As shared concerns in Asia loom, India-US defence ties grow closer despite sticking points in other aspects of bilateral relations

Washington: As Indian helicopters touched down this week on the deck of a US warship in the Bay of Bengal, what was billed as a modest military simulation became the latest sign of progress in a growing great power partnership in Asia.

The United States and India on Thursday will conclude the first land, sea and air exercise in their history of military exchanges, a step forward in White House efforts to deepen defence cooperation between the countries.

The exercise, Tiger Triumph, brought together 500 US Marines and sailors and about 1,200 Indian soldiers, sailors and air force personnel to train side by side for nine days. While the official focus was to prepare for rescue operations and disaster response, it also included search-and-seizure training and live-fire drills.

The staging of the joint training completes one of the goals of a defense pact the two countries signed last year. In addition to the exercise, the agreement allows for the transfer of advanced weaponry and communications systems to India.

The only other country with which India has held similar exercises involving three branches of its armed forces is Russia. During the Cold War, India was closer to the Soviet Union than to the United States, and much of the Indian arsenal still harks back to that era.

"You hear officials say now that the US exercises more with India than any other non-NATO partner," said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "You would never have imagined that 20 years ago."

 As shared concerns in Asia loom, India-US defence ties grow closer despite sticking points in other aspects of bilateral relations

Narendra Modi and Donald Trump at India-US bilateral meet in New York. Twitter @NarendraModi

The drills ending this week followed the 15th cycle of a separate training mission, the Yudh Abhyas exercise, an annual peacekeeping practice between the two countries' armies that was held this year in September at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. It involved close to 700 troops.

As the White House grapples with security challenges in Asia, including nuclear talks with North Korea and fears of growing Chinese technological prowess, meetings with leaders from the Asia-Pacific region have been a common sight on President Donald Trump's calendar. State visits with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia have both ranked among Trump's most visible diplomatic events over the past year.

But increasingly in recent years, the Trump administration has placed its bets that India, which has historically represented a regional challenge in its own right, is quickly becoming a key player in the larger US strategy in Asia. That does not mean significant issues do not bedevil the India-US relationship, in particular the tense standoff over Kashmir with Pakistan. Both nations have nuclear arms.

The White House has not been quiet about its view that US allies around the world have been remiss in contributing fairly to global security efforts. In India, though, it has found a partner that many officials believe is both willing and able to play a larger role.

Appearing beside Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India in September at a rally in Houston, Trump heralded the exercise this month as a demonstration of the "dramatic progress of our defence relationship". Joint appearances with Modi have been a mainstay of high-level diplomacy in Trump's tenure, and the president has pursued a stronger military relationship with India even as he has disparaged or cut back on defence ties with traditional allies in Asia.

Before the Group of 20 summit over the summer, Trump questioned the value of the US' mutual defence treaty with Japan, a cornerstone of US defence policy in Asia put in place in 1951 after World War II. And in the months before, the Pentagon repeatedly suspended or scaled back military exercises with South Korea as Trump pursued a nuclear agreement with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un.

The United States and India have long shared common strategic goals and concerns about growing Chinese influence in Asia. But meaningful cooperation has often been sidetracked by points of contention, like India's decision to move ahead with a deal to buy a Russian missile system known as the S-400 in violation of US sanctions. The spectre of Russian weapons sales to an ally has also roiled Washington's relationship with Turkey.

Facing what it sees as threats to the established international order from China, however, the Pentagon has become increasingly concerned about regional stability and more eager to aid in strengthening ties in the region.

After a meeting last week with Japanese leaders in Tokyo, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described security efforts in the Indo-Pacific region as a top concern. "It is the No 1 regional priority for the United States military," he said.

The Trump administration's efforts to woo India are in many ways a continuation of a foreign policy pursued by former Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama. Both Bush and Obama aspired to move closer to India strategically and succeeded measurably in areas like arms sales.

According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), exports of US weapons to India from 2013 to 2017 increased 557 percent over the previous five-year period. US arms sales to India currently stand around $18 billion and could climb after the approval of a deal on Wednesday to allow India to buy $1 billion worth of naval guns and ammunition.

"India is now at that level where it’s basically like a NATO partner even if there's no alliance," said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the institute.

The United States and India share concerns about China potentially using ports across the Indian and Pacific Oceans to expand its economic and political influence as well as to add to the reach of the Chinese navy. Some analysts describe these potential dual-use ports across the Indian Ocean as Beijing's "string of pearls".

But while past administrations also made efforts to align more closely with India, they were typically part of a larger strategy of building out a regional defence network in Asia — one that often included India's rivals, in particular Pakistan.

"One of the reasons why the Trump administration has been able to move forward with India relatively quickly is that it's less concerned about alienating Pakistan," said Daniel Kliman, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Centre for a New American Security.

To many analysts, the Trump administration's intensive push to expand defense relations with India presents an opportunity to advance operations in Asia far beyond what has been possible with the help of traditional allies alone.

"There's recognition that what India might contribute to a broader regional balance is enormous," Kliman said.

Zach Montague c.2019 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Nov 21, 2019 08:17:46 IST

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