The United States, India, and the Future of the Indo-Pacific Strategy
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The United States, India, and the Future of the Indo-Pacific Strategy

by Walter C. Ladwig III and Anit Mukherjee
June 20, 2019

The U.S. Department of Defense, on June 1, released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which reiterates U.S. commitments to the region’s long-term peace and prosperity through partnerships. As guest editors for a recent issue of Asia Policy, Walter C. Ladwig III and Anit Mukherjee worked with several authors to examine the opportunities and limitations of Indo-U.S. cooperation in different subregions of Asia. In this commentary, they present some of their main findings in the context of the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.

On the eve of the 2019 Shangri-La dialogue, the U.S. Department of Defense released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which reiterates U.S. commitments to the region’s long-term peace and prosperity. The “bedrock” of U.S. strategy to achieve that aim is the deepening and expanding of U.S. partnerships with friends and allies across the region. Principal among these partners is India. The report’s release coincides with the conclusion of India’s general election that returned Prime Minister Narendra Modi to office with an increased majority. Modi has been personally committed to strengthening ties with the United States and his resounding victory provides an opportunity for the prime minister to replicate the “extraordinary international activism” of his first term with the support of veteran diplomat S. Jaishankar at the Ministry of External Affairs.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report proclaims that “the United States and India share a common outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” which might leave one bullish about the prospects of bilateral cooperation toward the realization of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Yet, at present, there are growing points of tension in the Indo-U.S. relationship. The Trump administration’s decision to rescind India’s developing country market access under the General System of Preferences is a largely symbolic act that only affects 10% of Indian exports to the United States and imposes a mere $190 million in tariffs. Nevertheless, this issue has the potential to distract officials in both capitals and negatively color public perceptions of the bilateral relationship. The administration’s move is accompanied by frictions over U.S. sanctions on Iran and the potential for sanctions on India’s proposed purchase of Russian-built S-400 air defense systems. Many of these issues are beyond the remit of the U.S. Department of Defense; nevertheless, they raise questions about the ability to cooperate with India to execute the vision articulated in the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.

As guest editors for a recent issue of Asia Policy, we worked with a number of authors to examine the opportunities and limitations of Indo-U.S. cooperation in different subregions of Asia, which can shed light on this topic. In this commentary, we present some of our main findings and discuss the overall shape of the relationship.


First and foremost, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Indo-U.S. relationship is a strategic partnership, which is not simply a synonym for an alliance. Unlike alliances, which can require binding responses by parties to specific events, strategic partnerships involve a much lower level of commitment. Moreover, the interests of the two sides in such a relationship may overlap or diverge depending on the issue at hand. With its traditional aversion to alliances, India, has embraced the ambiguity of strategic partnerships in its contemporary diplomacy. On most counts, however, from joint military exercises and staff-level talks to intelligence sharing to diplomatic consultations, the United States is “India’s most important partner on global issues.” In turn, as the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report notes, the naming of India as a “major defense partner” and the establishment of the U.S.-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue are part of an effort to put the bilateral defense relationship “on par with that of the United States’ closest allies and partners.” Despite these achievements, Cara Abercrombie contends that the U.S.-India military partnership has not developed the “habits of cooperation” that the United States typically enjoys with its closest partners. Drawing on her personal experience managing the India portfolio at various levels for the U.S. Department of Defense, she provides the most comprehensive analysis of the military-to-military relationship to date. Abercrombie argues that although the defense and security dimension of the strategic partnership has demonstrated significant progress in recent years, the overall output resulting from numerous dialogues, military exercises, and engagements—as well as the tangible impact they have had on Indian and U.S. security objectives—are less than one would expect. The bilateral relationship still lacks the elements of a mature partnership that are critical to enabling the type of cooperation envisioned. This is not entirely surprising given that India’s security partnership with the United States presents a departure from its traditional foreign relations. In turn, the United States is also learning how to adapt its established patterns of bilateral cooperation to a model that is acceptable to India.

The fact that the Indo-U.S. relationship is a strategic partnership means its contours are rife with ambiguity, which has resulted in differing expectations from the two sides. A major line of effort in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy Report is expanding interoperability with allies and partners to “ensure that our respective defense enterprises can work together effectively during day-to-day competition, crisis, and conflict.” The United States presumes that over time India will grow more comfortable with such bilateral military cooperation. In contrast, New Delhi appears to want to consult and coordinate with the United States on defense matters of shared concern but operate in parallel rather than jointly, achieving the benefits of cooperation while preserving strategic autonomy.

Bilateral military exercises across all three services continue to grow in scope and sophistication, leading many observers to note that the Indian military carries out more joint exercises with the U.S. armed forces than it does with any other military in the world. This fact, however, obscures an uncomfortable truth: the interactions are far too infrequent to foster interoperability. In absolute numbers, the U.S. military conducts more exercises with tiny Singapore as well as with treaty allies such as Japan than it does with India. Consequently, Abercrombie contends that the United States and India would still struggle to execute combined operations. A key reason for this state of affairs is that while the United States emphasizes interoperability and depth of engagement, the Indian Ministry of Defence sees exercises as a means of building trust with foreign partners and instead emphasizes breadth, seeking engagement with many but interoperability with none.

Lengthy bureaucratic reviews in both countries can give the other side the impression of not being as serious about the strategic partnership. In the United States, this often lies in the realm of export-control decisions, while in India, the need for senior officials in the Ministry of Defence to personally approve an officer’s engagement with a foreign counterpart restricts opportunities to build personal relationships with strategic partners. Consequently, the natural comfort with bilateral cooperation that characterizes other relationships has yet to emerge. In mature strategic partnerships, officials—from desk officers all the way to the top of the government—formally and informally engage with their counterparts on a regular basis. In contrast, Indian and U.S. officials do not intuitively engage with each other outside of formal dialogues or structured interactions.

To ensure the bilateral relationship receives the proper levels of attention, Abercrombie suggests that officials at the undersecretary level in the U.S. Departments of Defense and State be named as India leads, overseeing the assistant secretaries who manage relationships on a day-to-day basis. On the Indian side, the assignment of additional staff focused on the United States to the Ministry of External Affairs’ Joint Secretary (Americas) desk, the Ministry of Defence’s Office of the Joint Secretary for Planning and International Cooperation, and the defense attaché’s office in Washington, D.C., could ensure there are enough personnel in place to move the various dialogues and bilateral initiatives forward while cultivating informal contacts with American counterparts outside of structured interactions. Until and unless the United States and India routinely engage one another at all levels within government—from the strategic to the tactical—and build habits of cooperation, the defense relationship will develop erratically.


Despite the positive assessments presented in the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, Sinderpal Singh offers a skeptical view of the potential for U.S.-India cooperation across the region. He argues that overly optimistic evaluations of the Indo-Pacific as an area of cooperation between Washington and New Delhi neglect several significant divergences between the two states. Fundamentally, India and the United States have differing geographic conceptions of what constitutes the Indo-Pacific. The United States continues to conceptualize the sum total of the region as the area of operation for Indo-Pacific Command, spanning from the west coast of India in the Indian Ocean to the west coast of the United States in the Pacific Ocean. India, by contrast, regards “Indo” to denote the whole of the Indian Ocean, stretching from South Africa to Australia. The western Indian Ocean—including the Persian Gulf—is arguably the most strategically important subregion of India’s Indo-Pacific but does not feature in the U.S. conception of the same. This divergence in strategic mapping is significant because it signals divergent perceptions and strategies between the two countries. The United States consistently has supported a bigger military role for India in the Pacific Ocean, whereas India—mindful of its relative military capabilities and core interests—deems the Indian Ocean as a clear priority over the Pacific. If India is a central partner for the United States in the Indo-Pacific, the regional strategy must take into account the aims and objectives of both parties. This means that U.S. treatment of the Indo-Pacific must be broadened beyond the area of responsibility of Indo-Pacific Command with its bias toward East Asia. Not only is the western Indian Ocean a primary region of strategic and economic importance to New Delhi, but China’s growing presence in this area necessitates an integrated approach to the subregion. India’s dual hatting of its defense attaché in Bahrain to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command is a first step, but both U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command must be part of a pan-Indian Ocean engagement strategy with India that is coordinated through U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.


Trade and India’s defense links with Russia are likely to be an ongoing point of friction between Washington and New Delhi. However, based on field research and interviews, Sumitha Narayanan Kutty dispels the myth that policy differences over Iran are a major impediment to the U.S.-India bilateral relationship. Instead, she contends that both countries have accommodated each other’s strategic interests and taken the long view when dealing with their differences to avoid major disruptions in ties. They do so through direct, private negotiations at the highest levels of leadership while downplaying their disagreements in public. As a regional power with global aspirations, India is willing to adapt and to absorb certain costs, such as the U.S. sanctions against Iranian oil imports in 2012 and 2018, in return for U.S. accommodation of its own priorities, such as completion of the Chabahar port project. Kutty argues that the United States should not expect India to abandon the rhetoric of strategic autonomy—deliberately refraining from aligning with any one country—however, Washington should recognize that, in practice, India has proved willing to meet the United States halfway on issues such as Iran. Moreover, Washington should acknowledge that not only does India’s presence in Iran contribute to a balancing strategy against China in the region, investment in the Chabahar port and trilateral connectivity initiative contributes to Afghanistan’s economic security and should be viewed as complementing U.S. strategy in South Asia.


Beyond India, the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report indicates that United States seeks to “broaden and strengthen” its partnerships in South Asia with countries including Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Despite the conventional wisdom that India resents and resists external interference in its “sphere of influence,” Constantino Xavier’s examination of U.S. and Indian policies toward many of these countries reveals a “hidden history” of Indo-U.S. policy coordination in South Asia. Although different strategic priorities, capabilities, and perceptional challenges have, at times, hindered the alignment of U.S. and Indian policies, his archival research and interviews dispel assumptions about constant bilateral conflict. Instead, Xavier identifies a range of constructive engagements between officials on both sides. With China’s gradual emergence as a South Asian actor, India is increasingly willing to join forces with outside powers to pursue shared objectives. This opens a window of opportunity for greater U.S.-Indian convergence in South Asia, a pivotal region in both of their visions for the Indo-Pacific. While in the past New Delhi’s and Washington’s policies toward the region’s third countries have often coexisted, both sides are now more willing to join efforts to coordinate and cooperate across South Asia and the Bay of Bengal. This history of accommodating dynamics, Xavier argues, can pave the way for more sustained and closer Indo-U.S. engagement. To deepen cooperation between the two partners in and around the subcontinent, he recommends that the United States and India continue improving communication channels as well as sustain investment in public diplomacy and outreach across South Asia, stimulating wider domestic debates about the long-term costs of China’s influence.


Considering the aforementioned Pacific bias in the U.S. vision of the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia is a primary theater of interest. Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia in particular are identified in the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report as crucial for ensuring stability and economic growth in the broader region. Among all the Asian subregions, Southeast Asia is often described as the most likely region for meaningful Indo-U.S. cooperation. As RAND analysts argued in 2015, the “world’s two largest democracies have core security interests that show far more significant points of overlap than of divergence….but in few places is the degree of harmony as great as in Southeast Asia.” With India’s Look East policy meeting the U.S. rebalance in Southeast Asia, there is a seemingly perfect convergence of regional objectives between the two countries. If India and the United States cannot operationalize cooperation here, it is hard to see how it will happen in other regions where interests are far less congruent. Although there have been extensive diplomatic consultations on Southeast Asia, we argue substantive collaboration between the United States and India is constrained by several factors:

  • India’s requirement to prioritize South Asian foreign policy challenges;
  • a fear of provoking China;
  • an institutional mismatch in the foreign and security policy bureaucracies of the two countries; and
  • the possibility of an adverse reaction from other countries in the region.

Consequently, for the time being, Washington and New Delhi are more likely to work in parallel rather than jointly evolving a “common strategy” toward the region. It is still possible for the two to create synergies, however, by enhancing the coordination of these individual regional efforts. Toward that end, the United States and India should intensify their bilateral diplomatic and military exchanges and establish a dedicated forum to share views and information on developments in Southeast Asia. Strengthening the regional security architecture should be a major focus of each country’s efforts. In particular, India and the United States should each concentrate on assisting the creation of a region-wide maritime domain awareness system, as well as working in parallel to develop the capacity of partner navies and maritime law enforcement agencies. Finally, in partnership with like-minded third countries such as Japan, connectivity and infrastructure projects should be a renewed focus of Indian and U.S. efforts in the region.


In spite of the convergent perspectives identified by the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, it is inevitable that the United States and India will face challenges in their bilateral relationship on topics such as immigrant visas and trade policy, not to mention the seeming incompatibility of President Trump‘s “America first” campaign and Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” campaign. There are also constraints that mean India’s emergence as a regional partner will not occur as quickly as some in Washington would hope. The existing territorial disputes on its borders with China and Pakistan, as well as insurgency in Kashmir, the Northeast, and elsewhere, inhibit India’s ability to give sustained attention to other regions of the Indo-Pacific. The limited size and capacity of India’s Ministries of External Affairs and Defence also constrain the country’s ability to play a bigger role across the region. Despite these obstacles, however, the United States and India are coming together and learning to cooperate with each other. The setting up of an Indo-Pacific wing in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in April 2019 is an encouraging sign that India is more than willing to play a greater, more coherent role in the broader region. Perhaps more importantly, the two countries are increasingly enmeshed in a societal people-to-people relationship to a degree that is perhaps unprecedented among major powers. As all our contributors argue, translating converging interests into joint efforts to positively shape events on the ground requires far greater levels of consultation and engagement, not to mention trust, across different bureaucracies in both countries. The sine qua non for all this, of course, will be to maintain constant communication at all levels. Ensuring a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific is a multilateral effort, but such a future is unlikely to materialize without close partnership between the United States and India.

Walter C. Ladwig III is an Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Anit Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. They were guest editors for a special issue of Asia Policy, which examined the U.S.-India strategic partnership and its prospects for bilateral cooperation in Asia.