The ground reality is that India is the only dependable partner for the US on its Quad agenda

by Seshadri Chari

Barely a month after India and the US agreed to ramp up military cooperation, the US Navy waded into India’s maritime zone without permission. New Delhi conveyed its concerns over the passage of a 9,000-tonne guided missile destroyer through India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The US 7th Fleet said in a statement that the USS John Paul Jones had “asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent, consistent with international law.”

Delhi should convey its displeasure to the US in no uncertain terms, especially with reference to the skewed definition of ‘innocent passage’ by the US Department of Defence (DoD), assuming blanket power for “all ships, including warships, regardless of cargo, armament, or means of propulsion enjoying the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea in accordance with international law, for which neither prior notification nor authorization is required.”

The passage of a foreign ship is considered ‘innocent’ “so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order, or security of the coastal State’, in this case, India. The Biden administration, and more so the Pentagon, should remember that India is a key member of the Quad, which shares common interests and concerns as far as the challenge to the emerging global order is concerned.

In fact, the ground reality is that India is the only dependable partner for the US on its Quad agenda and for a practical solution to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The Pentagon does not make public how many ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’ (FONOPs) it undertakes in a year, but most are conducted by US Navy ships to challenge claims on waters that are international by law and assert its right to navigate and facilitate “the global mobility of US forces.” Some three months before the FONOP off Lakshadweep, the USS John S McCain conducted one in December 2020 near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. It was a show of strength and a signal to Beijing that the US Navy can intervene in the contested maritime waters any time to establish the rule of law and freedom of navigation, thus rubbishing China’s claims in the area. In all, between October 2019 and September 2020, US forces operationally challenged 28 different “excessive maritime claims” made by 19 countries.

China took strong exception to the Pentagon’s “unpredictable operations for predictable strategy” policy by which the US not only asserts its hegemonic status but also counters China’s claim to global power status.

The US and China held a high-level meeting in Alaska in March, ostensibly to reset bilateral relations under the Biden administration. But going by the tone and tenor of the talks, it would be an understatement to say that it was a war of words. While the Chinese leadership accused the US of instigating its allies to “wage a war on China,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken listed America’s concerns, such as China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, cyber-attacks on the US, economic coercion of its allies and, above all, posing a threat to the rules-based global order. He virtually accused China of being a threat to global stability.

In this background, the visit of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to New Delhi should be seen as a positive development, interpreted as the Biden administration’s readiness to trust India as its security partner.

The India-US camaraderie has been on an upswing since 2014, with the signing of a series of defence cooperation agreements deepening direct military-to-military coordination and mutual assistance through networking. The two countries inked defence deals worth nearly $3 billion while India-US bilateral trade on military merchandise shot up to $15 billion in a decade from practically nil. Although general trade matters between the two countries continue to be a contentious issue, the security cooperation framework, hinging on military deals, seems to be on track, considering the common China challenge. The US was closely watching the recent conflict situation in Ladakh between India and China.

Besides trade matters, there are other areas of differences between India and the US. Disagreements over data-sharing, tariffs and climate change-related issues are non-conventional areas while sanctions on Iran and Myanmar and frowning upon the S-400 deal with Russia are conventional security and strategy matters that are major irritants in the relationship.

The US expects members of the Quad to conduct the security dialogue more seriously to draw up an action plan against China’s forays into areas hitherto dominated by the US. India would prefer to engage with the Quad as a security forum but also more as a cooperative platform on emerging issues and to look for issue-based solutions rather than making it a stand-alone anti-China coalition.

This, however, should not prevent Delhi from seeking to develop India into a manufacturing hub for the world and reducing the dependence of the US industry on Chinese manufacturing facilities. It will be a challenging task to do this solely on our terms without compromising on our strategic autonomy, which has been the hallmark of our engagement with the US.

Freedom of navigation is one of the core principles of international laws that guarantee free passage, use of ports, and loading and unloading of goods and passengers, formalised by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Ironically, while the US cites the UNCLOS to assert its freedom of navigation and challenge “authoritarian and excessive maritime claims” through FONOPs, it has itself not yet ratified UNCLOS.

India is committed to the establishment of a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”, which will be the bulwark of the new global order sans hegemons and authoritarian regimes. The US should respect Delhi’s strategic autonomy and learn to treat India as a strategic partner in progress and in forging a new global security order, not a sidekick to its global policing role.