The militaries of India and the United States are scheduled to hold the “Yudh Abhyas” (War Training) joint exercise in the US from Sept 14 to 27. The joint drill, an annual feature since 2004 that focuses on anti-terrorism maneuvers, will be held only two months after the US, Japan and India held the Malabar Naval Exercise-2017 in the Bay of Bengal. Also, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit India from Sept 13 to 15.
India’s close interactions with the US and Japan have sent mixed signals to the outside world just after it experienced a bump in its relations with China. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, East China’s Fujian province from Sept 3 to 5, after a two-month-long standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in China’s Donglang area.
China has showed its sincerity in maintaining good relations with India. The two large developing countries and important players in Asia are critical to fairer global governance. So India should learn from the standoff, and help China to build sound bilateral ties.
Washington and New Delhi now want to upgrade the September exercise to “a more complex, combined arms, division-level” drill. The Malabar exercise, on the other hand, focused on anti-submarine and submarine missions. The US Navy’s Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, Indian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and Japan’s 27,000-ton helicopter carrier cruiser Izumo all took part in the trilateral drill.
India has been trying to highlight its geopolitical importance to the US and Japan, but it needs to take the accompanying costs into account. Modi’s election as India’s prime minister three years ago has helped lift US-India ties. The two countries’ defense cooperation, in particular, has evolved into a quasi-military alliance, a process that started after former US president Barack Obama was invited to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2015 and developed through the bilateral defense pact aimed at simplifying the transfer of US defense technology to India.
Donald Trump’s election as US president, however, turned out to be a letdown for Modi, who managed to meet with Trump only five months after he entered the White House. The Trump administration might be aware of India’s “strategic significance”, but it is not likely to fully endorse Modi’s aggressive China policy, even though it can give Washington an opportunity to drive a wedge between Beijing and New Delhi. Besides, few experts on India studies in the US would describe New Delhi as an apt ally that commits itself to an alliance without making waves in its neighborhood.
For India, on the other hand, the US can hardly be a reliable partner, especially with the Trump administration poised to shirk some of its global obligations and focus on domestic affairs. As for India-Japan ties, during his visit to India, Abe may seek to synergize India’s “Act East” with Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”. And the “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor”, after India and Japan launch it as expected, should make it clear whether it will be complementary or a countermeasure to the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative.
All these facts suggest India should do good to not become a simple piece of the US-Japan chessboard.