India’s Emerging Role in the Indo-Pacific: Rise of Sub-imperialism?

usa india

Is India sliding itself into the world capitalist centre as a ‘sub-imperialist’ country fulfilling the ‘responsibilities’ of the imperialist core? Going beyond the conventional Leninist conceptualisation, India, an emerging economy with a credo of neoliberal aspirations and militarism, appears to be exercising a particular form of imperialism over its partners in the Global South, by fulfilling the role of a sub-imperialist agent in the increased coordination between the imperial forces. The latest in the series of such engagements could be seen in India’s incorporation into the ‘grand strategy’ of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. Here the conventional economic theory of imperialism could be effectively supplemented by concepts which take into account ‘imperialism by delegation.’

The Indo-Pacific Business Forum held in Washington recently witnessed this coronation ceremony—of elevating India’s status to “Tier-1’ of the ‘Strategic Trade Authorization’ (STA) regime. The Trump Administration already acknowledged that the American investment in the Indo-Pacific region “is good for America, good for business, and good for the world.” The Administration announced “$113.5 million in immediate funding to seed new strategic initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region.” Announcing “a range of new economic cooperation efforts with Japan, Australia, India, and Mongolia,” the Department of Commerce “granted Strategic Trade Authorization Tier 1 status to India, enabling American companies to export more high-technology items under a streamlined license exception” (US, White House 2018).

It was the Secretary State Michael R. Pompeo—while addressing the Business Forum to launch the “economic and commercial pillars” of the Trump Administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy—who emphasized “the critical role of the U.S. private sector in ensuring a sustainable, financially responsible economic future for the Indo-Pacific.” Pompeo also announced strengthened support for important regional institutions in the Indo-Pacific, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and U.S.-ASEAN Connect, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and the Lower Mekong Initiative, along with a first-ever contribution to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (US, Department of State 2018b).

Following Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’s participation in the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, the Department of Commerce announced its plan “to dedicate  its upcoming flagship events” to Indo-Pacific themes which included “Trade Winds: India” which  will take place in New Delhi in 2019. It will be a conference and trade mission to India and other surrounding countries where “U.S. exporters will meet with decision makers on opportunities they have learned.” Ross also announced that “India’s status as a Major Defense Partner will allow it to receive more U.S. high technology and military items without individual export licenses.  India will be moved into Tier-1 of the Department of Commerce’s Strategic Trade Authorization (STA) license exception. STA Tier-1 treatment, comparable to NATO allies, will expand the scope of exports subject to the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) that can be made to India without individual licenses.” This regulatory change is expected to “enhance the bilateral defense trade relationship and result in a greater volume of U.S. exports to India.  Over the last seven years, approximately $9.7 billion worth of licensed exports to India may now eligible for export under this license exception” (Ibid).

In effect, India’s status as a major defense/strategic partner would lead to its becoming a junior partner of the US imperialism, comparable to its NATO allies. This obviously reflects India’s membership in three of the four multilateral export control regimes, as well the development of its national export control system. The American companies can now more efficiently export a much wider range of products to Indian high technology and military customers.  India’s new status will benefit U.S. manufacturers immensely, while continuing to fulfill the ‘strategic responsibilities’ of Washington in the Indo-Pacific region.

India welcomed the announcement about the Trump administration’s “decision to move India into Tier-1 of the Strategic Trade Authorization license exception.”  Hoping that the new step would further facilitate India-U.S. trade and technology collaboration in defence and high technology areas, the Ministry of External Affairs statement said that it was “a logical culmination to India’s designation as a Major Defense Partner of the U.S. and a reaffirmation of India’s impeccable record as a responsible member of the concerned multilateral export control regimes” (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2018b).

It may be noted that way back in June 2016, Washington had designated India as a “Major Defence Partner” with a view to enhancing defence trade and technology sharing with India to a level proportionate to that of its closest strategic partners and allies. India’s relations with the U.S have, over years, transformed into a ‘global strategic partnership’ based on “increasing convergence of interests on bilateral, regional and global issues.” The emphasis placed by India on a range of issues has facilitated the process to reinvigorate bilateral ties and enhance cooperation during the first two summits of Prime Minister Modi and President Obama in September 2014 and January 2015 respectively. The summit level joint statement issued in June 2016 called the India-U.S. relationship an “Enduring Global Partners in the 21st Century (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2017).

There were already more than 50 bilateral dialogue mechanisms between India and the U.S. The first two meetings of the Strategic and Commercial Dialogue were held in Washington DC in September 2015 and New Delhi in August 2016. This apex-level dialogue has added a commercial component to the traditional pillars of bilateral relations on which the erstwhile Strategic Dialogue of Foreign Ministers had focused (Ibid).  Defence-strategic partnership has emerged as a major pillar of India-U.S. relations with the signing of ‘New Framework for India-U.S. Defense Relations’ in 2005 and the resulting dynamics in defence trade, joint exercises, personnel exchanges, collaboration and cooperation in maritime security, and exchanges between each of the three services. The Defence Framework Agreement was also renewed for another decade in June 2015.

India participated in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in July-August 2016 for the second time with an Indian Naval Frigate. Bilateral dialogue mechanisms in the field of defence include Defence Policy Group (DPG), Defence Joint Working Group (DJWG), Defence Procurement and Production Group (DPPG), Senior Technology Security Group (STSG), Joint Technical Group (JTG), Military Cooperation Group (MCG), and Service-to-Service Executive Steering Groups (ESGs).The agreements signed in recent years include Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Association (LEMOA) signed in August 2016, Fuel Exchange Agreement signed in November 2015,Technical Agreement (TA) on information sharing on White (merchant) Shipping signed in May 2016 and the Information Exchange Annexe (IEA) on Aircraft Carrier Technologies signed in June 2016 (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2017).

In 2017, the aggregate worth of defence acquisition from U.S. Defence had crossed over US$ 13 billion. The two countries also started a Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) with a view to  simplifying technology transfer policies and exploring possibilities of co-development and co-production to invest the defence relationship with strategic value. The DTTI Working Group and its Task Force are expected to “expeditiously evaluate and decide on unique projects and technologies which would have a transformative impact on bilateral defence relations and enhance India’s defence industry and military capabilities.” During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the U.S. in June 2016, the U.S. recognised India as a ‘Major Defence Partner,’ which committed Washington “to facilitate technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners, and industry collaboration for defence co-production and co-development” (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2017). The latest one taken at the Indo-Pacific Business forum is a continuation of this process of India’s incorporation into the American grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, rechristened as ‘Indo-Pacific’ with a view to containing China and Russia.

Plausibly, the new partnership is a clear indication that Modi’s talk about ‘strategic autonomy’ is a travesty of facts and his characterization of the “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region” at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2018a) is nothing but a threshold-magic of sub-imperialism. The US had already decided to recast its strategic interests in the Pacific Rim by reshaping the geopolitical layout put in place by the Obama administration—‘rebalancing.’ The ‘rebalance’—initially called ‘pivot’—implied that Washington would play an activist role in the ‘Asia-Pacific’ region–strengthening diplomatic ties, promoting a regional free trade agreement, and bolstering military and strategic relations with many Asian clients (US, White House 2014). However, during President Trump visit to the region in November 2017, he insisted on having a different strategic layout of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (US, White House 2017a)—with a view to offsetting the Obama formulation. The politico-security implications of this ‘shift’ of emphasis have been explained by the Trump administration in the document National Security Strategy of the United States, December 2017 (USNSS 2017). The USNSS 2017 is more explicit in its anxieties on China and Russia:

China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders. The intentions of both nations are not necessarily fixed. ..For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance. It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own….Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners. Russia views the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) as threats. Russia is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United States… (US, White House 2017b: 25).

In a few weeks time, the Trump Administration underscored the role of India in the emerging US strategy in the Indo-Pacific. On 2 April 2018, Alex N. Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs said: The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ “acknowledges the historical reality and the current-day reality that South Asia, and in particular India, plays a key role in the Pacific and in East Asia and in Southeast Asia. That’s been true for thousands of years and it’s true today.” It is “in our interest, the U.S. interest, as well as the interests of the region, that India play an increasingly weighty role in the region. India is a nation that is invested in a free and open order. It is a democracy. It is a nation that can bookend and anchor the free and open order in the Indo-Pacific region, and it’s our policy to ensure that India does play that role, does become over time a more influential player in the region.”  “India for sure has the capability and potential to play a more – a more weighty role. But the role is on all fronts, whether it’s security, economic and diplomatic” (US, Department of State 2018a).

The recognition at the Indo-Pacific forum that India’s role is commensurate with the status of America’s NATO allies is obviously an indication that the ‘strategic autonomy’ that the Prime Minister Modi has been talking about is a diplomatic chimera to masquerade the new equations in global power configurations where India has already become a delegated sub-imperialist power. The forthcoming 2+2 dialogues between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the U.S will witness the increasing accommodation of the American interests in the Indo-Pacific region.



India, Ministry of External Affairs (2018b): “India moved to Tier-1 of Department of Commerce’s Strategic Trade Authorization licence exception,” 31 July,

India, MEA (2018a): “Prime Minister’s Keynote Address at Shangri La Dialogue, 1 June”


India, Ministry of External Affairs (2017): “Brief on India-U.S. Relations,” June,

US,  Department of Commerce (2018): “U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross Announces Programs to Increase U.S. Commercial Engagement in the Indo-Pacific Region,” 30 July

US, Department of State (2018a): “Briefing on the Indo-Pacific Strategy, 2 April,”

US, Department of State (2018b): “Advancing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” 30 July,

US, White House (2018): “President Donald J. Trump’s Administration is Advancing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” 30 July,

US, White House (2017a): “Remarks by President Trump on His Trip to Asia,” 15 November,

US,   White House (2017b): National Security Strategy of the United States, December 2017,

US,   White House (2014): “The Road Ahead: President Obama Travels to the Asia Pacific, 7 November,”

The author is Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.  The details of his profile are available @ Prof Seethi can be reached at [email protected]



Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News