A More Balanced U.S.-India Strategic Partnership

Despite turbulent politics in both nations and a festering trade dispute, the defense and foreign ministers of the United States and India came together in Washington, D.C. on December 18 and took new steps to secure a long-term security partnership. Notably, the list of agreements in the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue highlight an increased focus on cooperation in the Indian Ocean—an increasingly contested maritime domain. The two sides also discussed important agreements that go beyond security cooperation, expanding the promise of the new summit format.
This week’s dialogue was the second minister-level meeting in the new 2+2 format. Last year’s summit, held in New Delhi, set a high bar. The two nations finalized the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (COMCASA), a military technology sharing pact. They also announced a new tri-service exercise and agreed India would get increased access to U.S. Central Command—providing more balance to the “Indo-Pacific” partnership.
There have been substantial personnel changes in the last year. Of the four participants in this year’s dialogue, only one—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—participated in last year’s summit, though the other participants are not strangers to both each other or the relationship. Indian minister of external affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar has engaged the United States heavily during his long career in the Indian foreign service and had a week-long visit to Washington in September, during which he delivered a speech here at CSIS. Indian minister of defence Rajnath Singh and Defense Secretary Mark Esper met in November at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus in Bangkok. The senior working-level leaders of both nations meet regularly to fulfill past promises and tee up new areas of cooperation.

Choppy Domestic Politics

The 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue had profound political backdrops in both nations. In the United States, President Trump lost an impeachment vote in the House of Representatives on the same day. In India, nationwide protests have broken out in reaction to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which offers preferential immigration to non-Muslims from India’s three Muslim-majority neighboring nations. Beyond domestic politics, the Trump administration has increased tensions with longtime allies in recent months, notably by pressing Japan and Korea to dramatically increase payments to the United States for military deployments in those nations. The Modi government’s Hindu-tinged agenda in its second term has attracted plenty of negative criticism from U.S. congressional leaders and multilateral organizations, including the United Nations, which termed the CAA “fundamentally discriminatory.”

What Happened This Year?

This year’s dialogue was successful: multiple new agreements were outlined that will strengthen U.S.-India strategic ties and expand cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. This is critical as China increases its presence in this region. Some highlights included:
Deepened cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.
  • United States agreed to join the Milan naval exercise in 2020: India’s annual multilateral naval exercise is held off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the mouth of the Straits of Malacca.
  • Enhanced cooperation with U.S. Central Command and African Command: While no specific steps were articulated in the joint statement, the desire to expand strategic cooperation beyond engagements led by the U.S. Indo Pacific Command is promising.
  • Explored the placement of a U.S. liaison officer at India’s Information Fusion Centre: While this announcement was only to “explore,” the fact that it was included in the joint statement shows that it is under serious consideration. Cooperation in maritime domain awareness, particularly in the Indian Ocean region, is consistently noted as a helpful, positive step in practical defense cooperation.
  • Exercise Tiger Triumph to be held annually: The United States and India announced that the new tri-service military exercise will be held annually.
Enhanced security partnerships.
  • Signed the Industrial Security Annex (ISA): The ISA establishes security protocols to allow the exchange of sensitive defense technologies with the Indian private sector, an important step for future co-development.
  • Pledged to train peacekeepers from Indo-Pacific nations: The United States and India pledged to pick up joint activities to train peacekeeping forces from nations in the Indo-Pacific Region.
  • Installation of secure communications facilities between military branches: The two governments noted the importance of quickly establishing secure communications facilities between both nations’ armies and air forces.
Increased non-security agreements:
  • Agreement on water cooperation: A new memorandum of agreement between India’s Ministry of Jal Shakti and the U.S. Geological Survey will expand cooperation on water quality and management. It is difficult to overstate the potential of cooperation on water. It has become the newest “mission mode” of the Modi government, with important social and commercial promise.
  • United States to join the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI): The CDRI is an Indian-led international coalition launched in September 2019 to promote cooperation in disaster resiliency.
  • U.S.-India Young Innovators Initiative: A new program that will help innovators from both countries engage the other nation through internships and cultural exchanges.
  • U.S.-India parliamentary exchange: There are regular U.S. congressional delegations to India. Reciprocal visits by members of Indian parliament are intermittent, especially since the Indo-U.S. Forum of Parliamentarians has slowed its function. As bills important to the relationship come before the two countries’ respective legislative bodies more often than ever, expanding parliamentary visits is important.

Where Does the Relationship Go from Here?

Some critics would certainly like to see the United States hold back on cooperation with India as the Modi government presses forward with a sectarian agenda. But such a view is short-sighted. Security challenges in the Indo-Pacific will worsen in the coming years, and India should remain a part of the solution. Expanding U.S.-India cooperation involves finding common ground both in terms of the types of practical cooperation posed as well as the geographical space where cooperation is imperative. Twenty years ago, India was the dominant player in the Indian Ocean and would have been uncomfortable with an expanded U.S. military presence in the region. Today, the Indian Ocean is contested waters and finding ways to increase U.S.-India cooperation in this important maritime domain is crucial to the growing security partnership.
Richard Rossow is a senior adviser and holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 
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