When the Salvor, a U.S. Navy salvage and salvage ship, arrived in a port in southeastern India this summer, the task at hand was to repair the aging vessel. But there was also a bigger mission: to open another door to a U.S. military trying to expand across the Indo-Pacific and counter Chinese power.
The Navy ship was the third in a year to arrive in Kattupalli, an industrial hamlet north of Chennai with a state-of-the-art shipyard. And this time, the visit marked the start of a five-year deal on naval repairs – a tangible step toward defense cooperation for two nations driven together by geopolitics and Washington’s desire to woo and strengthen an emerging Asian giant.
“We are well equipped to do this,” said Arun Ramchandani, head of the defense unit at L&T, the Mumbai-based conglomerate that built the shipyard. “And I think this is just the beginning.”
The deal, which includes another defense contractor in Mumbai, is part of a strategy the Pentagon calls “locations not bases” – aimed at gaining access to more sites where the United States does not have no military installations of their own. In the vast Indo-Pacific, such connections could prove important in deterring China and, in the event of conflict, supporting U.S. mobilization.
Beijing has already strengthened ties with Sri Lanka and Pakistan by building or expanding ports through its Belt and Road initiative, while over the past year Washington has been racing to catch up its delay in signing new or expanded security agreements with the Philippines, Japan, Australia, Palau, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, in addition to India.
In some countries, the United States is lining up sites for the repair and replenishment of ships or submarines. In others, it gained access to strategic islands or sea lanes by agreeing to improve infrastructure and help law enforcement with equipment, or by sharing information about threats at sea .
Greater defense cooperation with India – at the opposite end of the Indo-Pacific from US bases in Japan and South Korea – is a prize particularly coveted by the United States, which hopes that New Delhi will become both a military ally and an alternative to China for manufacturing and technological development. As part of a joint defense roadmap, the two sides also announced, among other initiatives, a major jet engine deal this year.
Still, both countries have a lot of bureaucracy, history and skepticism to overcome.
For example, under a 1920 Merchant Marine Act that protects U.S. shipyards from competition, only noncombatant ships can be repaired by other countries. New Delhi’s relative military weakness and long history of action as a non-aligned nation could also limit its willingness to work with the United States in a military conflict. And with Indian agents now accused of orchestrating the killing of a Sikh separatist on Canadian soil, Washington faces new questions about Indian trustworthiness.
But Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said the United States is seeking to make India a logistics hub for the U.S. military and other partners in the Indo-Pacific, which involves that the country’s ports could be useful in a potential war. And both countries view the ship repair deal as an exercise in reassurance, confirming that warmer relations are here to stay.
“What has happened is that the nature of the relationship has changed: it has expanded, it has its advantages, but there are enormous challenges in implementing it,” said Anil Ahuja, a lieutenant retired Indian Army general who worked on US-India relations. military task forces. “We have to learn where to connect.”
Concerns about China are behind the nascent partnership. New Delhi is increasingly concerned about Chinese submarines and ships traveling between Africa and the subcontinent. Chinese research vessels are also lingering near Indian shores more often, Indian officials said, raising concerns about Beijing’s spying.
For India, concerns about Chinese power at sea – and not just in the Himalayan region where China and India share a disputed border – have contributed to a broader awareness. At a September kickoff meeting for U.S. and Indian officials seeking defense innovations, early design efforts focused on undersea communications and maritime intelligence.
“India now sees China’s hegemonic ambitions much more clearly, whereas it refused to see them before,” said C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Delhi.
The United States and India have also found that at sea, where protecting trade and shipping are widely shared interests, partnerships are less politically tense. In international waters, both navies are increasingly practicing overtaking maneuvers and tactical communication.
“There are fewer sensitivities in the maritime domain,” General Ahuja said. “You can hug and kiss in the middle of the sea and no one cares.”
The ship repair agreement extends that link to places like Kattupalli, where a container port and power plants rise on lush coastal plains about 20 miles from Chennai.
Built from scratch about a decade ago, the 900-acre L&T shipyard has 2,000 workers capable of building or repairing several ships at a time. It can accommodate vessels weighing up to 20,000 tonnes, using a boat lift that lifts them in and out of the water and moves them to different areas, under cover or in the open.
During a recent visit, several large patrol boats were under construction, while a handful of commercial tankers were floating in the water, awaiting repair.
Here and elsewhere, India and its defense companies have made clear that they would like to do more work for the United States.
Last year, a delegation of members of Congress visited a shipyard in Kochi, on the west coast, where officers showed off India’s newest aircraft carrier and touted their port as a repair shop for ships of war sailing in the Persian Gulf.
“They wanted to show us that they were really moving forward and developing their own capabilities,” said Megan Reiss, a former national security adviser to Sen. Mitt Romney, who was on the trip.
The Americans, while intrigued, also pointed to an ongoing obstacle: India’s dependence on Russian military equipment. The aircraft carrier’s planes were Moscow designs.
The White House has stressed that India is moving in the right direction by purchasing less from Russia, recently aligning its drone orders with the United States and building more weapons by modernizing generic designs. Some U.S. officials have indicated they hope India will eventually replace Russia as a supplier of conventional military equipment to countries that cannot afford U.S. weapons systems.
Companies like L&T, which produces delivery systems for high-tech weapons, believe that with U.S. support they can find new ways to join global supply chains.
“The good thing about the Indian defense ecosystem is that it is innovative,” said Mr. Ramchandani, director of L&T.
But with some of its most useful and sensitive equipment, the United States has exercised restraint.
Underwater surveillance technology, for example, has become a source of tension. India wants more than what U.S. officials have said they feel comfortable sharing — to avoid tangling with Russian tools or personnel and to prevent India from detecting America’s own movements.
In the meantime, there is Kattupalli. At least one additional American ship is expected this year. In most cases, shipyard managers say, they begin preparations for the Americans up to 45 days earlier.
Even for logistics ships, the demands can be intense. Americans need different food and expect a certain level of shelter and security.
When the Salvor docked, the other berths remained empty. There were armed guards around the parking lot and an Indian Navy warship off the coast.
John Ismay contributed reporting from Washington.