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Strategic Significance of Admiral Michael Gilday’s Visit to India

Dr R. Vignesh is Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 28, 2021

    Military Diplomacy has always been an important element of a bilateral relationship that signifies mutual trust, political alignment and strategic assurances between two nations. In this light, the visit of the Chief of US Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday to India in October 2021 is quite significant to the national security narrative of India and the US. At the same time, this visit signifies greater enactment of American strategy for the Indo-Pacific and is also bound to have a profound impact on the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region.

    India as a Cornerstone in the US Strategy for the Indo-Pacific

    Successive American governments over the last decade have identified India as a crucial link in their Indo-Pacific rebalancing efforts. This was first reflected in their “National Security Strategy” document released in December 2017, which describes the Indo-Pacific region as a geopolitical arena where competition between free and repressive perspectives of global order is taking place.1 Here India’s rise as a leading global power and a strategic contender to China in the Indo-Pacific has been acknowledged. Also, the Quad has been described as a platform for bolstering strategic cooperation with India, Japan and Australia to safeguard democratic values across the Indo-Pacific.

    The critical role of India in the geopolitics of Indo-Pacific was again reiterated in the document titled “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing Shared Vision” released by the US Department of State on 4 November 2019. This document indirectly describes China as an authoritarian revisionist power that seeks to pursue its interests at the expense of others in the Indo-Pacific. 2 Hence, the India–US strategic relations are emerging as a crucial component of America’s strategy to counter China’s aggressive expansionism in the region.

    Strategic Significance of Admiral Gilday’s Visit

    The announcement of AUKUS, the unprecedented escalation of tensions across the Taiwan Strait and the continued impasse between India and China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) are the contributing factors to the tensions in the region. The visit coming in the midst of these developments does signify a greater degree of America’s concerns about China’s actions in the region. The timing and the agenda of Admiral Gilday’s visit do reflect some of the tenets articulated in the “2019 Shared Vision”for promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific.

    Among these tenets, the strengthening of India–US naval cooperation is seen as a critical element for securing a free and open Indo-Pacific. Describing India as the “closest strategic partner”, Admiral Gilday stressed on achieving high-end interoperability between both the navies across all aspects of naval warfare.3   Aboard the American aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Bay of Bengal, Admiral Gilday affirmed the Indo-US naval cooperation being a crucial component within the Quad navies. He described the Malabar exercise as an excellent platform for overseeing the first-hand integration of the Indian and U.S navies.4

    The other aspect that the “2019 Shared Vision” laid emphasis on is the strengthening of interoperability among the Quad navies being essential for joint operations in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain. The document identifies the Malabar naval exercises as an important platform to develop and demonstrate growing interoperability between the Quad navies.5 Admiral Gilday’s visit coinciding with the second phase of the 25th Malabar exercise illustrates America’s focus towards enhancing the synergy between Quad navies. The Chief of the US Navy being personally present in the first joint exercise encompassing the Quad navies after their respective leaders met in Washington on 24 September 2021 is being considered strategically significant.

    Expanding existing avenues for military and political cooperation to include more like-minded nations to secure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific is something that has been expressed in both “2019 Shared Vision” and “2017 National Security Strategy”. This aspect resonated with Admiral Gilday’s remarks to the press at the outset of the 2021 Malabar Exercise where he brought forth the view of expanding the annual quadrilateral naval exercise to include more like-minded nations.6 Although he did acknowledge that the decision to expand the Malabar Exercise rests with the political leadership of Quad. 

    Among the most important aspects of Admiral Gilday’s visit was the signalling of the completion of American rebalancing efforts in the Indo-Pacific region.  In 2016 the US Navy announced that it aims to deploy 60 per cent of its surface ships in the Indo-Pacific Region by 2019.7 Maintaining a sustained naval presence in the Indo-Pacific has been described as instrumental in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific in the“2019 Shared Vision”. In his very first interaction with the press, Admiral Gilday conveyed that the US Navy has completed its rebalancing with 60 per cent of its forces operating in the region.8

    Significance to India’s Maritime Security

    Although Admiral Gilday’s visit primarily centred on consolidating American interests in the Indo-Pacific, it does have enormous significance for India’s maritime security. In 2015 the Indian Navy published its maritime security document titled “Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy”. This document advocates the enhancement of naval cooperation and interoperability with friendly nations as a key determinant for shaping a favourable maritime security environment for India.9 The detailed scrutiny of both “2019 Shared Vision” and “2015 Ensuring Secure Seas” reveals that there is a considerable overlap with both nations emphasising on a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

    Enhancing naval cooperation with US Navy enables the Indian Navy to efficiently extend the operational reach across the Indo-Pacific. The Indian Navy Ships can avail replenishment from US naval facilities across the Indo-Pacific through the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) that was signed in 2016. This is in addition to bilateral logistics support agreements that have been signed by India with several friendly nations over the past couple of years. These agreements enable the Indian Navy to use naval facilities stretched across the Indo-Pacific for replenishment. Some of these important logistics support agreements are as follows:

    • Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) with Australia on 4 June 2020.
    • Logistics Support Agreement with Japan on 10 September 2020.
    • Military Logistics Agreement with South Korea on 6 September 2019.
    • Agreement for Mutual Coordination, Logistics and Services Support for Naval Ships with Singapore on 1 June 2018.
    • Agreement of Reciprocal Logistics Support with France on 10 March 2018.

    The sharing of information between the armed forces of India and the US is facilitated by the Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) signed on 6 September 2018. On the other hand, sharing of geo-spatial information between India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the US’ National Geospatial Agency (NGA) is enabled through Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA) signed on 27 October 2020. The MoD describes this set of agreements as the blueprint for collaboration between the two nations that are instrumental for achieving a “Free, Open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”. 10 Hence, the strategic weight that Admiral Gilday’s visit to India carries can be regarded as a step forward in achieving greater operational capability for the Indian Navy through enhancing cooperation with the US.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.