India, the U.S. and "The New Order of Things": changing security dynamics in the Indo-Asia-Pacific

On the eve of the first ever United States – India 2+2 Dialogue, which gathers together the leaders of defense and diplomacy of our respective countries, a quick assessment of defense priorities between our two countries is in order. The author has previously used this forum to write about the centrality of India to any U.S. strategy in the Indo-Asia–Pacific, to advocate for the U.S. and India to work more closely together on maritime infrastructure in the Indian Ocean to balance China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and finally to offer areas where the U.S. can help India build its capacity in the increasingly important Indian Ocean Maritime Domain. This article will provide some additional ideas to consider as we work to improve this most important strategic partnership.

China is well on its way to becoming a global maritime power. China’s aggressive moves and infrastructure play into the Indian Ocean have big strategic implications for India and the U.S., but it is only a subset of China’s grand strategy. While much has been written about how the West got China wrong, this is not the time for hand-wringing. China consistently overplays its hand. One need only look at the growing resistance to China’s BRI, whether in Malaysia due to debt trap concerns, or in Europe where China is making significant inroads and taking control of ports like Piraeus, Greece. This presents a great opportunity for India and the U.S. to work together on clear areas of strategic convergence, such as maritime domain awareness (MDA), information sharing, improvements in maritime infrastructure and anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

Time and again, China has crossed lines, in terms of what the West has been able to imagine with respect to China’s actions and its strategic intent. Additionally, China’s willingness to exploit ambiguous gray-zone areas and use all levers of national power to achieve regional hegemony is of concern. In essence, there has always been a recognition lag as to what China is actually doing, whether it is building and militarizing islands in the South China Sea, ignoring a U.N. tribunal on excessive maritime claims, or providing maritime infrastructure provision across Eurasia, and what the strategic implications of these actions are. Wouldn’t it be nice to correctly anticipate China’s next moves on the chessboard?

China has a long-term strategy, a playbook for implementing that strategy, and has properly resourced this strategy. It is playing the long game with patience and tactical flexibility. The U.S. and India have an opportunity to formulate an Indo-Asia-Pacific strategy that ensures the continuity of a rules-based international order that consists of an open and transparent security framework and respects the sovereignty of all nations, large and small.

The author has previously written in this forum about how India must be central to any U.S. strategy in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and as we look for opportunities to strengthen ties with India, naval cooperation is a natural starting point. Also, the security competition that is currently taking place in the Indo-Asia-Pacific is largely happening in a maritime context, and future regional crises could very well occur and be decided in the maritime domain.

China’s commercial and maritime expansion spans from Greenland to the Azores, from Rotterdam to the Baltic Sea, and into the Mediterranean. China has expressed interest in investing in Arctic countries as part of a “Polar Silk Road.” China’s Indian Ocean maritime expansion includes investments in port and energy infrastructure in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and in Gwadar Pakistan. Its naval expansion not only includes the Yellow, East, and South China Seas, but also the well-documented naval deployments to the Indian Ocean. This includes China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. China has also conducted naval exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. With China’s continued maritime expansion, the centrality of India to any U.S. Indo-Asia-Pacific strategy becomes even more important. As we think about the future of a multi- polar world and a multilateral security architecture, the argument for India and the Indian Ocean taking center stage continues to make a lot of sense.

 If one envisions an Eurasian cross-regional security architecture with Japan, South Korea, the “Five Eyes” to the east, and the U.S. and NATO forces west of Suez, then one could place India smack dab in the center. From a U.S. perspective, this would be a more desirable alternative to the continued evolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). At the strategic level, the heart of this new security architecture would be the strengthening relationship and shared interests between India and the U.S. Information sharing in multiple domains would be a key enabler at the operational level. Tying this all together at the tactical level would be an Indian conceived and operated multi-sensor network. To accomplish this, the U.S. and India could leverage the White Shipping Agreement that has already been signed between our two countries to net and display all relevant information together. India’s valued contribution to this information network cannot be overstated.This would be a major step in India becoming a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean. 

 We are always looking for the next big thing in India-U.S. relations. Usually this includes talk of some major weapons purchase, or technology initiative.The next big thing isn’t a weapons platform, a plane, or a missile. The next big thing is the Network.  By the Network, I am referring to participating partner nations as the key nodes, with relationships as the connectors, and the free flow of information between them. This is not primarily about hardware. In the final analysis, weapons purchases or technology initiatives are tactical and operational matters. A regional network optimized to provide timely and relevant information so that decision makers can shape the environment and respond to developments, all contributing to a nascent security architecture, could have significant strategic implications.

Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is often cited as a future area of cooperation between nations and navies. But one often finds that each country has their own definition of what MDA actually is. And rightfully so. We always need to be sensitive to sovereignty issues when we talk about MDA and the sharing of information. But essentially, every nation should have a picture of and be concerned with tracking an overladen boat with refugees, unlawful fishing in a country’s exclusive economic zone, drug and human trafficking, and other threats to maritime security.

India, especially after the Mumbai attacks of 2008, has become a leader in the field of maritime domain awareness. The Indian Information and Analysis Center (IMAC) in Gurgaon, India is a state of the art facility. At India’s invitation, the U.S. should enthusiastically join this network, even if initially, it only includes basic White Shipping Agreement information. India’s extensive coverage of the Indian Ocean and the U.S.’s cross regional information when coupled together could produce a comprehensive picture of the Indian Ocean. This could be the start of something really big.

If India and the U.S. together were able to develop a Common Operating Picture (COP) and a Single Integrated Air Picture (SIAP) in the Indian Ocean, both countries would be well served. One could easily imagine an environment where units in the Eastern Mediterranean or east of the Strait of Malacca were able to provide India with advance notification of surface and subsurface vessels entering the Indian Ocean. 

We need to be sensitive to what the Indians envision as to our cooperation in the Indian Ocean. As we collaborate and build both trust and capability with India on Maritime Domain Awareness, we need to know who they want to work with and include in this network. As we move from broad concepts to specifics, especially after reaching agreement on the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), we can maximize the benefits to both India and the U.S. by developing an information sharing framework and supporting network architecture that is flexible and adaptable. At the start, information sharing will be heavily constrained by disclosure policy.  However, policy can change much faster than we can build out networks so we should be looking to build networks that have inherent capability and flexibility to quickly expand sharing as we build trust.

The end state is that India becomes a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean Region. This is not only to promote India’s own security through the network that it develops and manages, but in terms of what Prime Minister Modi talked about at the Shangri-la dialogue, to better protect the sovereignty and integrity of the Indian Ocean Region. 

As a famous Italian philosopher once implied, it is always difficult to introduce a new order of things. With the power transitions currently underway in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, the U.S. needs to approach the U.S.-Indian relationship with a new sense of humility.  We need to approach this strategic relationship as equal partners, recognizing each other’s national interests but also recognizing that ideals, rules, international norms and democratic values matter. And while change is always hard, following familiar paths may just not work anymore. We cannot let familiar paths become a rut. It is time to recognize India’s place in the new order of things, and to do what we can to strengthen and promote it, especially with regard to maritime capacity building and the sharing of information.