increasing power hits closer to home. The two countries — both nuclear powers — share a 4,057-kilometer (2,520-mile) contested border. In 1962, their territorial disputes led to war, and in the years since, standoffs and skirmishes have continually sprung up — most recently last year. China's proliferating infrastructure projects in South Asia, moreover, are challenging India's core geopolitical imperative to maintain dominance over the Indian subcontinent. Beijing's activities in the region are especially worrisome for New Delhi in light of China's alliance with Pakistan. The partnership's crowning achievement, the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, crosses through Kashmir — the disputed territory at the heart of India's bitter rivalry with its neighbor to the west.
China's proliferating infrastructure projects in South Asia challenge India's core geopolitical imperative to maintain dominance over the Indian subcontinent.
Their mutual wariness toward China has brought the United States and India into close cooperation over security and defense. In 2016, Washington named the South Asian country a Major Defense Partner, a designation that enables New Delhi to buy advanced weaponry usually reserved for U.S. allies, such as the Sea Guardian drones the United States recently offered India. The United States supports New Delhi's bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a multinational organization committed to non-proliferation, despite China's opposition to it. U.S.-based aerospace firms Lockheed Martin and Boeing, meanwhile, are exploring deals to build fighter jets in India, an arrangement that would bolster Prime Minister Narendra Modi's campaign to turn the country into a global manufacturing hub. In addition, New Delhi figures prominently in the U.S. administration's strategies both in Afghanistan and in the Indo-Pacific region, which the Pentagon highlighted in its recent National Defense Strategy. India, in turn, has joined the United States, Japan and Australia in the newly resurrected Quadrilateral Security Group, a recently revived grouping featuring the U.S., Japan, and Australia.
…Isn't Quite My Ally
But the deepening ties between Washington and New Delhi still fall short of an alliance, much to the United States' frustration. The limits of India's partnership — a product of its doctrine of strategic autonomy and its aversion to formal alliances — will continue to be a sticking point in its relations with the United States. For one thing, New Delhi has agreed to sign only one of the three foundational pacts Washington enters with its defense partners, and a modified version at that. (The agreement, the result of 10 years of painstaking negotiations, merely establishes that each country can use the other's bases for refueling — hardly a quantum leap for defense cooperation.) For another, the United States and India have differing views over the South China Sea.
New Delhi shares some of Washington's concern about the sea's disputed waters. India's Oil and Natural Gas Corp. owns the rights to an oil exploration block off Vietnam's coast, and in 2015, Modi agreed to include mention of the South China Sea in the India-U.S. joint statement. Beyond rhetorical support, however, New Delhi doesn't have much to add to Washington's maritime campaign in the region. India's defense minister in 2016 ruled out conducting joint patrols alongside the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea's contested waters. From New Delhi's perspective, doing so would risk antagonizing Beijing, perhaps inviting retaliation along their disputed border or through joint Chinese-Pakistani patrols in the Arabian Sea. Considering the military buildup underway on both sides of its border with China, India will probably resist crossing the line with Beijing.
India, like the United States, must protect the sea lanes it depends on for critical trade activities such as importing petroleum and refining it offshore.
Instead, New Delhi will focus on the Indian Ocean — a higher priority for India because of its economic importance to the country. India, like the United States, must protect the sea lanes it depends on for critical trade activities such as importing petroleum and refining it offshore. And much as it is doing in the South China Sea, China is beefing up its presence in the Indian Ocean. Not only does Beijing have plans to develop the Gwadar Port in Pakistan and Sri Lanka's Hambantota Port, but it also sends about eight Chinese ships to the region each year in the name of fighting piracy. What's more, China has struck deals with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand to sell these countries submarines, including Yuan class and Ming class diesel-powered craft. These developments explain why India's navy announced last year that it would ramp up its patrols in the Indian Ocean by deploying at least a dozen ships to monitor all choke points and primary maritime routes year-round.
Though they approach the issue from different angles, India and the United States both see China's growing influence as a compelling argument for working to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The vast expanse of water that links the Eastern and Western hemispheres will play a more defining role in great power politics in the years to come. Along the way, the United States will keep encouraging India to stand up to China, its most formidable challenger for command of the oceans.