With China’s growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean region, the Joe Biden administration in the US sees India as its most important partner to counter Beijing’s ambitions.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called India an “increasingly important partner among today’s rapidly shifting international dynamic”, saying the bilateral relationship is a “stronghold of a free and open Indo-Pacific region”, reported The Standard.
Recently, Austin met Defence Minister Rajnath Singh over the weekend on his first foreign trip in the role as the two sides concluded talks on defense cooperation. Austin also visited Japan and South Korea last week, Washington’s closest military allies in Asia.
“It’s important that the secretary of defence has made a trip to India on his first trip to Asia, along with Japan and South Korea,” Dhruva Jaishankar, Executive Director at think tank Observer Research Foundation America said.
He also said the Biden administration’s investment in the Quad — the informal strategic alliance between the US, India, Australia and Japan — is equally important.
Beijing has significantly expanded its engagements in the Indian Ocean over the last three decades and has been especially active since 2008.
China set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in 2017 and has invested in developing, managing or acquiring strategically located ports in countries surrounding India, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
“There is a growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region,” said Arun Singh, a former Indian ambassador to the United States.
According to ORFA’s Jaishankar, India’s navy has also increased its patrols over the last few years as New Delhi has taken a much more activist approach to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief across the Indian Ocean region.
As China and India more frequently bicker over the area, there is bound to be some natural convergence between New Delhi and Washington, he said. While it is not as significant as its presence in the Pacific Ocean, the United States does have a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean region through military bases in the Middle East, Djibouti and Diego Garcia island, which is part of British Indian Ocean Territory, Jaishankar explained.
The US-India relationship has developed in “significant leaps and bounds” over past years, in part driven by shared concerns about China, according to Jaishankar.
“We are at a stage where, while they are not allies, the US and India conduct a significant number of military exercises between themselves and with other partners involving all three military services,” he said.
This includes a trilateral naval exercise between the US, Japan and India called the Malabar games. Last year, India also invited Australia to participate.
Under the Donald Trump administration, the US last year had also signed an agreement that grants India access to US satellite data crucial for targeting missiles and other military assets. It was the last of four foundational defence agreements that the US typically signs with close allies which allow for the exchange of sensitive and classified information.
Furthermore, US is becoming a major supplier of military equipment to India, behind Russia, reported The Standard.
India intends to buy 30 armed drones from the US to step up sea and land defenses as tensions with China and Pakistan persist.