US and India Strengthen Strategic Defense Partnership Under Trump and Modi

By Venus Upadhayaya, Epoch Times
November 20, 2019 Updated: November 20, 2019

The U.S.-India strategic defense partnership has entered a new phase, with both countries currently carrying out joint training events to enhance military relations and build up skills in disaster response.

A collaboration called the Tiger Triumph (TT) was launched on Nov. 13, near the south Indian port city of Visakhapatnam after the arrival of USS Germantown from the U.S. 3rd Marine Division and will continue until Nov. 21, according to a statement.

“Indian forces already exercise more with U.S. forces than with any other country,” Kashish Parpiani, a Research Fellow with Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai, India, told The Epoch Times.

Parpiani mentioned that India’s Modi government has put special emphasis on “formal agreements with the U.S.—that mostly pertain to geospatial mapping and communications.”

These and the wider military cooperation between the two nations is of significance due to a U.S.-India geopolitical alliance vis-a-vis China and the emerging challenges facing humanity in the Indian Ocean, according to other experts.

More than 500 U.S. Marines and sailors and 1,200 Indian soldiers, sailors, and airmen are participating in the 9-day long TT. Both forces are also embarking on their counterparts’ ships to become familiar with each other’s “procedures and techniques.”

U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dana Demer is the Special Purpose Marine-Air Ground Task Force Commander. He said TT is helping Indian and U.S. militaries to professionally and culturally understand each other and demonstrates the strength of the two countries’ relationship.

“We look forward to continued cooperation and engagement as both our nations pursue our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Our respective capable forces will continue to ensure this vision is a reality.”

India’s Minister for Defence, Rajnath Singh exchanging a memento with the U.S. Secretary of Defence, Dr. Mark T. Esper after their meeting, on the sidelines of ADMM-Plus, in Bangkok on Nov. 17, 2019. (Press Bureau of India)

Strategic Partnership in Indo-Pacific

A few weeks earlier on Nov. 4, the State Department released a report on how it is working with allies and partners to implement a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. In his introductory message, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defined India as a strategic partner.

“We are increasing the tempo and scope of our work with allies, partners, and regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); the Mekong states; the Pacific Islands countries, and our strategic partner India, to address shared challenges and advance a shared vision,” said Pompeo.

The State Department specifically mentioned in its report that the U.S. strategic partnership with India is strengthening.

“Our strategic partnership with India, a fellow democracy of 1.3 billion people that shares our vision for the Indo-Pacific, is reaching new heights,” said the report.

Erbil Gunasti, the author of “GAMECHANGER: Trump Card: Turkey & Erdogan,” told The Epoch Times that establishing a strategic relationship with India in the Indian Ocean is similar to U.S. rapprochement with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.

“You would say it is not the same thing because Turkey is in NATO, but from Pentagon’s perspective, [Ex] President Obama has already lost Turkey, which is like not having Turkey on board—like it never had India as cohesively until now.

“As you know, India was with Russia until now and still is, considering. Turkey, on the other hand, is equally with Russia today on the other end like it has never been as close since the 1950s. So, there is some logic to this madness, when overall U.S. Naval policy objectives are put into perspective,” said Gunasti.

Students wave Indian and U.S. national flags during a welcoming ceremony for United States Coast Guard (USCG) cutter Ship ‘Stratton’ anchored at Chennai port on Aug. 23, 2019. (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)

In an analysis, jointly authored with Edward Ashbee, an expert from Denmark, Parpiani said that India is also getting “ultimatums” from the United States for its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems.

While Gunasti gives the credit for the U.S.-India strategic partnership to President Trump’s leadership, Parpiani and Ashbee give credit to the Pentagon.

“Nonetheless, as the delivery of the Apaches illustrates, U.S.-India defense ties appear to be developing unhindered. This is in large part because the Pentagon is pursuing strategies that owe little or nothing to the Trump administration’s political instincts,” wrote Parpiani and Ashbee who is the Programme Director of International Business and Politics at Copenhagen Business School.

Apache refers to Boeing AH-64E(I) Apache Guardian Helicopter that India recently purchased from the United States.

Esper Meets Indian Defense Minister

Secretary of State Mark Esper met with India’s Minister of Defence, Rajnath Singh, in Bangkok on Nov. 17. The meeting reaffirms both countries “shared commitment to democratic values and a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” which Esper calls America’s “priority theater.”

“Noting the importance both countries place on engagement with Southeast Asia, Secretary Esper highlighted opportunities to increase U.S.-India collaboration across the region, and reinforce our commitment to a rules-based security architecture with ASEAN at its core,” said the Department of Defense in a statement on Sunday.

The two leaders met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM-Plus). ADMM-Plus is an “effective platform for practical cooperation” among the ASEAN nations and the eight dialogue partners, including India and the United States.

India’s Minister for Defence, Rajnath Singh meeting the U.S. Secretary of Defence, Dr. Mark T. Esper, on the sidelines of ADMM-Plus, in Bangkok on Nov. 17, 2019. (Press Bureau of India)

Parpiani, who specializes in the U.S. grand strategy, U.S. civil-military relations, and U.S. foreign policy in the Asia⎯Pacific, said it is significant that Esper and Singh met at Bangkok since both of them are new to their respective roles and this is their first meeting.

“It’s good that the two met each other now, a month before the slated U.S.-India 2+2 consultive meeting between foreign and defense cabinet chiefs,” said Parpiani.

The U.S.-India 2+2 consultive meetings began last year and reflect the shared commitment between President Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narinder Modi for a better partnership.

The meetings “provide a positive, forward-looking vision for the India-U.S. strategic partnership and to promote synergy in their diplomatic and security efforts,” according to a statement by the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in India.

Gunasti adds another perspective to the U.S.-India strategic engagement in the Indo-Pacific. He said that the United States and India are jointly preparing and taking precautions ahead of time for the big problems brewing in the Indian Ocean.

“In the next 30 years, the world population will increase by 2 billion people. One billion of this rise will come from Asia. The Indian Ocean will be busy with migrants, legal and illegal refugees, heading west via land and sea. This ocean will face more than pirates and increased shipping due to the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative); it will face approximately 50 million people in mass movement over the decades,” he said.

Massive Hike in Defense Trade

United States defense trade and interoperability with India has reached an unprecedented high under Modi and Trump administrations, according to Parpiani.

NATO defines interoperability (pdf) as the capability to “effectively work together in joint operations” to ensure “smooth cooperation” between the nations in an alliance.

“U.S.-India defense trade has increased from $1 billion in 2008, to about $18 billion today. Between 2013-17—relative to the previous five years, U.S. arms exports to India increased by over 550 percent,” said Parpiani explaining why interoperability is essential.

With these developments, according to Parpiani, the United States has emerged as India’s second-largest arms supplier. India now operates the second largest C-17 Globemaster and P-8 Poseidon fleets in the world, and in recent years, the two countries have signed multiple communications agreements.

“Under Obama, Modi inked LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement). Under Trump, Modi inked COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement). The final one—BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement), is now reportedly on the cards,” said Parpiani.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (R) and the former Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman after a meeting in New Delhi on Sept. 26, 2017. (Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images)

BECA is a foundational interoperability agreement. It is essential for joint operations between the United States and the Indian military forces.

W. Alejandro Sanchez, a Geopolitical Expert based in Washington, told The Epoch Times that the White House is convincing India to balance the “Chinese influence in the region, and maritime security is a good way to achieve this.

“China is strengthening ties with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other Asian/Southeast Asian states via investments as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and we see Chinese ships operating in the Indian Ocean.”

Aman Thakker, Adjunct Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wrote in a report on “U.S.—India Maritime Security Cooperation” that India is increasingly concerned about the presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian ocean, particularly due to the increasing tensions in the South China Sea.

“Both the United States and India are critical responders in the region in case of humanitarian disasters. Both nations are active in counter-piracy initiatives in the Indian Ocean,” said Thakker, who holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.

“The United States is a natural partner in helping India to expand its technological and planning capabilities. Deepening this partnership will help the United States share the burden with India, reducing the strain on U.S. forces,” said Thakker.

Indian Liasion Officer at US Central Command

The United States strategic partnership with India reached a new dimension with the appointment of an Indian liaison officer at the United States Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) in mid-2018.

Parpiani said: “The Bush 43 and Obama administrations sought the delinking of India-Pakistan. Wherein, the aim had been to spur the former, pivoting its security policy towards the east and its northern border with China. While the latter would be hyphenated with Afghanistan, in support of the U.S. tactical and operational aims under the ‘War on Terror’ effort.”

The United States had asked India to post a military liaison officer at the then Pacific Command. India, however, turned down that offer many times, according to the ORF expert.

“The reasons being: India’s traditional security calculus being westward (mainly towards threats emanating from state/non-state actors in Pakistan), Middle Eastern countries being India’s top energy sources, and the Gulf region being a vital source of remittances by Indian migrant workers,” said Parpiani.

He added that India wanted a liaison officer representation at United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), a part of the Department of Defense responsible for U.S. military operations in 20 countries in the center of the globe, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia.

It couldn’t be allowed because of America’s complex relationship with Pakistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) walks with Vice Admiral James Malloy (L), commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT)/5th Fleet, after a tour of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command center in Manama on Jan. 11, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

In mid-2018, India appointed a liaison officer at NAVCENT who was confirmed to be the defense attache at India’s embassy in Bahrain.

“This development was read as India and the U.S. having resolved their divergent understanding of Indian interests in the region. With eyes guaranteed at the Naval HQ of CENTCOM, India could now align—to a greater degree, its interests with that of the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Parpiani.

The expert said it’s important to note that India doesn’t fall under the NAVCENT group of countries.

“Curiously, the divide between the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Pacific Command (now, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command) is the Indo-Pak border.

“Hence, in the U.S. power projection calculus, while Pakistan falls under the jurisdiction of USCENTCOM, India—along with China, falls under the Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific Command,” said Parpiani. He explained how the decision is an essential and unique aspect of the strengthened Indo-U.S. relationships.

Follow Venus on Twitter: @venusupadhayaya
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