The U.S., India and the Indo-Pacific


back to issue

ON 18 October 2017, then U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stepped up to a podium in Washington, DC to talk about U.S.-India relations. His subsequent comments, however, would be remembered more as one of the first articulations of the Trump administration’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) concept. The remarks offered a glimpse of that vision’s differences and similarities with the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia (or ‘rebalance’). Moreover, Tillerson set the U.S. relationship with India within the context of the Indo-Pacific, where he identified it as a critical player.1 Since then, FOIP has been fleshed out further, but it remains a work in progress. Some elements are yet to fall into place, others need to be clarified. This article looks at what we know of FOIP thus far, and where it converges and diverges with India’s concept of and approach in the region.

Like Delhi, official Washington had been reluctant to embrace the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’, even as Australia and Japan had done so. American officials, even during the Obama administration, had used the term in speeches, but it had not gained wide acceptance. But, by the end of that administration, Washington had moved toward conceptually linking the challenges and opportunities in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. This was reflected in the 2015 U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision, and also the Department of Defence’s unwieldy term Indo-Asia-Pacific.

In the Trump administration, the term gained official currency. It was used in the announcement of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States in June 2017, and reiterated in the U.S.-India Joint Statement that emerged. Since then, Tillerson’s speech, and American pronouncements and actions – including the National Security Strategy (NSS), the National Defence Strategy (NDS), and the renaming of the U.S. Pacific Command as the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) – have made clear that the concept is here to stay.

Officials and analysts in the U.S. point to realities on the ground as the major reason for the shift. Like the U.S., its allies Australia, Britain and France have been operating in both regions. Importantly, while China has resisted the Indo-Pacific concept, its increasing forays into the Indian Ocean have linked the two regions to a greater degree than ever before. Moreover, countries like Japan and India are increasingly more interested and active in their non-traditional areas of operation (the Indian and Pacific Oceans respectively). Overall, there’s a growing sense that what happens in one oceanic region will not stay in that region.


Some in Washington continue to be skeptical of the concept, but official acknowledgement of an integrated region and the articulation of a FOIP vision has had implications for India, and U.S. policy toward it. The two countries’ objectives and approaches in the region are not the same, but they do have similarities. This section will outline where the American concept converges with that of India or benefits India.

Through FOIP-related statements and legislation, the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress have reiterated the importance of the Indo-Pacific for American security and prosperity, and within that the continued significance of alliances, partnerships and regional mechanisms. This reinforcement is crucial given concerns – including in Delhi – about American commitment to the region. Nonetheless, these apprehensions, resulting from President Trump’s views about U.S. roles and responsibilities in the world, and broader American debates about retrenchment, have not disappeared.


Second, many of the principles expressed as undergirding FOIP match those that India supports: the importance of a rules-based order, a free, open and inclusive region where there is respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, good governance, sustainable development, and the safeguarding of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Third, FOIP is not just bringing U.S. rhetoric, but potentially also resources to bear in the region. For example, the bipartisan Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act has paved the way for an Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) with $60 billion of funding. This is a far cry from talk in Washington over the last few years about eliminating financing mechanisms like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the ExIm Bank. The idea that the development space will be a key battleground in an era of great power competition has driven this shift.

American efforts, whether through these mechanisms or with Australia and Japan, could be important in offering countries alternatives to China’s regional connectivity projects or help them reach better terms with Beijing. The U.S. can provide funds and technical assistance, and its companies also have a comparative advantage in the digital space, where there is concern about China setting the standards. India, which itself benefits from $1.5 billion of OPIC financing, has been emphasizing the need for alternatives. Alone and with Japan, it is working to provide some. The U.S. and India can also potentially collaborate – or at least coordinate – if they can sort out differences on issues like whether or how to engage with the public sector in some countries.

The Trump administration has also announced that it will be doubling security assistance in the Indo-Pacific, and enhancing partner capabilities for maritime security and domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and peacekeeping. Like India, it has pledged to work both bilaterally and through regional mechanisms. The administration has expressed support not just for ASEAN, but also for platforms like the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.


American involvement in military and economic capacity building could facilitate or overlap with India’s interests in its neighbourhood – to some extent. Delhi has traditionally been skeptical, if not suspicious, of extra-regional actors’ activities and influence in its neighbourhood. Its resistance to such activity on the part of the U.S. has historically only been tempered when Delhi has had even greater concern about a Chinese presence. Now, with increasing Chinese activity in the region and limited Indian capacity to compete alone, Delhi once again seems more willing to work with – and perhaps begrudgingly accept or welcome greater interest from – partners like Japan and the U.S.

Washington can bring diplomatic and financial resources, as well as less historical baggage to bear. The administration sees the smaller South Asian countries as part of the Indo-Pacific. For instance, Vice President Pence has cited American infrastructure projects in Bangladesh and Nepal.2 The U.S. signed a Millennium Challenge Corporation compact with the latter in 2017 and is negotiating one with Sri Lanka. In addition, it has announced $39 million of foreign military funds for Colombo for defence equipment to enhance Sri Lankan maritime security.


A fourth convergence is that Washington and Delhi have a similar view of the key challenge in the Indo-Pacific: China. Indian officials and analysts used to complain that previous U.S. administrations were not as focused on tackling the China challenge. They saw the Obama administration, for example, as too accommodating of Chinese concerns and not active enough in confronting Chinese island building in the South China Sea – in part because of the president’s desire for a climate change deal. There were similar concerns after Trump’s Mar-a-Lago summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Officials worried that the desire for a trade deal or Beijing-facilitated North Korea agreement would result in a Sino-U.S. deal at the expense of other regional actors like India.

However, since then, the Trump administration has indicated that FOIP is primarily about dealing with the China challenge. And the concerns that American officials have expressed are similar to those of India. These include Beijing’s uncertain intentions, and its unilateral changes to the status quo whether in the South China Sea or the Bhutan-China-India tri-junction. On the economic side, there are shared concerns about trade deficits, limited market access and intellectual property theft in China, forced technology transfer, as well as Beijing’s influence over Chinese companies. Moreover, both the U.S. and India worry about the effect of Chinese economic engagement in the region, and Beijing’s use of economic coercion or sharp power for strategic and political ends.


Fifth, the China challenge and FOIP helped renew American interest in India – which was missing in the early months of the administration. The FOIP policy doubled down on the rebalance’s ‘lynchpin’ role for India, identifying it as one of the four critical democratic ‘anchors’ in the region. The administration sees Delhi as willing and, to some extent, able to burden-share in the region. It wants to see more Indian and less Chinese activity and influence in Southeast Asia. For American officials, India has also served as a useful foil to China – they have cited, for example, India’s contrasting approach to maritime disputes, its ability to develop in a democratic context, and its demonstration of resolve during the Doklam crisis.

A key role for India in FOIP has meant increased U.S. interest in defence and security cooperation. This has resulted in senior defence and diplomatic officials’ engagement with India, regular working-level meetings, progress in technology transfer processes, interoperability agreements, expansion of military exercises, greater institutionalization, and capacity-building initiatives in third countries. The convergence has also led to the upgrading of the trilateral with Japan, and the revival of quadrilateral consultations. The U.S. and India are also coordinating, along with other partners and allies, in multilateral forums or third countries. Examples include their efforts to remove One Belt, One Road endorsements in United Nations documents, and to support the restoration of democracy in the Maldives.

Sixth, India’s inclusion – and prominence – in FOIP has also led to it being seen within and outside the U.S. government as more than just a South Asian country. It is increasingly part of the conversation about the broader region, with interest in India’s attitude toward a range of issues. This has not just given voice to Indian perspectives and concerns, but meant that Delhi’s views have, at times, had an impact on American views and approaches. For instance, the concerns about China’s regional connectivity projects that India expressed when it declined to participate in Beijing’s 2017 Belt and Road Forum have gained broad resonance. The necessary benchmarks for connectivity projects that India outlined, including transparency and financial sustainability, have also been incorporated into U.S. discourse.

Another example of how India, in part, has helped shape the conversation is the addition of ‘inclusive’ to the FOIP vision. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minister Modi included the term to address Southeast Asian concerns about where ASEAN fit into the Indo-Pacific, tackle Chinese accusations about quad-imposed approaches, and leave the door open to cooperation with a China that followed the rules. Subsequent remarks by officials like Defence Secretary Mattis and documents like the American readout of quadrilateral consultations have similarly mentioned an inclusive vision.


Finally, India’s place in the FOIP vision and its security cooperation with the U.S. have contributed to the administration’s willingness to manage differences with Delhi. Thus, friction over trade issues has not taken centre stage as it has in the case of U.S. relations with some other allies and partners. Moreover, the administration granted India a six-month waiver from Iran sanctions. And officials cited the Indo-Pacific imperative to urge Congress to give the president waiver authority to limit the impact of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on partners like India.


Yet, there are key differences between the American and Indian visions of the Indo-Pacific. One is geographic. For the U.S., the Indo-Pacific covers the region from Hollywood to Bollywood, as one former official put it, i.e. from the west coast of India to the west coast of the United States. However, for India, the Indo-Pacific also encapsulates the western Indian Ocean region (IOR) that stretches to the east coast of Africa. These different concepts stem from history, as well as bureaucracy – three U.S. combatant commands (AFRICOM, CENTCOM, INDOPACOM) cover what India considers the Indo-Pacific region.

A second difference is of emphasis or priority. The IOR is Delhi’s primary area of operation and interest. As a Pacific power, the U.S. operates extensively in that area, where it has had deeper alliances and partnerships. While India played a diplomatic role in crucial East and Southeast Asian events in the first two decades after its independence, it has not done so in the time since. Compared to Washington, Delhi cares far less about an issue like North Korea. On the other hand, it has greater concerns than the U.S. about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Third, as is evident in the CPEC case, there is a difference of scope. For India, the challenge in the region is both continental and maritime. On the other hand, the U.S. largely envisions the Indo-Pacific as a maritime region. As Washington implements its strategy, however, there is recognition that the continental and maritime zones are connected. Hence, for example, the renewed interest in Nepal. On the flip side, there are domains in the competition with China – like the technological one – where there is currently a greater American than Indian focus.

Fourth, the two countries’ visions and strategies do not necessarily include the same principles and partners. For example, unlike the U.S., India’s vision of the region – and its strategy to balance China – envisions a role for Russia. Another example: India’s partnership with Mauritius and its stance on decolonization have led to support for Port Louis’ claim against Britain to the Chagos archipelago. For the U.S., this creates uncertainty about its Diego Garcia base, for which London recently renewed the lease. There are also some different ideas of the end goal. The U.S. talks about maintaining predominance in the region; India talks about a multipolar Asia. There are also different interpretations of what constitutes freedom of navigation. Delhi has wanted to exercise greater authority in its exclusive economic zone, including controlling foreign military operations there. Moreover, in some cases, Delhi sees not just China but the U.S. as disrupting the rules-based order.


Fifth, Delhi continues to have mixed feelings about greater U.S. influence in its neighborhood, particularly in countries like Bhutan and Nepal. In other places, like Afghanistan, it is worried about decreasing American influence and interest. In yet others, there are U.S.-India divergences on whether and when values or interests should be given priority – a gap evident in their stances on Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Sixth, there are differences on the question of how far and fast to compete with or confront China. The Trump administration has been far more explicit about what it sees as the major challenge in the Indo-Pacific: China and its behaviour. Tillerson’s speech, which called out Beijing by name, was striking in this regard. Since then the administration’s NSS and NDS, and actions taken on China have indicated its interest in competing, if not confronting that country.

This approach has coincided with India’s efforts to lower the temperature in the Sino-Indian relationship. In Washington, there is a sense that India’s desire not to provoke China has limited its cooperation with the U.S. and other countries. Delhi, on the other hand, is concerned about blowback from Beijing if it is more assertive regionally. Thus, while the U.S. and India are on the same track with regard to China, they have different speeds and styles. This can be problematic if it leads to an expectation-reality gap, with either side hoping for policies, positions or performance that the other can’t or won’t deliver. In the past, this has led to disappointment followed by disillusionment with each other.

Relatedly, but on the flip side, Beijing’s relevance to key American priorities and the president’s desire to do ‘deals’ mean that Delhi continues to worry about a G-2 and Trump’s acceptance of a spheres-of-influence world.


Seventh, FOIP is missing a regional trade dimension . In the Obama administration’s rebalance strategy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was the key economic element. Delhi was not party to the TPP – and indeed worried about potential trade diversion – but key policymakers acknowledged that it played a crucial role in economic competition with China and committing the U.S. to the region. Trump not only withdrew from the TPP, but has subsequently also focused on reducing bilateral trade deficits. And the tariffs that he has imposed have affected India as well.

Trump’s bilateral focus has also brought more attention to Indian trade and investment policies, which some in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill see as protectionist. These concerns have resulted in continued U.S. reluctance to support Indian membership of APEC, an important regional economic organization.

Many of these differences are not irreconcilable and others can be managed. For instance, better bureaucratic coordination on the U.S. side can help deal with the geographic split; so can a U.S.-India West Asia/Middle East dialogue or steps like Indian engagement with CENTCOM.

But there are two broader challenges that will determine whether or not the U.S. and Indian conceptions of and approaches in the Indo-Pacific will converge or diverge more. One involves the U.S. commitment in the region. There remains uncertainty about whether the views of the president and administration officials converge. Moreover, as diverging statements from the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees make clear, even on Capitol Hill, there is a debate about the nature and extent of American global commitments. This could have an impact on the diplomatic, military, financial and technological resources devoted to the region.

The second challenge is internal to India and the U.S., but related to their external approaches. Effective Indo-Pacific strategies and cooperation will require both countries to strengthen their own capabilities. It will also require them to live up to the values – related to democracy, openness and inclusiveness – that they propound in the region. Whether or not they can do so will help determine if their strategies will be sustainable and credible, alone or together.



1. Rex Tillerson, ‘Defining Our Relationship With India for the Next Century’, CSIS, 18 October 2017.

2. Mike Pence, ‘Remarks at the APEC CEO Summit’, Papua New Guinea, 16 November 2018.