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U.S.A – India Relations and Imperatives for China; By Commodore R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)

C3S Paper No. 0079/2016

While reporting on the visit of Modi to U.S and the U.S-India relations which are on the upswing, the state run Global Times published an article on 08th June 2016[i] with the title “India’s vision cannot be realized by containing China”. It is very clear that observers in China and the leadership are concerned with the new trajectory in U.S-India relationship. It is being seen as a grand design of U.S.A to contain an aggressive China by also engaging India. The quoted article while acknowledging the strengths of India is also weary of the current developments. It concludes with “India knows its great vision cannot be realized by bashing or containing China. Instead, they should expand cooperation, explore the potentials and build mutual trust for their own good. China is more of a help than a competitor for India. This will eventually constitute India’s fundamental understanding of China[ii]”.

This paper seeks to examine the present status and implications of U.S-India relations for global security, stability, Indian Progress and development particularly in the context of the recent visit of Modi to USA. The China factor can hardly be ignored in the strategy matrix and the impact on China is also discussed.

U.S-India relations have been on an upswing for nearly a decade now and on a positive trajectory. There have been engagements in many areas including economy, defence, climate change, rule of law and other global issues. There is convergence of interest on issues of global warming and investing in alternate sources of green energy.

The support of U.S.A for entry in to the NSG has been consistent and India on its part has done its homework by garnering the support of other members. The Prime Minister has been visiting leaders of member countries to impress on the need to admit a responsible nuclear power country India in to the NSG. U.S.A on its part has also been lobbying with other member nations for getting us in the NSG. With the emphasis on nuclear power, we have no choice but to get nuclear fuel and if the target is 25%[iii] of power production through nuclear energy as claimed, we have no choice but to get in to the NSG.

Many of the military hardware now are being imported from USA including high end technology products. Where ever there were obstacles of some form or the other the Government to Govt sales has been resorted to (FMS).The recent list of items being considered for clearance is impressive. The list contains high value aircraft, missiles, torpedoes, howitzers and other systems[iv].

The path breaking entry in to the MTCR which was cleared just a couple of days ago will open up India’s quest for obtaining better missile technology[v] and also allow it to sell  some of its own home grown products including Brahmos to other countries who have  a need. The sale of Predator drones and related technology will offer new options to keep Pakistan under check. More importantly this will open the flood gates for new technology induction and assimilation in many related areas of command and control. This should also indirectly help us to realise the “Make in India” dream by investing in the kind of technologies that are held only by U.S.A and none else.

The recently introduced bill which is expected to be cleared will allow India to be given the status of a major non NATO ally.  This will facilitate greateraccess to high end technology and will also aid the process of breaching certain technology barriers.

Coming to the prospects for the future, doubtlessly there is this China factor that is helping both India and U.S to join hands on many issues. From the point of view of U.S.A it can use India to countervail the influence of China to certain extent and also help in isolating China which has few friends. China is not too happy with this development which will come in the way of its aspirations.

With all the bonhomie during the visit and also the increased engagement with India in military terms, there are concerns about India becoming a client state of U.S.A.However, these fears are baseless due to the stand of India on some of the recent instances. India has not joined the joint patrols[vi] in SCS though it has made statements in many forums about the need for upholding the UNCLOS provisions related to freedom of navigation and over flight rules. However it has no issues with exercising with the pacific powers including China, Japan and other powers in the Pacific.

By not joining the joint patrols militarily, India has maintained its strategic autonomy which is a time tested and proven strategy for India. With the increased alliance with USA whether that will continue to be possible is a point to ponder in the coming years.The chances of India becoming a client state in my opinion are remote. India has always maintained that it will participate in international operations which are mandated by UN and only under the blue flag.

Coming to the developments in the Pacific at about the same time as Modi’s visit to USA, the 20th edition of Malabar Exercise is being conducted off Japan. It had objected seriously way back in 2007 when that edition of Malabar had a grouping of USA, Australia, Japan and India exercised together in the Bay of Bengal[vii]. The maritime forces of USA, Japan and India are exercising together now off Japan. It may be recalled that Japan was alsopart of the Malabar exercise recently in the Bay of Bengal along with USA in the joint exercised conducted in October 2015[viii].China is not too happy with this alliance of sorts that is playing out in its back yard. Earlier, just prior to the visit of Indian President to China it also objected to the presence of Indian warships in the South China Sea[ix].

This development as part of the US policy of pivot to Asia signals a new alignment in the Indo Pacific that is of great discomfort to China. What this does is to keep China engaged in both SCS and ECS. China will be compelled to commit more forces and effort to cater for contingencies in SCS and ECS. This containment of the maritime forces in the Pacific favours India’s strategy. This will also be aided by increased military cooperation with Vietnam. India is training their Sukhoi pilots; we have trained their submariners with our experience on the Kilo class submarines[x] and have set up a satellite monitoring station in Vietnam.  In addition, we have been there since 1988 as part of the off shore exploration assistance to Vietnam. So India Vietnam relations at many levels are also on the upswing and this is again discomforting for China.

India has also started increasing its sphere of military influence in the Pacific by sale of military hardware to Phillipines and engagements with the armed forces of countries in this region. Two Kamortaclass vessels have been sold[xi].  The engagements with the maritime neighbours of China have provided an opportunity for India to enhance its foot print in a happening arena in Pacific Ocean.

The conclusion of the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) has also been debated both in India and by other nations on the impact for global security and stability. This logistic support agreement is in the making since 2004[xii].  There is a need to allay fears that there will be no chance of setting up of any military base by USA in India. The agreement essentially is aimed at tackling the logistic nightmare of nations when they have to maintain an extended logistic support line in support of both peacetime and warlike operations. So as and when US Naval forces are deployed in the Indian Ocean, they would be given all facilities for turn round, refueling, use of logistic support systems etc., Even now it is already being provided but it takes lot of preparatory time discussions to enable such visits and exercises. Likewise, if India would like to extend its reach it will be allowed access to the U.S bases in Diego Garcia, Guam or even in the Pacific. In addition to cutting down the time for such prior discussion about the use of a particular base or facility, the LEMOA will streamline the procedures for mutual support.   There is a golden saying that it is” better to have it and not need it than not have it and need it when badly required”. India will need to expand its sphere of influence and reach in the Indian Ocean and mere statements that “Indian Ocean is the only ocean named after it “will not help its ambitions to be a regional and global player of substance. India has to move forward with decisive steps to protect our long term sea borne and strategic interests.

That India and the U.S are natural partners is a statement that reverberates in many U.S India forums and in other discussion groups. It is important to get the perspective right on this issue by answering a few questions.  Which is the number one country of choice for Indians to go?? Where is that their brilliance and talent is recognised?? Where is that they are seen as contributing to the society and assimilating well?? Which is the country where they hold high positions and also able to wield influence on Indian matters??

So except for the cold war period and  for some time beyond (where India was seen as the one that was in the Soviet Block) both the countries have shed their mutual suspicion and are now moving on fresh turf of sound relations.

In conclusion, the developments including the recent visit of Modi to U.S.A is good for India on all counts. India needs to cash on the good will and the positive environment in its favouraround the world in addition to support from U.S.A. This will also sober down China to a large extent as it can blame itself for the present state of affairs. By supporting Pakistan on many issues and even bailing out Pakistan as in the case of blocking JeM, objecting to India’s entry in to NSG[xiii] by clubbing that with Pakistan, with objections to the entry of India to UNSC China has succeeded in ensuring that India and US relations are well  cemented. It can blame itself for the state of affairs for pushing India in to a separate trajectory of its own. While some of the India-U.S initiatives and engagements are not China-centric; the spin offs of this relation have the potential to keep China in check. It could also spur China to review and introspect on its own handling of India China relations which could have yielded positive results to both of them.


[i]  Article accessed on 09 June 2016

[ii] Ibid concluding para

[iv] full list of the items being considered for clearance through the Foreign Military Sales is given in page 1 and 2 of this site accessed on 09 June 2016.

[vi] statement as brought out clearly brings out that India will not join the joint patrols in South China Sea. Accessed on 08June 2016

[vii] Full details of the Malabar exercise are available in the special front line edition vide  accessed on 08 June 2016

[ix] China was unhappy with the presence of Indian warships in South China Sea while it has had no issues with deploying its nuclear submarines and war vessels in the Indian Ocean.

[x]  details of the extent of military training cooperation with Vietnam highlighted in the Times of India report accessed on 07June 2016

[Commodore R.S. Vasan IN (Retd) is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S), and Head, Strategy and Security Studies, Center for Asia Studies (CAS).]

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