The India-U.S. Defense Relationship

Commentary | June 12, 2012

Writing for Mail Today, India's former foreign secretary and EWI board member Kanwal Sibal examines the implications of Washington’s “strategic rebalancing” toward the Pacific.


US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's recent visit to India brings to the fore again the question of the depth India should impart to India-US defence ties. Panetta has been explicit about US interest in deepening them.

The itinerary that took him to the US Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii, Singapore, Cam Ranh Bay and Hanoi in Vietnam, New Delhi and Kabul illustrates the new US defence priorities in Asia, a counter "string of pearls" strategy of sorts that includes India.


This new defence strategy, Panetta acknowledged, consists of "rebalancing" towards the Asia-Pacific region, with an expansion of US military partnerships and presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. The US will shift the bulk of its naval fleet including as many as six aircraft carriers to the Pacific Ocean by 2020.

Panetta said candidly in Delhi that defence cooperation with India is a lynchpin in this US strategy. General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has underlined subsequently India's enormously important geostrategic location on the sea lanes of communication from the Mid-east to the Pacific. The Pentagon says it sees India as a net provider of security from the Indian Ocean to Afghanistan and beyond.

In Delhi Panetta spoke publicly of India-US defence relationship becoming more strategic, practical and collaborative through regular defence policy exchanges, military exercises covering all functional areas of naval warfare, prospects for advanced R&D, sharing of new technologies and joint production of defence equipment, besides defence sales and intelligence sharing.

Noting that India will soon have the world's second largest fleet with an expanded reach and ability to rapidly deploy, Panetta visualises a peaceful Indian Ocean region supported by growing Indian capabilities with America making military deployments in the region including rotating marines in Australia and Littoral Combat Ships through Singapore.

These statements and plans make clear that the US pivot towards Asia envisages a buttressing Indian role in it. This pivot aims at re-asserting the American role in the Asia-Pacific region with a view to balancing and countering the rising power of China, as circumstances demand.

US overtures put India in a delicate and difficult situation. The US is changing its geopolitical calculus towards India. Panetta equated US difficulties in dealing with Pakistan with those India faced, disregarding Pakistani sensitivities about western leaders criticising it from Indian soil. He welcomed a more active political and economic Indian role in Afghanistan, including training of the Afghan security forces.

India cannot easily spurn defence advances by the world's foremost military power in a changing global context. India has its own concerns about China's adversarial policies. It cannot unreservedly grasp the US hand either, as it is independently engaging China and has convergence of interests with it on issues of global governance where India has differences with the West.

We have to factor in our response our relations with Russia, our principal defence partner, the growing strategic understanding between Russia and China, and our dialogue with both countries in the Russia-India-China (RIC) format and that of BRICS. Any perception that just as Russia is moving closer to China because of US/NATO pressure we are moving closer to the US would be politically undesirable.

This calls for a very sophisticated handling of the strategic advantage of strengthening defence ties with the US and the strategic disadvantage of being dragooned into US interventionist policies across the globe. The challenge is how to separate Indian interests from those of the US while deepening the strategic partnership between the two countries.


Understanding the dynamics of the USChina relationship is extremely important. This relationship is multi-dimensional, with twin tracks of cooperation and competition. Economically and financially cooperation predominates, despite periodic US complaints about China's trade and exchange rate policies; politically and strategically competition is dominant, even if elements in the US, recognising the inevitability of China's rise, talk of joint US-China management of global affairs.

US-China economic interdependence may raise doubts among US allies about the constraints this imposes on US political choices in dealing with China-provoked regional tensions, but the allies also gain freedom to expand economic ties with China as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have done. All sides thus see shared gains in expanding trade exchanges.


On the political and strategic front, the situation is more complex. The US has an established military presence in the region, with several alliance relationships. The US may tolerate losing economic power to China in relative terms as part of win-win arrangements, but not political power as there are no win-win arrangements there and no shared gains for US allies in security terms.

The US pivot towards Asia seems therefore a defensive move, to prevent China from materially changing the political and strategic status quo in the region in its favour in the way the economic one has shifted to China's advantage.

Panetta noted in Delhi that as the US and India deepen their defence partnership, both will also seek to strengthen their relations with China. He welcomed the rise of a strong and prosperous China that "respects and enforces the international norms that have governed this region for six decades"- a phrase encapsulating the core aim of the Asia pivot.

The US-India-China trilateral dialogue proposed by the US State Department is a subtle way to attenuate Indian concerns about the US incorporating India into its check-China strategy more than it would want. It would, by balancing the RIC dialogue, dilute its unique importance.

A pragmatic Indian response to US defence overtures is required- cautious and measured, but not negative.