- - Tuesday, March 30, 2021

While the first two months of the Biden administration have set about to reverse many of the previous administration’s policies, there appears to be one exception — its public commitment to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as a bulwark against the threat from the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) global hegemony.

A recent, and prominent example, of the Biden administration’s continuity of the Trump administration’s posture of confronting the threat from China has been in its dealings with India. For example, on March 12 President Biden hosted (virtually) the first ever Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) Senior Leaders Summit (SLS).  

The Quad, established in 2007, an informal strategic dialogue comprised of India, Japan, Australia and the United States, was largely dormant during the Obama administration, but was reinvigorated during the Trump administration. This resurgence of the Quad during the prior administration culminated with Exercise Malabar 2020 where all four of the Quad nation’s navies conducted combat training in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

In another first, both India and the U.S. committed aircraft carriers to the exercise, signaling Beijing that the PLA navy’s forays into the Indian Ocean would have to deal with not just one navy, but four.

The Biden administration followed up on the Quad Senior Leader Summit a week later when new Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III traveled to New Delhi (19-21 March) to conduct talks with his Indian counterpart, Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh. Mr. Austin had previously been in Tokyo and Seoul, along with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, reinforcing alliance commitments to Japan and South Korea, before heading to India.

While Mr. Blinken headed to Anchorage, Alaska, for the internationally covered first face-to-face dialogue with the PRC held on 18-19 March, Mr. Austin bypassed that event and went to India. Dispatching Mr. Austin to Delhi and not having him be part of a “2+2” dialogue with the PRC, is a strong statement that there would be not return to what former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo characterized as a policy of “blind engagement”, at least not in the military-to-military arena.

This point has not been lost on the Indian leadership or its people.

So, the question is what are the next steps for U.S. and India relations vis-a-vis the military domain of the Quad? As mentioned, much good effort has been made in the naval domain where U.S. and Indian navies have operated together from Hawaii waters to the Arabian Sea, but there is another domain where the U.S. and India can take the relationship from an informal security dialogue toward an “alliance,” something that would be recognized by our military leaders, if not by lawyers. That area is with the two nation’s armies.

In June 2020, PLA forces brutally murdered 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh near the disputed Line of Actual Control border with the PRC. This event has had a dramatic impact on India like no other event since the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Not only were the Indian people shocked by the blatant brutality of the PLA murdering their soldiers, who were from all parts of India, but it has had a transformational impact on the Indian government. 

Not only did the Indian government not back down from the border by reinforcing their positions, they also took swift action to ban close to 60 Chinese applications, including TikTok (that number later rose to close to 200) and it has placed restrictions on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by Beijing. These actions, along with increased emphasis on the Quad clearly demonstrate that Delhi is seeking greater cooperation and collaboration in defense against the aggression from the PRC.

In order to help demonstrate America’s commitment, the current administration should be developing a plan to create a routine U.S. Army (and the U.S. Marine Corps) training and exercise program with their Indian counterparts. The Indian army would greatly benefit from combined training with U.S. Army and other Quad member ground forces, and Mr. Austin’s experience in command of U.S. Central Command would certainly add a sense of credibility to such a program.

Given the recent approvals by the Pentagon to allow both Central and Africa Combatant Commands to have direct interaction with their counterparts in India, the time could not be more appropriate for such interaction between our ground forces.  

The Biden administration would do well to consider establishing a ground force exercise program like the U.S. Pacific Fleet conducts with the Indian navy in exercises like Malabar or the Rim-of-the-Pacific (RIMPAC).

In the case of a similar type of army centric exercise, possibly named “Rim of the Himalays” (RIMHIM) could be conducted bringing in U.S. Army (like the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division) ground force expertise and would send another clear and unambiguous signal to Beijing, one that will cause the Chinese Communist Party to re-calculate their strategic agenda of thinking that the use of force to achieve their China Dream is an option.

• James Fanell is a retired Navy captain and former director of intelligence and information operations for the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. He is currently a government fellow with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

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