Standing Tall in the Pivot: India's Eurasian Centrality and Importance to U.S. Grand Strategy in Asia

"Democracy refuses to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purposes of defence."  

-Sir Halford Mackinder

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, once wrote that India was the pivot around which the security in Asia would be determined.  In the sport of basketball, being able to pivot is everything.  It is the key to movement in either direction, right or left, for offensive purposes, and ultimately to put points on the board. In the Indo-Pacific, India is at the center of the key and standing tall in the pivot.  At this moment in history, it is critically important that we get our strategic relationship with India right, and like basketball, we need to be focused on the fundamentals, and not be overly distracted by present divergences in policies.

Some of these policy divergences are either trade related, such as the U.S. decision to impose aluminum and steel tariffs last year that adversely affected India, or the Trump Administration terminating India's preferential trade status under a U.S. program known as the General System of Preferences.  This program essentially allows some products from developing countries to enter the U.S. duty-free.  Other policy divergences are security related, such as India's increased purchases of Russian military equipment (to include the S-400 air defense system), or India's general anxiety about U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and talks with the Taliban.

All of these policy issues must be viewed in the context of the tremendous progress that has been made in the US-India relationship since the early 2000's.  A sea change in the strategic relationship came with the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement during the administrations of George W. Bush and then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Several important groundbreaking agreements have been signed more recently such as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). These agreements will further military interoperability and logistical support between our armed services. Additional agreements are under negotiation and said to be close.  

As one senior India leader confided to me, the biggest problem that he sees confronting our two nations at the moment is the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Because of India's decision to purchase the Russian S-400 system, the threat of secondary sanctions looms.  As this is a major obstacle to greater collaboration with India (much as it is with Turkey/US relations) we need to think very carefully about this.  The U.S. needs to weigh both the benefits and costs of such policies and ensure that they serve US strategic interests in the long term.  The U.S. also needs to be careful of overplaying our hand, especially when there are historic ties between countries as there are with India and Russia.

The real question of our time and the real concern that both India and the U.S. need to deal with is the challenge of China.  To a large extent, the three main players in this twenty-first century drama will be India, the United States, and China. The former Foreign Secretary of India, Nirupama Rao, refers to the India, U.S., and China triangle as an Isosceles Triangle. She states that "it is not an equilateral triangle by any means, and that it is the story of the world's superpowers and one of the rising powers."  What we should be more focused on, at least from a U.S. perspective, is how to help India build capacity to make this more of an equilateral triangle.  Liberal democracy, freedom, and a rules-based international order may stand in the balance.

The strategic balance of power in the Indo-Pacific is shifting.  China's maritime expansionism, surging economic influence, and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reflects a grand strategy to achieve Xi Jinping's China Dream. We begin to see the realization of Xi's China dream with the building and militarization of islands in the South China Sea, the sudden declaration of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in 2013 that overlaps South Korean and Japanese ADIZ, and the intimidation of Vietnam in the contested waters near the Paracel Islands by China's National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), to name a few.  Now with China's expanding naval footprint in the Indian Ocean, the U.S. and India must be concerned that China could export some of this bad behavior into the India Ocean Region (IOR).  How do we react if China interprets the Indian Ocean Littoral as their "Near Seas?"

I started this article out with a quote from Mackinder, the noted English geographer and strategist who introduced the "world-island" and "Rimland" concepts.  The Rimland of IOR is increasingly under the control and influence of China.  In the Bay of Bengal the Chinese have built ports in Bangladesh and Myanmar.  There are proposals from China to build a canal across Thailand's Kra Isthmus which would connect to the Andaman Sea thereby bypassing the Strait of Malacca. The Chinese have a ninety-nine year lease on the strategic Sri Lankan port of Hambantota.  In Pakistan, as part of the BRI, China has built the port of Gwadar and has purported plans to construct a naval and air base in Jiwani, near Gwadar. China has made key inroads in the Maldives close to India's strategic sea lanes.  In East Africa, China's debt-trap tactics in Kenya have put the future control of the Port of Mombasa in question and China has a major port project that has been begun in Tanzania.  And finally, in Djibouti, China's first overseas military base is up and running. This gets us back to the ancient Indian philosopher, Chanakya, whose theories on balance of power and realist philosophy predates Machiavelli by close to 2000 years.  For India and the U.S., the issue is not about having to symmetrically keep up with the Chinese. It is about these ancient concepts that India well understands—the need for having buffers, of encirclement, and balance of power.  And here we are in good shape. 

For the U.S. and India, there are real opportunities for effective balancing to pursue in the Indian Ocean.  Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Guardian that "China wants to be the pre-eminent power in Asia and whether Asia ends up multipolar or unipolar will be determined by what happens in the Indian Ocean. Currently there is a power vacuum there and the Chinese want to fill it."  India well understands balance of power concepts and dynamics.  In India this goes back to the ancient teachings of Chanakya and the Arthahastra. To be sure, the Indian Navy has stepped up bilateral naval exercises in the Indian Ocean with the navies of Japan, France, Australia, and the United States.  But more needs to be done, and can be done between India, the U.S. and our partners and allies in this vital region.

The United States 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) introduced the construct of Dynamic Force Employment. The NDS stated that in the future U.S. forces would be "strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable.  The U.S Navy first put this to the test with the Truman Aircraft Carrier Group just months later with a shorter but more impactful deployment to the North Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.  One can easily envision making these same types of deployments to the North Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.  This could involve utilizing a swing force concept that could rotate naval forces from the U.S. Fifth Fleet coming out of the Persian Gulf with U.S. Seventh Fleet assets from the east.  The command of these forces could also rotate much like the current Commander Task Force (CTF 151) model.  Currently the only naval forces that we routinely operate in that Northern Arabian Sea area are those transiting to and from the Fifth Fleet area of operations in the Gulf.  We need to have more "dwell time" in the strategic waterways of the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden. Utilizing the Dynamic Force Employment construct in this area would enable us to have more opportunities to work with the Indian Navy.   

The above plan would also mesh well with Indian Prime Minister Modi's engagement with the Middle East and West Asia under the "Think West" policy.  This policy comports with India's historic ties to West Asia and provides an excellent opportunity for India to play an increased role in ensuring the vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in this region and upon which her energy and commerce depend.  Having a discussion between U.S. and Indian government planners on how we might best leverage each other's strengths and weaknesses and time our operational presence in this strategic area could pay big dividends.

The French can and do play a key role here.  France has long been a power in the Indo-Pacific and in the Southern Indian Ocean with the islands of Mayotte and La Reunion. French armed forces are stationed at these two islands.  In the Northern Indian Ocean there are over 1300 French Forces in Djibouti.  Already a critical strategic location based on its proximity to key maritime choke points in the Gulf of Aden, it is even more important today with a Chinese military base in Djibouti.  The French also have a regional two-star admiral designated as ALINDIEN with a headquarters in the United Arab Emirates who is tasked nationally with the operational control of naval forces deployed to the Indian Ocean.  India and France have also signed a logistics support agreement along the lines of the LEMOA agreement mentioned above between the U.S. and India.  All three countries, the U.S., India, and France, benefit greatly with the operational and logistical flexibility these agreements offer to their armed forces.

The question then becomes what can the U.S., India, and France do to increase maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, not only bilaterally, but trilaterally.  Again, a lot of good progress in this area has already been made with the French Jeanne D'Arc Mission and the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle deployments as well as U.S. carrier deployments to the Indian Ocean.  But with expanding Chinese naval presence and influence expanding into the Indian Ocean, we should have further discussions on how to improve Indian naval capacity and capabilities in the Indian Ocean. Anti-submarine tracking and training is a pressing need. We should also look at submarine safety and what is called water-space management in naval terms.  The mechanics of water-space management can be difficult, even among close allies. With a strategic partner like India, we need to give this some serious thought.

The Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean will continue to increase.  It will be about protecting SLOCs for them as their energy and commerce traverse the same sea routes.  Protecting lines of communications at sea is as old as Homer's Iliad and the siege of Troy. Indians are, however, rightly concerned about growing Chinese submarine presence in the Indian Ocean.  While the Chinese submarines have every right to be there as long as they are in international waters, you still want to be able to track and monitor their presence.  The tracking of submarines is not only very hard but also very asset intensive.

 Here again, wouldn't it be great if the Indians and the U.S. could get together for a very discrete conversation on how to manage this together?  We both fly the P-8 aircraft designed for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.  If we were able to fly from Indian facilities we could share tracking with these aircraft and conduct handoffs.  Think of shift work with eight hours on and eight hours off.  This would be a great way to operationalize some of the aforementioned agreements.  As we work with India on the Basic Exchange and Consideration Agreement (BECA), which could allow the sharing of geospatial data, the opportunities only increase. If we think of the COMCASA agreement as the left hand, and the BECA agreement as the right hand, one can see that real progress is being made and that there can be many fast-followers. Lastly, on this important issue, Prime Minister Modi is said to be close to an agreement with France on the sharing of satellites for maritime surveillance in the Indian Ocean.  This would comport nicely with the kind of bilateral and trilateral opportunities discussed above.

India is the pivot of Asia as Prime Minister Nehru once asserted.  If we believe this is the case, then we must continue the positive trajectory that the U.S. and India have been on these many years and we cannot let policy differences derail this strategic relationship.  Robert F Kennedy wrote over fifty years ago that "If a strong India is considered vital to the containment of China, and to our national security, the level of our economic and military assistance must reflect that priority."  I am with RFK.

The author of this piece is Rear Admiral William C. McQuilkin U.S. Navy (Ret)