Context: The docking of the USNS Charles Drew, a United States Navy dry cargo ship, for repairs at an Indian facility in Chennai last week, marks an important first in the India-U.S. military relationship.
- Although bilateral strategic ties have advanced considerably over the past decade, reciprocal repair of military vessels was still a milestone that had not been crossed till now. This is a boost to the Indo-US Strategic Partnership.
Signs of a broader template:
- During the bilateral 2+2 dialogue held in April this year, the two countries agreed to explore the possibilities of using Indian shipyards for the repair and maintenance of ships of the U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC).
- The docking of a U.S. military vessel at an Indian facility has both functional and geopolitical implications.
- Functionally, it signals a more efficient leveraging of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) — the military logistics agreement India signed with the U.S. in 2017.
- Thus far, India-U.S. cooperation under the pact had largely been confined to the exchange of fuel and stores during joint exercises and relief operations.
- But now India may seek reciprocal access to repair facilities at U.S. bases in Asia and beyond.
- S. ship’s docking is also a global endorsement of Indian shipbuilding and ship-repair capabilities.
- INS Vikrant is the country’s first indigenously constructed aircraft carrier and making similar vessels is a boost for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and ‘Make-in-India’.
- It signals a consolidation of the India-U.S. partnership, and the QUAD Security Dialogue.
- Notwithstanding the odd refuelling of foreign warships and aircraft in Indian facilities, India’s military establishment has been wary of any moves that would create the impression of an anti-China alliance.
- Yet, Indian decision makers evidently are willing to be more ambitious with the India-U.S. strategic relationship.
- New Delhi’s decision to open repair facilities for the U.S. military suggests greater Indian readiness to accommodate the maritime interests of India’s Quad partners.
- North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been readying to play a more active security role in the Indo- Pacific (IP) region.
- New Delhi’ s offer of repair services for U.S. military vessels could kickstart a process that would culminate in India opening its naval bases for friendly foreign warships.
Limited in scope now:
- The reality is that the India-U.S. relationship is still some way from crossing a critical threshold.
- The agreement with India for the repair of U.S. military vessels is limited to cargo ships.
- S. decision makers are unlikely to seek Indian facilities for repair and replenishment of U.S. destroyers and frigates soon until New Delhi is clear about the need for strategic cooperation with the U.S. Navy.
By many accounts, then, the India-U.S. maritime relationship remains a work in progress. There has doubtless been some movement ahead, but it is far from clear whether navy-to-navy ties are headed towards a wide-ranging and comprehensive partnership in the Indian Ocean littorals.
India, while increasing strategic cooperation for national interests, should not abandon its ‘Strategic Autonomy’ stance which allows it more flexibility and options in the fields of external affairs and defence.
Source: The Hindu