Transatlantic Take

U.S.-India Cooperation on Indo-Pacific Security

Nilanthi Samaranayake
5 min read
This article is a part of Agenda 2021, an edited series where experts provide ideas for strengthening U.S.-India and

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.

The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy framed the U.S.-China relationship in terms of great-power competition. Although the Biden administration’s strategy toward the Indo-Pacific is not yet clear, it is difficult to imagine it departing significantly from this framework in any enduring way. Over the last decade, a broad-based competitive dynamic across multiple dimensions has defined the U.S.-China relationship. As a result, the work that has gone into the Indo-Pacific strategy over the past four years is likely to continue. Crafting effective U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific will need to be part of a global approach by the Biden administration to strategic competition with China and Russia. There are areas for cooperation with India—including alongside European powers—but also some challenges that they will need to navigate.

First, India’s threat perceptions of China have also evolved. For several years there has been heightened tension between India and China, especially along their contested border, as well as a deepening of the U.S.-India strategic relationship. The United States is likely to pursue an incremental approach to security cooperation with India, but U.S. policymakers should also begin to formulate long-term goals. The United States expects that India will continue to stick to the path of deeper security engagement. This includes working multilaterally with U.S. allies. For example, the MALABAR 2020 naval exercise achieved a milestone with India inviting Australia to participate for the first time since 2007. The United States will want Australia to again be included again in this high-profile exercise this year.

As their relationship has soared to new heights the pattern for much of the past two decades has been for the United States to keep pushing India out of its strategic comfort zone. They signed the latest in a series of foundational defense agreements last October. The U.S.-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue was the culmination of years of effort from Washington’s perspective. This year, the United States could begin laying the foundation to seek an agreement to permit its military to visit India, as it has done in recent years with Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Navy-to-navy engagement has driven much of the strategic cooperation between the United States and India. While the expansion of naval cooperation has been positive overall for the relationship, the prospects for cooperation between the other military services have lagged by comparison. The United States should devote greater attention to developing bilateral air force, army, marines, special forces, and coast guard engagements in 2021.

Second, while the space for bilateral cooperation remains large, the United States and India will confront challenges this year. At present, they are the two countries worst-affected by the coronavirus pandemic. How their governments address the domestic public-health challenges while balancing their pandemic diplomacy with strategic partners will be an issue that they need to navigate with each other. On the defense front, Washington’s recent imposition under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act of sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system raises questions in New Delhi about how the Biden administration will view India’s purchase of the same system.

Third, beyond bilateral cooperation, proposals such as the Summit for Democracy, a D10, and Quad Plus share a common theme: expanding the membership of existing institutions and frameworks to include more like-minded partners. This trend can be seen in the larger context of emerging multinational responses to the threats from China and Russia, and it is reinforced by the progress made by the Quad over the past four years. India appears to be open to expanding its network of partners, which includes U.S. allies such as France and the United Kingdom. While U.S. policymakers too often conceive of these close allies in a transatlantic context, India recognizes their Indo-Pacific interests and operations. For example, in the past two annual Raisina Dialogues, India has included on its panel of Quad military leaders the heads of the French and U.K. navies.

While U.S. policymakers too often conceive of these close allies in a transatlantic context, India recognizes their Indo-Pacific interests and operations.

Given this backdrop of interests, alliances, and partnerships, there are many ideas that can foster U.S.-India-Europe cooperation. If the Quad Plus grouping begun by the Trump administration as a coronavirus coordination response group continues into the Biden administration, the United States could add France and the United Kingdom to it. The United States and India also could encourage France—as chair of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium through 2022—to place more emphasis on the concern about the grey zone activities discussed in the English translation of France’s Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will transit the Indo-Pacific region during its first overseas deployment this year. Such deployments to the region by the French and navies suggest the possibility for including them in the MALABAR exercise as it continues to evolve and expand its participation.

The U.S.-India relationship is set to grow over the next decade. The officials in the Biden administration are well equipped to propel it forward. They will need to manage the relationship in the context of more focus on great-power competition between the United States and Russia, which may pose short-term challenges. Yet the range of cooperative opportunities as detailed above suggests overall strategic and operational convergence between the United States and India. As the Pentagon conducts its Global Force Posture Review, Washington will need to work closely with India and European allies to leverage their collective, deepening engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

Nilanthi Samaranayake is the director of the Strategy and Policy Analysis program at CNA, a non-profit research organization. She is the author of numerous publications on Indian Ocean security issues, including a 2020 book chapter on “India’s Naval and Maritime Power,” and studies U.S. alliances and strategic partnerships globally. The views expressed are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which she is affiliated.

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