The most tangible element of the growing strategic convergence between India and the United States over the past two decades has been in the realm of defence. The George W. Bush administration began the process by lifting dual-use technology sanctions against India. While the sanctions were imposed over nuclear concerns, they had the additional effect of keeping India from acquiring almost any high-end US defence technology as well. President Barack Obama saw slow progress, largely because of the American allergies that afflicted the second Manmohan Singh government. But an ambitious Defence Technology and Trade Initiative was started and has since laid out over a half-dozen specific defence production projects that the two countries – and more importantly their individual defence firms – can work on together. The idea was to not only produce, in time, tangible Indo-US joint weapons systems but to also cut paths for such projects through the bureaucratic thickets of the respective defence ministries. The DTTI has had limited success, but continues to expand its remit.
The new Donald Trump administration has yet to say anything concrete about the Indo-US defence relationship. There are reasons to be positive. The new president has spoken of India in only positive terms, something that has not characterised his language on most parts of the world. The outgoing Obama administration sought to institutionalise what had been accomplished with India in terms of defence cooperation with an amendment to the National Defence Authorisation Act 2017. The amendment fortunately received strong bipartisan support and is unlikely to be a source of contention with the Trump administration. This was largely confirmed by the testimony of the new Pentagon Chief, General Jim Mattis, who spoke of the DTTI has having helped the Indo-US defence relationship “grow to the benefit of both countries.”
The future of the defence relationship now rests on the Trump administration moving forward in two areas. One is to reassure the Indian side that the US’s strategic commitment to the rise of India, laid out by the Bush administration, remains embedded in Washington’s new decision-making circle. That original commitment is the bedrock of the Indo-US defence relationship. Without it, India will not trust the US enough to buy Made in America major weapons platforms and the US will not feel comfortable with giving India cutting-edge technology or weapons systems. Two is the willingness of the Trump administration to allow co-development and co-production of weapons with India. President Trump has laid out an economic policy manifesto that emphasises safeguarding domestic manufacturing and raising trade and investment barriers. The question is whether this will also apply to working with India on developing weapons. The coming months will show whether the new US president is strategic enough to accept that some degree of concession on the economic front is needed to uphold American influence in the world. India will expect continuity in its defence relationship under Trump and hopefully that is what the administration will also accept.