Aircraft carriers and warships of Quad countries participate in the second phase of Malabar naval exercise, a joint exercise comprising of India, US, Japan and Australia, in the Northern Arabian Sea

The US official noted that India’s response to the Russian invasion, which is at variance with the reaction of other Quad members, will not be a “significant hindrance” to cooperation within the grouping

NEW DELHI: The United States will work closely with India in the Indian Ocean region to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific and to bolster Indian abilities to project force in the face of increased activity by the Chinese navy, a senior US government official said on Wednesday.

The activities of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in areas ranging from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean fit in with a pattern of behaviour aimed at undermining the rules-based order and trying to change the status quo through coercion, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At the same time, the US is focused on helping India modernise its military and supporting the country’s defence indigenisation agenda as it fits in with American plans to help India’s armed forces move away from dependence on Russian-origin equipment and platforms, the official said. These efforts will also lead to further integration of defence industries of the two sides.

Though India’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been at odds with the reaction of the other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad – Australia, Japan and the US – the official made it clear this wouldn’t become a “significant hindrance” to cooperation within the grouping.

“The operational environment in the Indian Ocean region is changing, in part because of increased PLA activity. That’s an area where we are interested in supporting India’s capabilities and abilities to project forces as well as deepening our own bilateral cooperation, operationally and in the area of information-sharing,” the official said.

“When I look to see what is the PLA doing in the Indian Ocean, what are they doing at the LAC, I see it as part of a pattern of behaviour that is connected to what is happening in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea – which is you have a country with both the intention and the capability to undermine the rules-based order and to try to change the status quo through coercion,” he added.

The US also has concerns about PLA facilities in third countries and “its ability to use economic and military tools for coercive purposes towards regional countries”. The secret security pact signed recently by China and Solomon Islands is “part of a pattern of behaviour” and it is very clear the PLA is “looking for overseas installations wherever it can get them, and that includes South Asia”, the official said.

The official described ties with India as “one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world” and one of the “most consequential” for the Biden administration, and said the American side is very focused on helping India modernise its military and supporting the Indian side’s indigenisation of defence manufacturing.

India’s indigenisation agenda fits in with the move away from Russian equipment, a “trend that is already underway”, and the US “will look for opportunities to support this agenda”, the official pointed out.

India has faced growing pressure from the US over its relationship with Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. US undersecretary for political affairs Victoria Nuland, during a visit to New Delhi in March, hinted at providing Soviet-era equipment and spares to wean India away from Russian military hardware.

Asked specifically if the differences on the Ukraine crisis will affect the working of the Quad, the US official replied: “I don’t think that’s going to be a significant hindrance to cooperation in the Quad. We recognise that India has a long and complicated relationship with Russia.

“We also have an extremely broad relationship with India and which we are working on in a number of issues across the board. Of course, we’re not going to agree on every single issue but we are in close communications on these issues.”

The official further said that “no decisions” had been made by the US on the issue of imposing secondary sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) over India’s $5.4-billion deal to acquire S-400 air defence systems from Russia.

The recent 2+2 meeting of defence and foreign ministers of India and the US has given impetus to efforts to broaden the defence relationship and to work on co-development and joint production of military technologies and platforms. Cooperation will also be expanded to new areas such as artificial intelligence, cyber, space and undersea domain awareness.

Projects will be accelerated under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), and there has been a “very strong signal” from the leadership on both sides to ensure progress, including bureaucratic constraints holding up transfer of technology. The US Office of Naval Research is looking at opportunities to position experts and engineers in India to work with their counterparts on co-development and co-production, the official said.