by Dr Ashok Sharma

On 20 July 2020, the US carrier strike group led by the gigantic nuclear-powered USS Nimitz conducted a passage military drill with Indian warships near the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago to contain the Chinese aggression. The US and Indian navies have been conducting exercises frequently since the 1990s which are now a significant component of their deepening relationship. The ties between the two nations have come a long way. Unlike the Cold War period when both nations were stuck in a wary relationship, the India-US relationship has evolved into a robust strategic partnership. The post-9/11 Islamic terrorism security threat environment and more particularly the rise of a militarily aggressive authoritarian China have underpinned this partnership. The India-China standoff in the Galwan Valley and China’s geopolitical move to exploit the COVID-19 humanitarian crisis have just boosted the India-US strategic partnership.

The death of 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley created tremendous pressure on India for a retaliation, fuelled an anti-China sentiment, and the possibility of a full-fledged war against China. Consequently, comparisons were made on the defence capabilities of India and China and the speculations were made about the US support to India in case of a full-fledged Sino-Indian War. The violent clash has also created a political row in India with the opposition attacking the government for complacency which prompted the foreign minister S. Jaishankar to reply that India has been dealing with China on a more equal footing politically. Though primarily because of India’s growing economic, military, and political importance, this is also attributed to India’s diplomatic investment in building a partnership with the US.

Mainly attributed to the changed international calculus, India- US relationship has transformed in the post-Cold War era. Free from their ideological baggage, both exploited the flexible strategic scenario of the post-Cold War to mend their ties. The growing interaction between the people of both countries due to the business opportunities created by Narsimha Rao government’s economic liberalisation in 1991 and the Indian lobbying efforts by professionally advanced Indian Americans’ political activism and India Caucus in the US Congress changed much of the negative perception about India on the Hill. India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and the concurrent growth of its military capability that could contribute to the strategic stability in the Asian region further brought India into the US strategic framing. The defence became a centrepiece of the collaboration as evident in the 1992 and 1994 Indo-US Malabar Naval exercises which were given shape under the Kickleighter Proposals, the Agreed Minutes on Defence Cooperation, and then formalised under the Defence Policy Group. At the dawn of the 21st century, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack and the growing military build-up and assertiveness of China, the defence ties further intensified. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee led the foundation for the strategic partnership which the subsequent governments from both nations built on forward. The India-US strategic partnership is visible in counter-terrorism cooperation, frequent joint military exercises, defence commerce, defence agreement, and the nuclear deal. The latter being an exception that was granted only to India. Today, the US is the country with which India conducts the most military drills. These developments have enhanced inter-operability and built mutual trust and confidence between the armed forces.

During COVID-19, the India-US bonhomie has continued except for the controversy during India’s ban on the export of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ)- when it appeared that it may be a potential cure- created discomfort. After some initial missteps, India demonstrated substantial compassion for COVID-19 affected countries by exporting the HCQ and the US was given top priority. Trump praised Modi and India for this humanitarian gesture and their bonding has continued on phone in the fight against COVID-19. On 14 March, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar discussed a joint strategy to fight COVID-19. The US invited India to the next G7 meeting in the wake of the Chinese expansionism. But the testing time came during the India-China standoff in the Galwan Valley. President Trump’s offer of mediation was not well received by Indians as the expectation was of a firm US commitment. But soon the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced the shifting of a significant number of troops from Europe to the Indo-Pacific to counter Chinese aggression against India and the American allies in South-East Asia. The US has been upfront against China for its disinformation war, influence on the World Health Organization, and aggressive military posture. India initially taking a neutral stance refrained from criticising Chinese actions, though later joined the global demand for the inquiry into the origin of the pandemic.

In the past, during the 1962 India-China War the Soviet Union refrained from taking sides, the US came to India’s help by ordering Pakistan to not poke its nose in the conflict and supplied military equipment to India though not the most of state-of-the-art technology. But before the US President John F Kennedy could act on Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s request for military intervention to support India, Mao declared a unilateral ceasefire, and India was left humiliated. India’s relationship with China since then has been one of mistrust and conflict. Unlike the US, India is surrounded by the world’s most dangerous security threat environment. India’s two nuclear-armed adversarial nations China-Pakistan nexus is alarming. China’s India containment policy is evident in its blocking of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UNSC permanent membership on the international stage, and ‘String of Pearls’ strategy and ‘One Belt One Road’ initiatives to restrict India in its periphery. India too has augmented its defence capability and the Modi government has intensified the procurement of arms, enhancing defence ties with China-suspicious countries and building infrastructure on the border to counter China.

Earlier in February 2020 during his maiden visit to India, President Trump along with Prime Minister Modi elevated the strategic partnership to the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership in which both called for respect for the rules-based order and free navigation in the Indo-Pacific. The strategic inference of the India-US strategic partnership is grounded in the emerging great power politics of the 21st century. China’s aggressive military build-up and its authoritarian implementation during COVID-19 have further pushed the two democracies to forge stronger strategic ties at the global level. To achieve that India will need to be more cautious of the Chinese deception and shun its cautious stance on Taiwan, Tibet, and the issues of Hong Kong. JFK’s Forgotten Crisis, what the CIA and national security adviser veteran Bruce Riedel thinks, has come to haunt the US again. Today the US intent is clear- support India and balance China which is more powerful and challenging the US primacy. Moreover, the United States’ strategic partnership with India, touted as the defining partnership of the 21st century is all set for a Comprehensive Global Partnership with the intent of balancing China’s military expansionism as the top priority.