U.S.-India and Europe-India Cooperation on Indo-Pacific Security
This article is a part of Agenda 2021, an edited series where experts provide ideas for strengthening U.S.-India and Europe-India cooperation in five different policy areas. It is part of GMF’s India Trilateral Forum, conducted in partnership with the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation.
While the Biden administration will no doubt pursue its own foreign policy priorities, the inheritance of the Indo-Pacific as a theatre for collaboration with India will remain important within their broader strategic collaboration. The challenge will be in implementing or operationalizing the converging areas of interests between Delhi and Washington in the region. To begin with, they have different geographic priorities. For Delhi, the Indian Ocean will remain a key priority area while the Pacific will continue to dominate Washington’s thinking. However, there is a convergence of interests as far as strategic threats are concerned since both face a common competitor in China.
While they will continue to share views and concerns on broader issues such as the rule of law, democracy, and regional institutions, it is the maritime domain where India and the United States will share intent, interests, and priorities within their own Indo-Pacific visions. the Indian Ocean emerges as a common theatre of interest for India, the United States and Europe. While for Delhi, it is its home theatre and its area of responsibility, key energy lines transiting the region make it a priority for all countries dependent on these routes for their energy supply. As such, the Indian Ocean assumes a central position in geopolitical competition where key actors compete to gain leverage and strategic advantage over each other.
While there has been a steady concern regarding Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean, the Ladakh border standoff from the last year dramatically accelerated the conversation in Delhi about China and strategic priorities. As a result there has been an increase in attention on India’s strengths in the Indian Ocean as a pressure point for on China. The Indian navy will take advantage of this to address some of its capability gaps in the region. As Sino-Indian competition spills over there, the need to strengthen India’s ability to track and monitor sub-surface vessels will be a priority. For the United States, as it navigates through its many commitments from the Middle East to the Pacific, India’s importance as a strategic partner in the Indian Ocean will only deepen.
As Sino-Indian competition spills over there, the need to strengthen India’s ability to track and monitor sub-surface vessels will be a priority.
Additionally, as Washington debates the idea of an Indian Ocean fleet, conversations and collaborations with India will become a necessity. For both countries, being aware of Chinese movements and developments in the region will be a common concern creating an opportunity to collaborate on maritime domain awareness (MDA), information and intelligence sharing, and anti-submarine warfare (ASW).
To maximize limited resources, India and the United States could look to utilizing strategic assets in the Indian Ocean for MDA and ASW missions. For instance, they could conduct joint MDA and ASW missions using common platforms such as the U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft. Such operations with a focused mission allow for better interoperability and exchange of lessons on areas that are crucial for both navies. MDA and ASW missions create awareness and prepare India and its partners for responding to new developments in the Indian Ocean. The recent refueling of a U.S. Navy P-8 on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands certainly reflects a new era in the India-U.S. relationship as well as the political will and intent to work together in the maritime domain. India and the United States should now take advantage of the foundational agreements for using strategic islands such as Andaman, Diego Garcia, or even Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands to strengthen their capabilities in the region on MDA, ASW, and information sharing. Although there is a political difference between Washington and New Delhi regarding the dispute over the Chagos Archipelago, there are ways to overcome such differences.
While India and United States focus on specific military and strategic collaboration, the Indian Ocean is undergoing considerable geopolitical changes. China’s rise as an alternative security player to India, the United States, France and United Kingdom in the region complicates the geopolitical dynamics there. A significant change is the overlapping strategic implications of traditional and non-traditional security issues. If India and United States are concerned with MDA and ASW, other littoral countries and small island states face more non-traditional threats such as climate change, illegal fishing, and natural disasters. While India and France have undertaken efforts to engage with and around the island states, there remains a perception gap on security challenges. If the goal is to remain engaged with the region and retain its importance, India will have to find the right balance between its military and non-traditional security engagements. As such, engagements with European nations and even with the European Union provides an opportunity for India in the Indian Ocean. India and European nations should look to leverage existing regional initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilience Infrastructure to engage and offer practical solutions to non-traditional security threats in the region. Europe’s experience and technical knowledge in executing projects on blue economy and sustainable development will allow for realistic deliverables addressing issues of concern in the region. India could utilize its Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative in collaboration with European nations to address existential threats such as natural disasters and to create a model for sustainable development. India and European partners could also undertake capacity-building efforts through training maritime forces and law-enforcement bodies to better prepare and respond to traditional and non-traditional threats. Training with island and littoral states on issues of law enforcement and security allows India and Europe to act on issues of common interests such as the importance of regional institutions and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
India and European nations should look to leverage existing regional initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilience Infrastructure to engage and offer practical solutions to non-traditional security threats in the region.
In the last few years, India, the United States, and European countries, as well as Australia and Japan have established the importance of the Indo-Pacific and their converging interests. It is time to deliver and act on the expressed intent and priorities in the Indo-Pacific. To do so, Delhi and its partners could utilize existing platforms and initiatives to collaborate on issues of common interests ranging from blue economy, capacity building, anti-submarine warfare, maritime domain awareness, and information sharing. While overarching commonalities such as the rule of law and maritime security remains important, India and its partners could narrow down the issues of priorities within the announced initiatives and platforms, and deliver actionable and meaningful projects.
Darshana M. Baruah is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Tokyo. She is currently writing a book on the strategic significance of islands in the Indian Ocean region.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.