India now a major defence partner for the US as it gangs up on China

The U.S. recognises India as “a major defence partner” as it prepares for a confrontation with China. The special status gives India access to military technology but it comes with a caveat that India must not buy arms from Russia.

Published : Apr 11, 2021 06:00 IST

Defence Minister  Rajnath Singh with U.S. Defence Secretary Llyod Austin at Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi on  March 20. Austin’s visit to New Delhi, the first by a senior member of the Biden administration, came after he held talks in Japan and South Korea in mid March soon after the virtual summit of the Quad grouping on March 12 between President Joe Biden and Prime Ministers of India, Australia and Japan.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with U.S. Defence Secretary Llyod Austin at Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi on March 20. Austin’s visit to New Delhi, the first by a senior member of the Biden administration, came after he held talks in Japan and South Korea in mid March soon after the virtual summit of the Quad grouping on March 12 between President Joe Biden and Prime Ministers of India, Australia and Japan.

At the diplomatic and military levels New Delhi and Washington have got into a tighter embrace since President Joe Biden assumed office in the United States. For all practical purposes, India has now become a de facto military ally of the U.S. as it prepares for a confrontation with a rising China. One of the most important virtual meetings Biden attended since his inauguration was the one with leaders of the Quadrilateral Alliance (Quad) in the second week of March. The Quad consists of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia. During his visit to New Delhi in the week after the Quad meeting, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin highlighted the growing defence and strategic ties between India and the U.S. Austin’s visit to India was the first by a senior member of the Biden administration. He told the media that the U.S. viewed India “as a central figure in our approach to the Indo-Pacific region”. After Austin’s visit, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement emphasising the importance of bilateral defence cooperation in Indo-U.S. ties. The two sides agreed to enhance military cooperation.

In 2019, India and the U.S. signed defence deals worth more than $3 billion. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments (2004-09; 2009-14) had signed the landmark nuclear deal and established close military relations with Washington. Since then, the U.S. has sold more than $15 billion worth of sophisticated weaponry to India. According to reports, India is on the verge of entering into a multibillion-dollar deal with the U.S. to buy 30 armed drones and more than 150 combat jets for the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy.

CAATSA rules

Russia remains the biggest supplier of defence equipment to the Indian armed forces but given the trend in recent years, its share of the lucrative Indian arms bazaar is likely to diminish substantially in the not-too-distant future. For the past couple of years, Washington has objected to India’s planned purchase of the S-400 air defence system from Russia. Austin said he had raised the issue during his visit to New Delhi. He said he expected the U.S.’ close allies such as India to stop buying arms from Russia. Under the unilateral CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) rules framed by the previous Donald Trump administration, countries buying weapons from Russia face U.S. sanctions. The U.S. had imposed sanctions on Turkey, its close military ally and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member, in 2020 for acquiring the S-400 missile system. Austin said he did not specifically discuss the issue of sanctions in New Delhi but admitted that India’s S-400 deal was a problematic issue. He said as India had not yet installed the Russian-made missiles, the question of imposing sanctions had not arisen.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said the discussions with Austin also dwelt on expanding military-to-military cooperation with the U.S. beyond the Indo-Pacific region to the wider Indian Ocean region. The Indian armed forces will now pursue enhanced interaction with the U.S. Central Command and the Africa Command. “Acknowledging that we have in place foundational agreements, LEMOA, COMCASA and BECA, we discussed steps to be taken to realise their full potential for mutual benefit,” a statement issued after the meeting said. The U.S. has recognised India as “a major defence partner”, putting it on a par with NATO-member countries. This status gives India access to military technology which until now was available only to the U.S.’ closest allies. Also read: Signs of a thaw between India and China

Austin admitted that he had raised concerns about the human rights situation in India. Bob Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, had urged Austin to bring up the issue “of human rights and democracy concerns” with the Indian leadership during his visit. Austin did not give too many details about his discussions on the issue. It is believed that he brought up the issue only during his talks with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Austin told him that the two countries being the “largest democracies” in the world had a special responsibility in safeguarding human rights.

Focus on China, Russia

The Biden administration, as the last couple of months have revealed, is not overly concerned about close allies having authoritarian governments. The U.S.’ focus is on China and Russia. In an unprecedented diplomatic faux pas, Biden described Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a killer” on prime-time television. In his first telephonic conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden railed against Beijing’s “coercive economic policies” and its policies on Taiwan and Hong Kong and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said China “is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power” to pose a serious challenge to U.S. hegemony.

During his India visit, Austin did not target China specifically as he had done on his visits to Japan and South Korea in the company of Blinken. The joint statement issued by the U.S. and Japan in Tokyo talked about “Chinese behaviour endangering peace” in the region. The latest U.S. national security strategy document states that the U.S. will not hesitate to use force “when necessary to defend our vital national interests”. The Biden administration has embraced the Cold War initiated by the previous administration with a new vigour.

India’s role is vital to the U.S’ long-term game plan in the Asia-Pacific region, given its strategic location and size. Only India, Japan and Australia have aligned openly with the U.S. in the region in the looming confrontation with China. Other close military and political allies of the U.S. such as South Korea have refused to join anti-China groupings such as Quad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the other hand, has described the Quad grouping as “a force of good”.

The Quad is not yet formally an Asian version of NATO but the U.S. views it as an essential military grouping that will be needed to encircle China and prepare for a possible war. China has described the Quad as “a mini-NATO” and a negative form of “selective multilateralism”. Admiral Phillip Davidson, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, appearing before Congress a few days before the Quad summit, said the Pentagon’s budget for the region needs to be doubled because he visualised a war with China within the next five years.

Although China figured prominently in the discussions during the first summit of Quad leaders, the joint statement only obliquely targeted China using cliched formulations. The statement called for “a free, open, rules-based order”, “freedom of navigation and overflight” and collaboration between the Quad partners “to meet the challenges to the rules based maritime order in the East and South China Seas”. Also read: U.S. troops' withdrawal from Afghanistan

The U.S. Navy has been regularly carrying out provocative “freedom of navigation” operations in territorial waters claimed by China. The joint statement re-affirmed that the Quad strives “for a region that is free, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”. The joint statement also pledged to uphold international maritime law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Interestingly, the U.S., unlike China, has not bothered to ratify the landmark treaty.

The U.S. justifies its provocative “freedom of navigation” operations in the disputed South China Sea under the laws enshrined in the UNCLOS treaty. Washington wants Beijing to adhere to UNCLOS rules while refusing to do so itself. Yang Jiechi, the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office of the Chinese Communist Party, who along with Foreign Minister Wang Yi led the delegation at the March 20 meeting with top U.S. officials in Alaska, did not mince words in criticising the Biden administration’s double standards. Yang stressed that China and the majority of the international community upheld U.N.-approved laws and not “those approved by a small number of countries of the so-called ‘rules-based’ international order”.

Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Adviser, while trying to keep up the charade that the Quad summit was preoccupied with issues such as climate change and the pandemic, however, admitted that the leaders “did discuss the challenge posed by China, and they made clear that none of them had any illusions about China”. He stressed that the leaders talked about China’s “coercion” of Australia on trade issues, the incidents along the Sino-Indian border and the harassment of Japanese fishing boats near the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan. The tiny islets are mostly uninhabited rocks jutting out of the sea, near the Chinese coast. The area is said to be rich in oil and gas deposits.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tweeted that the Quad grouping shared a “strong opposition to China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo ” especially with regard to maritime and land boundary disputes with neighbours, including Japan and India.

Vaccine initiative

A “Quad Vaccine Initiative” was announced by the four member-countries to jointly provide one billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to the Asia-Pacific region. India will be the manufacturing base with funds coming from the U.S. and Japan. Australia will be assisting in the distribution of the vaccine. This was a move to counter China’s effective global “vaccine diplomacy”. Most of the countries in the global south are getting most of their vaccines from China. Western countries are, meanwhile, hoarding their vaccine supplies. India has been unable to even meet its commitments to the United Kingdom for the supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The Quad leaders also discussed ways to facilitate cooperation in high-tech research and development and “securing critical supply chains”. Also read: A military alliance in the making

The four Quad leaders—Biden, Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Suga—jointly wrote an op-ed article in The Washington Post . The article traced the history of the Quad, much of it embellished. The article claimed that the grouping emerged out of a cooperative humanitarian effort involving the four countries in the wake of the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami. It said that the four partners started a diplomatic dialogue in 2007. That year, the Japanese and Australian navies were invited to join the annual U.S.-India Malabar exercises. The article did not mention that the Quad had lapsed into irrelevancy after Australia left the grouping in 2008 and the Indian side started having second thoughts about partnering the U.S. and Japan in challenging a rising China. Australia had exited the Quad after the election of Kevin Rudd, the Labour Party leader, as Prime Minster. Rudd did not want to alienate China, which is Australia biggest trading partner.

In 2017, the Quad was revived as a blatantly anti-China grouping with the right-wing coming to power in India and Australia. Shinzo Abe, the ultra-nationalist Japanese Prime Minister at the time, was one of its biggest backers. President Barack Obama’s military pivot to the East announced in 2011 was another reason why the U.S. wanted India to be on board in its plans to prevent the peaceful ascent of China to the status of a superpower. Before the recent Quad summit, an article in Foreign Policy Journal, authored by James Mattis, a former Defence Secretary in the Trump administration and retired Army General, and two other foreign policy analysts, said that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue “is the best hope of standing up against China”. The article praised Biden for continuing with the hardline anti-China policy of the previous administration.

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