Relations between the United States and India are taking on a greater significance amid a climate of heightened Sino-US tensions. Washington and New Delhi have drawn closer together and intensified their dialogue with Tokyo, writes World Review expert Lisa Curtis.
The scope of future strategic and security cooperation between the US and India will depend to a large extent on Washington’s sensitivity to India’s core security concerns, which revolve mainly around its arch-rival, Pakistan. Recently mooted American plans to consider an agreement with Pakistan on civilian uses of nuclear power, for example, have revived Indian suspicions of US strategic intentions in the region.
In late September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his second official visit to the US since taking office in May 2014, demonstrating the importance his government attaches to building a stronger relationship. Mr Modi spent much of his time in Silicon Valley, meeting with top executives of information technology companies, in keeping with his focus on attracting foreign investment and providing internet services to one billion Indians through the government’s ‘Digital India’ campaign.
The launch of the first-ever Strategic and Commercial Dialogue (S&CD) between the US and India in late September also gave a boost to relations. Departing from Washington’s previous practice of separating the security and economic components of such bilateral talks, the S&CD signalled a higher level of engagement between the two countries and demonstrated their interest in advancing joint initiatives on a broad range of issues.
Notably, the joint statement issued after the S&CD stressed that the US and India were already cooperating under a landmark security agreement signed the previous January by Mr Modi and US President Barack Obama – the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. That document affirmed that maritime security must be safeguarded and freedom of navigation and overflight must be guaranteed throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. As the statement makes clear, both India and the US are interested in curbing China’s maritime and territorial ambitions.
This vision became more pertinent following the dispatch in October 2015 of a US guided-missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, to within 12 nautical miles of one of Beijing’s man-made islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago. The US held that the Lassen’s voyage was an exercise of the basic freedom of navigation, intended to protect lawful uses of the seas as guaranteed under international law.
In general, Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been more forward-leaning in working with Washington than the previous government led by the Congress Party. Both countries have recognised a shared interest in securing the sea lanes and meeting potential challenges from China’s commercial and military expansion. India’s willingness to elevate the US-India-Japan trilateral talks to the ministerial level and to allow Japanese participation in the recent Malabar naval exercise shows Mr Modi’s preference to operate on a broader front through multi-nation efforts, even at the risk of raising hackles in Beijing.
During his first 18 months in office, Prime Minister Modi has taken great pains to strengthen strategic ties with Washington, raise India’s international profile and signal his country’s readiness to help keep the broader Asia Pacific region stable, secure and open. With these priorities set in New Delhi, it appears that cooperation with the US – particularly on maritime issues – is sure to stay on an upward trajectory.
Before Mr Modi became prime minister, he had been refused a visa by the US because of his role in communal riots that killed over 1,000 Muslims in 2002. President Obama raised concerns about religious freedom in India earlier following a spate of attacks on Muslims and on churches in New Delhi.
-Lisa Curtis analyses America's economic, security and political relationships with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other nations of south Asia as a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
This piece was originally published on World Review