The June summit between US President Trump and Prime Minister Modi concluded with a palpable sigh of relief from policy experts in both the US and India. Far from the awkward encounter that some had feared, the leaders’ first face-to-face engagement was strikingly positive in tone and substance. A key outcome of the visit was a welcome sense of continuity in the US-India defence and security relationship.
With a number of contentious bilateral economic issues still unresolved, there is reason to expect that the security dimension of the partnership can continue to serve as the vanguard of US-India cooperation in the coming years.
The growth of the defence relationship has been nothing short of astonishing. In the span of about a decade, defence trade shot from $1 billion to over $15 billion. The US and India take part in numerous and combined exercises, and the US now authorises the sharing of sensitive technologies with India on a level commensurate with America’s closest allies. There has also been a (somewhat under the radar) substantial deepening of the security partnership, with a focus on counter-terrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing.Balance of power
This cooperation, while meaningful, does not move quickly. The defence partnership has proven to be a low velocity, high inertia affair — slow, steady, but unlikely to change course absent a major disruption. This has been due, in part, to the fact that it has been under-girded by a common view of the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, and a shared concern over China’s reach across Asia.
The joint statement released by Trump and Modi underlined and indeed broadened this strategic rationale for defence cooperation. Citing a set of “common principles” such as respect for international law and state sovereignty, the statement reaffirmed the imperative for US-India cooperation across Asia embodied in the 2015 Joint Strategic Vision.
It added to this a particular focus on freedom of navigation; an implicit critique of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, reflecting a shared concern that China will utilise its investments in the Indian Ocean region to limit the independence of smaller countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar; and a forceful section on North Korea that hinted at a common view of China’s obligations to restrain its neighbour.
Capitalising on India’s status as a Major Defence Partner of the US (announced last year), Modi and Trump highlighted avenues for further cooperation. These included deeper collaboration on maritime domain awareness, and investment in the annual US-India-Japan MALABAR exercise, which Trump pointedly described as “the largest maritime exercise ever conducted in the vast Indian Ocean,” and which included a focus on anti-submarine warfare.Defence trade
Given Trump’s emphasis on trade deficits, it was no surprise that defence trade was a major theme of the meeting. The summit’s flagship deal was the announcement that the US had offered a multi-billion dollar sale of 22 Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems that required the administration to overcome a “presumption of denial” under its obligations as a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Procuring them should be a boon to India’s maritime surveillance, but could also open the door to the sale of other long-range US.
On counter-terrorism the Modi-Trump summit largely reaffirmed the gains that both countries have made, but pointed to areas in which we might eventually see closer cooperation. The tough language on Pakistan along with the US designation of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin and the announcement of a new consultative mechanism on terrorist designation listings suggests Trump may be more willing to take Pakistan to task and prioritise India’s grievances.The road ahead
Where then might we expect the defence and security relationship to go from here? There are three areas worth watching. The first is that we are likely to see a steady tempo of defence sales. India is in the midst of a long overdue defence modernisation, and this demand-side impetus for US-India defence trade is supplemented by the understanding in New Delhi that Trump will likely continue to measure the bilateral relationship in part by the volume of manufacturing that it generates at home.
The US-India defence Technology and Trade Initiative has contributed to a liberalised technology release policy by the US such that few defence technologies are now subject to license review, and those that are reviewed are quite likely to be approved.
This liberalisation has, in fact, been so dramatic that the key remaining barriers to defence technology release to India and deeper co-development of cutting-edge systems are arguably more structural than political in nature, and are, to some extent, contingent on India’s own decisions.
This is the second area to watch. Release of certain sensitive technologies by the US have historically been predicated on a country’s membership in all four major non-proliferation regimes; India is now a member of the MTCR, is in the process of applying to the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group, and Washington continues to champion New Delhi’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group in the face of Chinese opposition.
In addition, the transfer of certain sensitive technologies are difficult to justify or legally approve by the US defence community unless India demonstrates that it will use the technologies to engage in meaningful defence activities with the US (such as joint patrols or operations), and is willing to sign enabling agreements that would facilitate the sharing of sensitive communications security and geospatial information. India has, to date, resisted these operational and legal measures due to bureaucratic resistance and vague concerns regarding sovereignty.
The third and final area is in the domain of counter-terrorism. Both Modi and Trump have put a premium on enhancing border security. It is clear that India knows that it can learn a great deal from the ways in which the US enhanced its domestic security after September 11, 2001.
From providing border technologies, to expanding cooperation on watch-listing and intelligence exchanges, to enhancing US technical support to Indian law enforcement agencies, there is wide scope to partner on common counter-terrorism objectives.
To be sure, in each of these three areas there are risks to the US-India partnership. It may be that US policy toward China remains unstable, raising troubling questions on both sides about the underlying logic of joint US-India engagement in the Asia-Pacific. It may be that India’s growth stalls, handicapping its efforts at defence modernisation.
And it may be that India, fearing entanglements in an increasingly complex global order, takes an overly cautious approach to its defence engagements with the US, demurring on modest operational activities and limiting the scope of technology cooperation.
For now, however, the direction of the defence and security relationship is positive.
The writer is an Associate Professor of the Practice of South Asia Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania